Upon returning to Nuremberg after two years in Venice, an inspired Albrecht Dürer decided to combine the Italian and Germanic styles in a study of human form. He would paint a life-size diptych depicting a male and female nude, an expansion of an engraving he had carved before embarking on his Venetian trip. He would breathe life into his own Adam and Eve. Like the biblical story that provided the context, if not the excuse, for retooling his artistic approach, Dürer created his Adam, then his Eve, one panel birthing the next. The result was a masterpiece of European art—a recreation of Adam and Eve so striking that it held pride of place in castles and became a visual reference point for the genesis of humankind.
Swiss writer Laura Vogt’s second novel, What Concerns Us [Was uns betrifft], her first translated into English, by Caroline Waight, takes Dürer’s diptych and bisects it, writes on it, cuts it up, and renames it. When the ex-boyfriend of the novel’s main protagonist, Rahel, finds out that she cheated on him, he mails her a cutout of Dürer’s Eve panel. “SINNER” in boyish handwriting encloses the pale woman holding an apple. Adam, in his innocence, is absent. Rahel keeps the Eve image on her kitchen table, where she reflects on it during each meal. She soon recognizes her own pale skin and critical, vaguely lost look in her ex-boyfriend’s recreation of Eve. When she discovers that she’s pregnant, “SINNER” Eve captures her attention yet again, now from its pride of place on her fridge: “Rahel had tried again and again to convince herself that Eve in Hebrew wasn’t the sinner but the animator, the bringer of life. Her body was shaping another, a new body. Her body was growing beyond itself.”
A symbol triangulating female creativity, shame, and desire, this highly mediated Eve serves as a reference point throughout the novel. Eve is present in the years following Rahel’s first pregnancy, as she moves from Zurich to a village farmhouse, and from nighttime jazz performances into a quiet, traditional marriage with a burly novel writer. Eve is present as Rahel grows beyond herself, contemplating her changing body, her reproductive and artistic creativity, her relationship with both her husband and estranged father. After her two children are born, a son and a daughter, Rahel finds “SINNER” Eve tucked away in an old backpack. A quick internet search informs her that Dürer’s painting is, in fact, a diptych. And Dürer’s Adam is not an innocent bystander, physically and emotionally removed from Eve’s sinning. Adam is separated from Eve in his own panel; and yet, he looks across the panel in her direction, apologetically, it seems to Rahel. There is something about this Adam, with his wiry curls and genitalia-covering leaf, that crosses the original biblical story’s distinctions between man and woman, creator and sinner: “If his build and especially his chest hadn’t been so distinctly masculine, Rahel would have thought she was looking into the face of a woman. She had printed out the picture in colour and cut out Adam’s head, pasting it next to Eve. ‘Eve and A.’ was the name of her new creation.”
Rahel’s transgressive photomontage, Eve and A., is the central image of What Concerns Us, a novel locating Rahel in the middle of what is, ultimately, a triptych of women: Rahel, Fenna (her younger, freer sister, who is raped and impregnated), and Verena (her mother, who is undergoing breast cancer treatments). As if coyly gesturing to Dürer’s ambitions for Adam and Eve, Vogt’s What Concerns Us is a perceptive study of the transformation of female forms. Conceiving, birthing, breastfeeding, and weaning; ailing, aging, depending, and dying: How do these acts of physically growing beyond ourselves open up psychological spaces, too, asks Vogt? What do these spaces between bodies and selves become filled with? And how can we, like Rahel, reclaim them, filling them not with others’ forms but with the ones we created ourselves, with whatever materials we have?
What Concerns Us, then, is as attuned to physical transformation as it is to psychological transformation. When the three women unite at Rahel’s village farmhouse for a weekend, the triptych format is most apparent in the thick brushstrokes of their conversation and the matching hues of their experience. Each of the women looks across their panels but, similar to Dürer’s Adam and Eve, their gazes do not align.
Rahel has recently given birth to her second child, a daughter whom she, like her mother at the birth of Fenna, called “my little hussy.” Sick at the idea of having given birth to a daughter, Rahel is unable to breastfeed her baby. Their connection is, through most of the novel, mechanical.
Fenna is pregnant after her boyfriend raped her on a hiking trip. Like her sister, she is puzzling out how their father’s abandonment affected their approaches to motherhood. The sisters come to opposite conclusions. Whereas Rahel believes that a child needs a father, not just a progenitor, Fenna is certain that she can simply take her boyfriend’s seed and build a family independent of him. “Isn’t the decision to have a child always selfish, when it comes down to it?” asks Fenna, “And the exact opposite at the same time?”
Verena, also reflecting back on her life as she faces an uncertain future, has just removed the remaining tufts of graying brown hair from her scalp through a mixture of egg yolks and cognac. Her edges are softer than when her German husband left, and she is ready to admit the ways single motherhood stretched her to a breaking point. “Yes, it was chaos back then,” she tells her grown daughters. “I was working a lot—I didn’t have a choice. But it was what it was, even if I am sorry about certain things. We all weave our stories out of experience, and wear them differently.”
This question of how we weave stories out of experience and then fashion them into identities is where Vogt considers inheritance as a narrative phenomenon that has physical and psychological effects. Upon entering a partnership with a woman and raising her daughters in an all-female household, Verena taught Rahel and Fenna to empower themselves by tracking the historical shifts in describing female bodies. A hymen, she instructs Fenna after her first sexual experience, is actually a corona, the Greek word for crown. “And this crown, which was unique to women, could not be destroyed by anything or anyone, because it wasn’t a purely physical thing.” Fenna vows to forever protect her crown, and she goes on to wrestle with whether birth control pills, abortion, and pregnancy tests estrange her from her own body, rather than give her control over it. Once impregnated, she feels she has finally recovered her crown. Near the end of the novel, the three women discuss the words “vagina” and “vulva.” Rahel relates that, upon inspecting her own, she found “vagina” completely inadequate. She began using “vulva” as a placeholder for her own word, a word she’s still in the process of creating.
With this shift from “vagina” to “vulva” to a word still in gestation, the three women signal the shift Vogt makes in her novel as a whole: from gaps to bridges. Vogt’s goal is not destruction here, but recreation. Her goal is finding forms and words and narratives that unite, and that we create for ourselves. Vogt accomplishes this through Rahel, who sang and wrote jazz before her children were born. By the end of the novel, Rahel is writing again, with the conviction that writing will bring her back to herself and her family members. She has transformed from a “SINNER” Eve to a depleted mother Eve and then, marvelously, to a creative Eve, “pale and vulnerable like Dürer’s, but with a strong will and the urge to create. To fashion something new.” Eve was “the animator” all along; so, too, was Rahel. Over the course of the novel, the triptych of three women becomes a family portrait—complicated and rough, but whole. Their gazes begin to align.
What Concerns Us
By Laura Vogt
Translated from the German by Caroline Waight
Published August 16, 2022
Elizabeth McNeill is a writer and editor with a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. When not working with the Chicago Review of Books' amazing contributors as a Daily Editor, she writes about female creativity, embodiment, nature, and ghosts. You can find her book musings on Twitter @eamcneill.