I contacted illustrator Mahendra Singh after learning that his late aunt Monica Tornow appears in Malcolm Green’s legendary anthology Black Letters Unleashed: 300 Years of Enthused Writing in German (Atlas, 1989). This post grew from our exchanges.
Tornow wrote short prose pieces and one novella, Ming-Fatso & Ming-Scrawn (1989, with illustrations by Wulf Lücks). She was born in 1938 in Dresden and died in 1996 in Virginia—on the family farm, which she visited every summer—surrounded by her beloved cats.
"Body Demons," the page-long work included in Black Letters Unleashed, is her only writing translated into English. It’s an extract from a collection of similar surrealist feuilletons published in 1978 in Manuskripte, an influential Austrian publication of the time. Mahendra says “the general tenor of the pieces reminds me of the Walser short ‘A Slap in the Face’… I’m looking over them and laughing, they’re pretty good. Burning chickens, leopards knocking at the door, time machines interacting with cats … they are right up your line.” You can now read “Body Demons” on 50 Watts, along with Mahendra’s own translation of another short work, “It Was a Beautiful Day.”
Monica lived mostly in West Berlin, worked as a producer of documentaries for West German TV, and was a totally insane cat nut—Ming-Fatso & Ming-Scrawn is about her two Abyssinians. She wrote on the side, some good stuff but she was possessed of the true Bartleby spirit and simply couldn’t be bothered with the demon Ambition. She introduced me to Ernst, Walser, Gombrowicz, Saltykov, Lem and much more, the classic Central European tradition of mordant, black humour.
Monica loved a crisp, cool Fontana Candida on a sweltering Virginia summer afternoon, followed by a good goulash and some Johann Stamitz on the stereo.
She was also involved sometimes with the Berlin Film Festival … she told me that when Kaurismäki attended one time, he had a guy who would walk before him with a bottle of schnapps on a silver tray, always ready to provide him a restorative shot.
She is sorely missed by her family (except for the damn cat hair that got into everything).
Also see: Two texts by Monica Tornow on 50 Watts.
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