The Brothel in Rosenstrasse by Michael Moorcock (Carroll & Graf: $15.95; 191 pp.)
An epigraph introducing this eccentric novel is ostensibly a quotation from "Cities Which Fascinate," written by one C. P. Downes and published by Kelly of London in 1896. In a remarkably lyrical passage, the city of Mirenburg in the principality of Waldenstein is described as a place of unearthly beauty, its architecture an exquisite blend of Renaissance and later styles, its geographical placement ideal, a wonderland easily reached from anywhere in Europe by railroad, connected to Venice and Trieste by canal.
The Encyclopedia Britannica, however, has no entry between Walkensee, an Alpine lake, and Wales, nor does it list a city called Mirenburg, so we're safe in assuming that the epigraph is as fanciful as the novel proper; both the work of the versatile contemporary English novelist Michael Moorcock, until now best known for his science fiction.
Despite the precise location of its cathedrals and concert halls, its river, parks, promenades--and of course, the brothel itself in Rosenstrasse, on the edge of the old Jewish quarter--Mirenburg is the author's invention, designed to be the perfect realm of the senses. "Many travelers stop here on their way to and from the Bohemian spas of Karlsbad, Marienbad and Franzenbad. . . . Mirenburg's wealth comes from the industry and commerce of Waldenstein, whose capital she is, but it is enhanced by the constant waves of visitors, who arrive at all seasons. . . . Prince Badehoff-Krasny, the hereditary ruler of Waldenstein, spends a considerable proportion of his own fortune on commissioning new buildings, as well as works by living painters, composers and writers. For this reason he has been fairly called a 'present-day Lorenzo.' "
Redeeming social values in the form of elegantly crafted prose, finely drawn characters and a plot beginning in tranquility and ending in starvation and destruction all mitigate but do not alter the fact that this is a highly erotic novel, supercharged with graphic sexuality. With the single exception of one of the women in the brothel, no one in the novel attends a concert or a play, reads a book or visits a museum. The vaunted culture of Mirenburg is entirely peripheral to the plot and the concerns of the characters.
The powerful memory of his sexual adventures as a young man is keeping the dying Rickhardt von Beck alive. The narrator has apparently suffered a paralytic stroke complicated by venereal disease, and is being fed and cared for by a sullen but loyal attendant, Papakadis.
Tutoring His Alexandra
In happier days, von Beck was the heir of vast feudal estates, able to live a life of pure indulgence without ever a thought of a profession, or indeed, any occupation but self-gratification. Now a terminally sick old man who has fortunately regained the ability to move his right hand, he is writing his astonishingly vivid memoirs of those years of total abandon, concentrating upon his relationship with his equally avid 16-year-old mistress, Alexandra.
Though she is innocent when he first encounters her, Von Beck tutors Alexandra in physical pleasure of all varieties until she becomes insatiable, her appetites even more protean than his. To this end, he has the full cooperation of the women of the brothel in Rosenstrasse, an establishment of extraordinary refinement and luxury, impeccably managed by the sage Frau Schmetterling.
Though Von Beck and Alexandra technically live in a respectable hotel, they spend most of their time in the brothel, which offers the attractions of a fine restaurant and nightclub in addition to its primary function. There the elite of the city meet nightly, treating the place as their private club, a retreat from the escalating political tensions encroaching upon Mirenburg from all sides. The brothel is a microcosm of \o7 fin de siecle \f7 Central Europe; hedonistic, decadent, deluded and heedless of an inevitable future.
From Sex to Siege
Though one could logically treat this novel as a parable, there's no real reason to suppose that was the author's intention. Rather, he seems to be demonstrating the enormous vitalizing power of sex, the mere recollection of which can literally, if only temporarily, restore a dying man to a semblance of life.
As the memoir proceeds, the narrator turns his attention to the siege, bombardment and eventual obliteration of the dream city in passages written with amazing vigor and total recall. In that small space during a relatively brief period of time, we watch the final death throes of the old order in scenes far more theatrical and involving than anything taking place in the brothel's boudoirs. As the spires crumble and the river turns into a sewer, the frivolous characters endure hunger and thirst--anguish far more intense than jealousy or physical passion.
In genuine physical misery, these dissolute people come truly alive for the first time. Suffering may not ennoble them, but it differentiates and humanizes them. No longer mere types--the Prince, the General, the Madame, the Sybarite--they begin to engage our full attention and earn not only our sympathy but in some cases, our respect. By then it's too late; Mirenburg and all the good and evil it represented has vanished forever. If there's no parable here, surely there's a moral.