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Dark Spring by Unica Zürn – a devastating and disturbing coming-of-age

It is hard to know where to begin with Dark Spring. This novella was written in 1968 and proceeded the suicide of its author by just a few years. It is autobiographical (Zürn has said that it’s based on events from her own childhood) yet there is a clear separation between the narrator “I” and the author “I”.

Dark Spring by Unica Zürn book cover
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As a word of warning, if you buy a copy of this book (and you should), in the Exact Change edition that’s available, you should steer well clear of the introduction, which goes on to reveal the book’s conclusion on its second page. Perhaps I should have known better, but this is not a well-known book and therefore one doesn’t come to it armed with the knowledge of its plot – if you’re going to spoil the book, at least provide a warning saying to return to the introduction later.

The introduction itself is written by the book’s translator, Caroline Rupprecht, who translated it from the original German, and it’s an insightful read, even if it comes across as highly psychoanalytical. But with this book, I suppose that’s to be expected.

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Dark Spring tells the story of a young nameless girl, growing up in a Berlin suburb, who encounters profound mental illness at an early age (the book concludes when the girl is twelve). She also encounters sexuality at too early an age, or at least, in all the wrong possible ways, exposed to it by her highly dysfunctional family. They are not poverty-stricken – in fact, they seem very well off – but her parents’ marriage is falling apart and they both neglect her, her father away with his work, and her mother locked away in her room with her writing (and frequent male visitors).

There is an intrinsic adult impulse, I think, to protect children who are vulnerable, whether or not we have children of our own. That’s how it feels reading Dark Spring – one wishes to protect this child who is alone, with only their vivid and disturbing imagination for company.

Like many works that emerged, directly or indirectly, from the surrealist movement (Zürn and her husband Hans Bellmer, the artist and surrealist photographer, moved in those circles), Dark Spring features a great deal of pornographic content, at times putting me in mind of Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye. However, you couldn’t label Zürn’s book erotic, given the book’s subject matter and given that the protagonist, going on her disturbing sexual awakening, is a pre-teenage girl.

It can be difficult to know how to read Dark Spring. We know it’s autobiographical in the subject matter and we can see many parallels between the lives of the little girl and Zürn. Because we know how Zürn’s life tragically ended, it is hard not to read Dark Spring as some sort of omen. But we also know that the conclusion of Dark Spring is not how Zürn’s own childhood concluded. Not literally, anyway, but figuratively I think both characters strive for and achieve the same ends.

As the second word of warning, if it wasn’t already obvious, Dark Spring touches on dark subject matter, including sexual assault (some actual, some fantasised) and severe depression. Dark Spring is a devastating work that makes you want to do something, anything, to save this young girl embarking on her disturbing coming-of-age.

Dark Spring by Unica Zürn is published by Exact Change. Buy the book.

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