54. Giselle Moravia, 1931-2012

THE RECENT PASSING OF Giselle Moravia in Geneva was noted by nobody in the literary world. This should come as no surprise, although she did hold a unique, if somewhat bizarre, place in the history of twentieth century German letters. Among the 2116 books found by Red Army soldiers on the shelves of Adolf Hitler’s various personal libraries following the collapse of the Third Reich was Moravia’s sole publication, a slender illustrated volume bound in olive-green vellum called The Phonograph. So it is that Moravia can rightly claim the dubious honour of having been the youngest author read (and, according to the evidence, appreciated) by Hitler. Born in Austria’s Carinthian mountains in 1931 to an Italian banker and the heiress of an Austrian industrialist's fortune, Moravia began writing prose and poetry as a child and, although The Phonograph was her only publication, continued to write throughout her life. She wrote The Phonograph at the tender age of ten years old, and her father financed the publication of the book for her eleventh birthday by having eleven copies printed by the Viennese printer Tomas Gersummer, illustrated with woodcuts by the then voguish German artist Wolfgang Stroed. As the bank for which Giselle’s father worked was an underwriter of the Nazi war effort, her father contrived to have a copy of The Phonograph gifted to Adolf Hitler, who enjoyed it enough to send Giselle a card relating his thanks and, during the dreadful final days inside the Berlin bunker, Goebbels mentions in his diary that Eva Braun read the story to Goebbel’s children as a bedtime story. The Phonograph relates the adventures of a young girl, also called Giselle, who falls into the horn of a phonograph player. Her parents, poor but honest folk, alert the police, who in turn launch a massive manhunt for the girl’s kidnapper. Eventually a Jewish moneylender is accused of having kidnapped the girl, but despite arduous interrogations by the Gestapo he reveals nothing of her whereabouts. Eventually he is tried for committing depredations upon Giselle’s body and killing her. After a brief trial, the moneylender is executed. The girl’s parents return home from the execution and, griefstricken, they decide to listen to some music. The father chooses to play a late quartet by Beethoven. Midway through the first movement, the girl’s mother says, Husband, do you hear the sound of a little girl crying? They both listen carefully and her father says, Yes, in fact I could swear it is our daughter. They crawl over the room and through the house, trying to locate the source of the crying, but quickly conclude that the sound of the crying is coming from within the phonograph player. They lean into the horn of the phonograph player and begin to call out the daughter’s name repeatedly. When the music ends, the crying ends too. The father turns the phonograph to the other side and sets the needle at the beginning of the second movement. Again, as the strings begin to swell, they hear the crying of their daughter. Eventually, in the third movement of the quartet, the crying subsides and the girl hears her parents calling out to her. Mother? Father? she says, Is that you? Overjoyed, the parents and the daughter realise that they can converse through the horn of the phonograph, but only – they realise after some trial and error – when the phonograph is playing. Moreover, try as they might, they can find no way of retrieving their daughter from the phonograph player. Eventually the father orders a blank phonograph so that they can speak to their daughter without the distraction of music. Their daughter explains how she ended up in the phonograph player: she had pawned her only jewellery – a gold ring given to her by her father on her tenth birthday – with the moneylender to buy wool to knit clothes to sell at market to help her parents. Once she had sold her clothes at market, she went back to the moneylender to redeem the ring. In the meantime, the moneylender had begun coveting the ring. When she returns to redeem the ring, he charges her twice the interest they’d agreed on. She argues in her own defence and threatens to take the matter to the police, forcing the moneylender to relent, but not before placing a curse on the ring. Thus the parents realise that, although the Jewish moneylender was wrongly accused, justice has nevertheless still been served (this section has been underlined in Hitler’s personal copy and annotated with a simple exclamation mark in what may well be Hitler’s handwriting). As the parents set to thinking of a way of freeing their daughter from the phonograph player, the girl begins to complain of terrors whenever the phonograph player is turned off. She begs her parents not to leave her alone inside the phonograph player. As a result, the parents are forced to spend every waking moment with the daughter, turning the phonograph over and over every seven minutes (which in those days was the length of phonographs). They have to take turns looking after their daughter, who refuses to be left alone and yet who suffers increasingly from lack of sleep. In desperation, the parents begin asking family members and friends to help them with their endless vigil, which is keeping them from their work and bankrupting them. But after initial enthusiasm, friends and neighbours begin to avoid the girl’s parents, unable to cope with the increasing madness of the terrorised, sleep-deprived girl trapped inside the phonograph player. Gradually these same neighbours and family decide one by one to leave the girl’s parents to their own devices, ignoring their pleas for assistance. Eventually, the girl’s parents die in poverty and solitude, leaving the girl to her terrors inside the phonograph player, of which nothing more is written. At the end of the war, Giselle fled with her parents and younger brother to Buenos Aires, where her father resumed his banking career. In 1947, Giselle was sent to a school for girls in Switzerland, where she met Marcus Essen, a protégé of her father's. The couple married in February 1949 shortly after Giselle's eighteenth birthday and settled in Geneva. She is said to have left thirty-three completed manuscripts of various kinds - novels, short stories, fairy tales and even a short play in the style of Goethe's Faust involving an elderly woman making a pact for literary fame with the East German government of Wilhelm Pieck. Every attempt she ever made to be published throughout her life was unsuccessful. She is survived by three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.