Wonderbook Exercise: The Singing Fish

Singing Fish Exercise


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In Wonderbook, Chapter 1 includes discussion of various entry points to story, through different kinds of inspiration. The exercise above is one of several embedded in the chapters, in addition to the writing exercises in the appendix. It’s exemplifies one common way of sparking story: a prompt of some kind, including an image.

Could you create a story around this image?

Critically acclaimed writer Amal El-Mohtar did. Curious about the results? You can read her story below…unless you want to try your own version first…




by Amal El-Mohtar
(first published in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities)

This exciting find titled Der singende Fisch (“The Singing Fish,” pen and ink with watercolour, circa 1860) is a rare reproduction of the last known work of artist, artisan and poet Edith Abendroth. She created Der singende Fisch during her incarceration in the Lunatic Asylum at Eberbach Abbey from 1861 until her death in 1869. Until now, only scattered descriptions of the piece were available, reproductions suppressed by the unusual events following Abendroth’s death, which resulted in the superstition that surrounds Der singende Fisch to the present day.

The image contains the distorted proportions characteristic of all Ms. Abendroth’s work, but there are more symbols at work here: consider that the critic is cock-eyed, seen in profile, which associates him with the noble figure of one-eyed Odin, the Norse God of the gallows, who sacrificed an eye in order to gain all the world’s wisdom. Yet instead of Huginn and Muninn, Odin’s twin ravens named Thought and Memory, two parrots perch on his shoulders, symbolic of meaningless chatter and thoughtless repetition. Still there are ravens in the image, after a fashion: two raven feathers (one from Thought, one from Memory?) peek out of the well of Imperial Ink at the critic’s feet, suggesting that he has sacrificed Thought and Memory to produce the ink with which he will write his vicious tracts.

The fact that the critic leans against a stack of books could indicate any number of things: that he leans on the works of his betters without understanding them; that all his learning is useless to him as a means of understanding the singing fish; that all he can do is parrot the words of his educators without contributing thoughts of his own. Consider that he covers his mouth with his hand, and that he is dressed all in black—almost as if he had bathed himself in the death of Thought and Memory.

But where the critic’s mouth is covered, the fish’s mouth is wide open; where the critic is silent, the fish sings.

What bait could hook such a throat?

Early Portrait of the Artist

Ms. Abendroth was born in Berlin in 1821 to Karl and Frieda Abendroth, who kept a prosperous print shop in the city, out of which they also taught drawing, painting, and etching. She showed a keen interest in these arts from an early age, and quickly grew quite skilled, in spite of—or perhaps partly due to—suffering from severe migraines. During such episodes she sometimes claimed to perceive things as larger or smaller than they truly were, and described the sensation in detail:

It is as if the pain in my head comes from the swelling of the object in my sight—as if the table captured by my eye has grown too big for my head to contain without agony. Yet while these things grow, I think surely I must shrink, must be dwindling to a speck, and tremble to look at my hands for fear of seeing them become either a bird’s or a giantess’. It hurts—and yet I think there must be something terribly splendid in being able to see the world as in a story book, that perhaps I am a heroine of some sort, yet to discover my purpose. It is all terribly interesting.(1)

The uniqueness of her perspective can be readily appreciated in her work, and is perhaps what suited it to the entertainment of children: giant frogs squat in well-upholstered seats, tiny horses pull carriages for damsel-fly nobility, and enormous mice-gentlemen dance with delicate ladies at a masque. She wrote charming books of fairy tale verse in which such animals spoke and had adventures; these she illustrated herself, most often working in a combination of pen, ink, and watercolours, materials she had mastered by the time she composed Der singende Fisch. She sometimes turned toy-maker when a story became particularly popular: resin castings of Gren Ouille, hero of Der stolze kleine Frosch (The Proud Little Frog), and his good friend Hop, still command high prices at antique auctions. Happily, Dr. Lambshead’s cabinet includes a model of her Die Auferstehung des Frosches (Frog Resurrection), which captures in surprising detail the most poignant moment of little Gren Ouille’s struggle with pride, when he must humbly harness himself to a wagon in order to carry Hop’s coffin into the revivifying light of Venus.
Ms. Abendroth’s ability to mine her own work for inspiration was admirable, as was her skill at using it to generate multiple streams of revenue. She never married, but from her twenties on she was able to support herself comfortably without recourse to her parents’ estate, though she continued to live with them until their death. She participated in Berlin’s high society and was modestly admired and respected as a lady of good breeding; she enjoyed a passionate friendship with actress Gertrude Nadel, a woman renowned for her controversial portrayals of Dr. Faustus on stage. Ms. Nadel would later be instrumental in the preservation and presentation of Ms. Abendroth’s oeuvre—however, it is ironically thanks to Ms. Nadel that Ms. Abendroth’s renown in artistic and literary circles is less for her published material than for the rumour of a small satirical manuscript, Leitfaden der Kritik (The Manual of Criticism), of which Der singende Fisch would have been the final illustration.

The Regrettable Influence of Klaus Mehler

It was at one of Ms. Nadel’s salons that Ms. Abendroth met Klaus Mehler, the man who would have an incalculable influence on her life and work. Nine years her junior, he was a former student of the Royal Prussian Academy of Arts turned critic, and was, according to Ms. Abendroth, very forceful in his interactions with her:

I cannot say for certain how tall he is, and I think perhaps this infuriates him; sometimes he seems a comically little man, and I must squint to see him clearly in the shadow of a chair or soup tureen—yet at other times I feel like a beetle beneath the heel of his gaze. I do not like him—Gertrude does not like him, only she sighs and says his sister has influence at court and she simply must invite him to her every gathering. He does not leave me alone, he does not even ask me to dance, but will insist instead upon debating my opinions on the merits of aquatint and Imperial Ink. I think I would be more interested in his conversation if he ever seemed to listen to what I had to say, but he does not—it is as if he listens with his eyes, watches my mouth to grasp my arguments, and so does not make any sense when he says I am wrong, wrong, wrong. I wonder if it is all women he dislikes, or all women artists, or me alone.(2)

It was not long after meeting Mehler that Ms. Abendroth ceased to write in her diary. Stephen Kurtz, who up until quite recently was the leading authority on Ms. Abendroth’s career, suggests that her thoughts with regard to him were of so intense a nature that she recoiled even from articulating them to herself, preferring to retreat into increasingly escapist art. Helena Rothschild, however, disagrees, saying that the cessation of her diaries after keeping them meticulously for twenty years was a clear symptom of her growing terror of the man; Ursula Nussbaum suggests that Ms. Abendroth did keep writing, but later destroyed her journals to prevent them from falling into Mehler’s hands while she was incarcerated.

The latter two conclusions are no doubt unnecessarily alarmist, but what little we do have of Ms. Abendroth’s thoughts on Mehler indicates beyond any doubt that she found him unsettling and relentless in his attention—behaviour that would only intensify when he began publically criticising her work:

Ms. Abendroth is certainly talented, and it is therefore all the more lamentable that she should turn her not inconsiderable skill to grotesque drolleries and fantastical nonsense. Her lines bespeak a steady hand, but her vision is wobbly; her choice of subjects speaks clearly of an immaturity of spirit, a child’s mind in a woman’s body. In this, it is true, she is not far different from most of her sex, but progress being what it is one has come to expect better of our city’s women, and consequently one holds them to the highest possible standard.(3)

Taken alone, such comments might not, perhaps, have had quite the effect they did on Ms. Abendroth— but it was sadly at this time that her mother passed away, likely from some form of cancer, and was followed shortly thereafter by her father. Not very long afterwards, Ms. Abendroth moved into Ms. Nadel’s home (as she, too, was unmarried), which should have been a comfort to the newly orphaned artist, but made her rather an easier target for Mehler’s savagery:

One could perhaps surmise that Ms. Abendroth’s art is the stunted result of a woman kept incomplete: were she to marry, to have a child of her own, it is possible that she would no longer present herself as one in her work. One suspects, however, that Ms. Abendroth thumbs her nose at such decency, preferring her twilight world of mannish actresses, spear-shaking frogs and singing fish to the land of the living.(4)

It seems likely that Mehler was jealous of Ms. Nadel and Ms. Abendroth’s intimacy, though Nussbaum’s suggestion that he was a rejected suitor of one or both of them seems to err on the side of sensationalism.(5)

Effects on Abendroth and Her Work: A Mysterious End Game

At any rate it was Ms. Abendroth who received Mehler’s vitriol in public, and suffered from it tremendously. Her migraines grew more frequent and more pronounced; she restricted herself to her rooms when company called; she grew thin and listless, though she continued to produce work. Ms. Nadel was clearly anxious with concern, as evidenced by the number of doctor’s bills in her household accounts for the years between 1857 and 1861; sadly, the numerous physicians she engaged proved to be of little help. In 1861 Ms. Abendroth’s sensory uniqueness progressed into full-blown hallucinations, and she began to stab her pens into the wallpaper of her rooms, her bed, her paintings, and her own skin. One doctor’s account suggested that she had taken to drinking her ink.(6) It was agreed that it would be best for all concerned if Ms. Abendroth should retire to the countryside and avail herself of the high standard of care for which Eberbach Abbey was renowned.

After a year of treatment—and, one suspects, protection from Mehler’s constant attacks—Ms. Abendroth’s condition improved to the point that the sisters of the Abbey cautiously allowed her access to the tools of her trade, though always under their supervision. According to Kurtz, all the material she produced while incarcerated had one driving idea behind it, one unifying theme:

Leitfaden der Kritik was to be Ms. Abendroth’s opus, the last word in her seemingly relentless feud with Mr. Klaus Mehler. In it, she told Gertrude Nadel, she would create something so perfect, so pure, so unassailable that Mehler would be forced to put aside his scalpel of a pen and concede it unimprovable, a job well done. That she told Gertrude this from within the sanatorium at Eberbach Abbey did nothing to dampen her enthusiasm, though it did somewhat dim her loved one’s confidence in her ability. Nevertheless, from 1862 until her death, most of her waking hours at Eberbach were spent in producing material for it.(7)

And yet, Leitfaden der Kritik never saw print; to this day it exists only as a series of scattered papers that have yet to be assembled into one coherent whole. Kurtz reproduces some in support of his thesis: illustrations include savage caricatures of Mehler as a little teapot spewing tar, a Mehler-faced cushion being kneaded by a cat’s extended claws, and a rather distressingly graphic image of Gren Ouille committing seppuku with a nib pen while Hop weeps over him. But the fact that Kurtz’ selections are so limited speaks volumes about the morass of mixed metaphors and half-remembered French from which he chose them, and certainly Rothschild and Nussbaum don’t consider the bulk of her creations during the Eberbach period to be anything more than the expiation of her tormented thoughts, finding the whole to be decidedly less than the sum of its remarkable parts.

Der singende Fisch, however, is not reproduced in Kurtz’ book, and has never appeared in print until now.

According to Ms. Abendroth’s will, only one copy was to be made of the image: the original was to be kept by Ms. Nadel, while the print was to be delivered, with compliments, to Mr. Klaus Mehler, beseeching his thoughts. Mehler received the letter and the print on Monday, May 10, 1869; by Monday, May 17, he had committed suicide. He was found slumped over a mess of illegible, blood-spattered notes, a pen embedded in his left eye, the copy of Der singende Fisch torn to shreds. An autopsy later found pieces of it lodged in his trachea. Gouged into the polished surface of his mahogany desk were the words Die Palette hat keine Farbe, which translates to “the palette has no colour.”

Publicly, Ms. Nadel declared that his guilt over destroying Ms. Abendroth’s mind and health had consumed him; privately, she insisted to friends and family members that Der singende Fisch was a curse eight years in the making, that Edith had confided in her the instrument of her revenge, and instructed her to produce copies for whichever critic should desire one. We must recall, however, that Ms. Nadel was a consummate actress, and her grief may have led to undue dramatization of the facts.

Still, it is surprising that there is no record of anyone publishing their thoughts on Der singende Fisch; Rothschild and Nussbaum remain far more interested in the facts of Abendroth’s private life and analysis of her journals, and in the wake of Mehler’s suicide, very few individuals applied to Ms. Nadel for copies, perhaps feeling that to succeed where he had so spectacularly failed would be unseemly. Nevertheless, it was rumoured that Stephen Kurtz had intended to produce a monograph focusing on Leitfaden Der Kritik and Der singende Fisch alone, and had even applied to Ms. Nadel’s estate for permission to see the original—but that project, like many others since the publication of Frogs, Frocks, and Fol-de-Rol, has fallen by the wayside while he recovers from his unfortunate boating accident.

Further Examination of “The Singing Fish”

Why, then, is the fish singing?

Certainly, divorced from its incredible history, Der singende Fisch is not particularly noteworthy: its lines are simple, its subject odd, if charming. All its cleverness lies in the recursivity of the meta-narrative—the fact that we, as critics, are observing a critic observing a fairly absurd creature, trying desperately to puzzle out its meaning. Just as the critic in the image is stymied by observing the fish, so must we be momentarily stymied by observing him observing the fish, and the dissonance produced by observing the fish in our turn, with all the calculated detail surrounding it.

Notice, for example, the thorns. Observe how one’s gaze moves from left to right, to begin at the roses, tempting in the gentle wash of the watercolour, before thickening into thorns the closer one approaches the fish. Surely this symbolises the inaccessibility of the art object, the difficulty facing any critic who attempts to penetrate its mystery. Again, why is the fish singing? Why is it performing an act we cannot apprehend without the frame of the title? Is it triumphant? One could argue that its triumph is in its inscrutability, in the impossibility of seeing it as anything but what it is.

But the critic does not look cowed, only frowning in thought; he is sainted, even, he wears a halo! Could that indicate that the critic is dead? Is the Singing of the Fish synonymous with the Death of the Critic? Can the one exist without the other? Finale, spell the ribbons—or are they scarves? The looping of the letters is rather noose-like—hearkening back, perhaps, to Odin’s gallows-heritage? The more answers one finds, the more thorns, or questions, one encounters!

This is terribly exciting work, you must understand. There is a terrible burden to be shouldered here, in being the first to offer a detailed analysis of the fish in print. Mehler’s death-desk scribbles offer little in the way of illumination, except for his gouged out exclamations about palettes and colour. This is useless. Of course the palette has colour on it—the whole piece is washed in a pale rose watercolour, and the palette is shaped for holding oils or acrylic. Ah, but is that irony at work? Oh, of course! It is a pen and ink drawing—and look, there, the inkwell and the feathers! She has appropriated the critic’s tools! That is why the palette has no colour on it—the palette is her vulnerability, the colours her Achilles’ heel! The palette has no colour on it. The fish has sprung fully formed from it—the fish is the palette’s colour! The only colour is in the end—Finale, in colour, in the colour that the palette lacks—the colour the fish brings! The devilish detail of it! Frogs begin as fish! They die and are resurrected as singing fish! Oh, I see it all, Ms. Abendroth, I do, I see! I can hear it clear as a bell!

Such, at any rate, would likely have been Mehler’s statements, had he been able to communicate them in something other than the blood and wood-dust beneath his fingernails. The piece seems very nice, and it is testament to Dr. Lambshead’s discerning taste that he sought to preserve so excellent a thing in his Cabinet.(8)

End Notes:

(1) Stephen Kurtz, ed. The Early Journals of Edith Abendroth, vol. III, p. 67. Routledge, 1959.

(2) Ibid., vol. VI, p. 98.

(3) Die Spitzer Feder, April 1856, p. 24

(4) Ibid., October 1856, p. 32

(5) Nussbaum, Ursula. Loves That Did Not Know Their Names: Lesbian Desire in Edith Abendroth’s Early Journals, p. 134. Ashgate, 1979.

(6) Kurtz, Stephen. Frogs, Frocks, and Fol-de-Rol: the Mirth and Madness of Edith Abendroth, p. 91. Routledge, 1961.

(7) Ibid., p. 113.

(8) While the main body of this essay and all previous endnotes were the work of Amal El-Mohtar, the final paragraph was appended by a friend who has chosen to remain anonymous. This friend would like to make clear that Ms. El-Mohtar’s unorthodox approach to the essay’s conclusion is to be read as ironic, and certainly has nothing to do with the fact that she has since withdrawn into the seclusion afforded by a village in the south-west of Cornwall, where she spends her days in pursuit of garden fairies to dissect for her doctoral thesis, and her nights in tormented, guilt-wracked sobs for subjecting them to the cruelty of iron.