Rhonda Knight is a frequent contributor to WWEnd through her many reviews and her excellent blog series Automata 101 and Outside the Norm. This is Rhonda’s fifth featured review for the Grand Master Reading Challenge. She won the GMRC Review of the Month for March for her review of The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin.
In my attempt to combine some of my reading challenges, I decided to read Michael Moorcock‘s The Brothel in Rosenstrasse for the GMRC. The "brothel" in the title fulfills the "house" requirement in Beth Fish’s Readers Challenge. Before I chose this book, I did a little research and learned that the book was the second in Moorcock’s Rickhardt von Bek trilogy but that I need not read the first book before reading the second.
Von Bek is the first person narrator of the novel. As a sick, bedridden old man, von Bek writes a memoir about his secret affair with the sixteen-year-old, Alexandra, a daughter of a noble family. This affair took place in fin de siècle Mirenburg, a city located in the fictional central European nation of Waldenstein. Moorcock creates a lush, cosmopolitan, multicultural city, where Europeans come to enjoy the cafés, cabarets, opium dens, and, of course, the brothel, "Mirenburg’s greatest treasure," "protected by every authority and tolerated by the Church" (45). Unfortunately, the architectural beauty and joie de vivre of Mirenburg is destroyed by a civil war during the course of the book.
Before the war comes, Alexandra and von Bek live together in the Liverpool Hotel and take advantage of the lax stewardship of Alexandra’s parents (who are out of the country), her aunt (who is supposed to be responsible for Alexandra in their absence but farms her off to the housekeeper, who is tricked by her charge). Von Beck is infatuated by Alexandra but is also repulsed by her extreme willingness to play the role of his sex toy. He justifies his lifestyle as a debaucher and rake by writing "I live as I do because I have no need to work and no great talent for art; therefore my explorations are usually in the realm of human experience, specifically sexual experience, though I understand the dangers of self-involvement in this as in any other activity" (94). In order to keep his pupil Alexandra interested, von Beck begins taking Alexandra to the brothel, where they engage in threesomes, foursomes, sadomasochism and cocaine use.
When the war comes, Alexandra tells her family that she and her friends are joining refugees outside the city but instead she and von Bek are forced to seek refuge in the brothel once their hotel is bombed. Von Bek describes the brothel as "an integrated nation, hermetic, microcosmic" (49). However, while von Bek enjoys the clubby atmosphere of the salon and the dining table, Alexandra must hide in their room because they cannot risk her being recognized by another member of the nobility. Once von Beck relents and lets Alexandra appear, she begins to manipulate the citizens of the microcosm as the long siege of Mirenburg begins.
Von Bek’s memoir slips between his past in Mirenburg and his present as an invalid whose only human contact is with his manservant. Moorcock handles this in an interesting way as von Bek’s arguments (both vocal and silent) with the manservant Papadakis weave in and out of the memoir:
I can only admit now that I gave myself up to Eros deliberately, in the belief it does a man or woman good to make such fools of themselves occasionally, there are few risks much wilder and few which make us so much wiser, should we survive them. Papadakis stretches out his emaciated arms. I smell boiled fish. "It will do you good," he says in his half-humorous, half-insinuating voice; a voice once calculated during his own, brief Golden Age to rob the weak of any volition they might possess; but it had been the single weapon in his arsenal; he had used up all of his emotional capital by the time he was forty. (38)
Von Bek’s writing demonstrates his insecurity concerning Alexandra in the past and his fear of death in the present. The narrative has the fury of a man writing against time and to regain his past. He alternates between scenes of sexual excess and lush description that shows his love of Mirenburg, which he loves as much as Alexandra.
There are no fantasy or supernatural elements in this book. Only Moorcock’s name and the fact that Rickhardt von Bek’s ancestor Ulrich is the protagonist of The War Hound and the World’s Pain connect The Brothel in Rosenstrasse to the fantasy genre; this book is a historical romance focusing on decadence and obsession. Unless WWE readers are also interested in historical fiction, I’d recommend this one for Moorcock completists only. The plot is thin, and the characters are weak and not really likeable. The city of Mirenburg is the star: the descriptions of the city are beautiful and his ability to situate the reader in a location is dazzling. I am looking forward to reading the other two books in the series but hope they are more driven by character and plot.
The lyrics are as follows:
Schmetterling says that all her girls are ladies
She won’t hand out keys to anyone who’s shady
It’s all done with taste, you must not seem a waster or a scoundrel
She’s kind and she’s warm, believes in good form
So don’t be hasty!
The Brothel in Rosenstrasse all our girls are clean and game
The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, you don’t have to give your right name
Please don’t speak of despair, or anything that’s seedy
Please don’t admit you’re cynical and greedy
Your manner’s refined, your role is clearly defined, and so is the lady’s
The things that you do aren’t wicked or rude, because you need them
The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, all our girls are keen to please
The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, at reasonable fees