Sure, I’ll give it a try—
At the heart of her appeal is the quest narrative—which, at first glance, shouldn’t be, since quests come at about .008 cents a dozen. Because I’m feeling expansive, I’ll say that literally there is no one who doesn’t spend some downtime searching for themselves/their place in the world. So quest schmest, in that respect—but few have pursued this “nostalgia”* to such single-minded, full-throttle extremes as Annemarie. She can be read as** a personification of our “yearning for the absolute”; an achingly familiar anomaly.
The question that she asks again and again in The Cruel Way—“How do you live?”—gets boiled down, in her own work, to the idea of a pure “core”, a foundational truth***. As early as 1926 (age 18), she was writing to her mentor, Ernst Merz, “I want nothing more than to travel—from one world to the next, and I don’t intend on stopping before I’ve finally obtained God’s pardon and found the source of purity.” The trajectory of this desire for and belief in the ‘source’ (initially as the ‘promised land’; later as a more mystical interiority) resonate throughout her work and personal life. In Maillart’s words: “At first I thought she hearkened to some inner music. Then I knew she was searching: she listened beyond the words just spoken in the hope of catching a lingering resonance from a world endowed with more significance than ours: she was waiting for a fundamental note […] she looked beyond us as if we were so many prisms, trying to catch a gleam from the original undifferentiated light.”
In approaching the Real, she took a two-pronged approach. First: extreme personal truthfulness, given a special urgency by the fact that she—had you noticed?— rocketed off the Kinsey scale****. Second: a search for first-hand knowledge via her work as a journalist. This receptiveness— in Levinas-ish terms*****— towards the ‘visage d’autrui’, ties back to Cain and Abel, the Bible story (other than Genesis) that occupied her the most******. It was, she believed, the “human condition” to atone for a baseline of violence by being as altruistically ego-less as possible; more than a political stance, this was a metaphysical obligation.
Unfortunately for her, she was so good at en-visaging the autrui that all “self-preservation” went out the window. It seems fake, to describe how self-destructively empathetic she was—let’s just say that she was not kidding when she claimed personal responsibility for the wrongs of the world. Adding this obsessive privilege-checking to the ongoing “quest for the Real”, you begin to understand the rawness in her writing. As per La Vallée Heureuse:
“Je comprenais bien que j’étais sur le point d’apprendre à voir, que le terrible dénuement qui me livrait à l’infinité des images comme si elles étaient réelles, ressemblait précisément au don magique d’établir une relation vraie avec ces images, d’intérioriser à la fois leurs couleurs, leurs formes et leur volume, à la fois leur manière de bouger et de ne pas bouger, à la fois leur contenu de joie et de douleur, à la fois leur silence, leur langage, leur chant, leur proximité pesante, leur éloignement infini et les souvenirs qu’elles éveillaient, les sensations qu’elles pouvaient communiquer […] Mais je ne savais plus me défendre contre ce monde—les fleuves coulaient à travers moi et atteignaient mon cœur ».