Sep 2, 2021

The Brothel in Rosenstrasse (1982)

New English Library 1984, Mark Harrison
Welcome to Mirenburg

Written around the same time as The War Hound and the World's Pain, Moorcock's The Brothel in Rosenstrasse also describes the exploits of a member of the von Bek family line, this one living at the turn of the 19th century. The youngest offspring of a wealthy German nobleman, Rickhardt von Bek is the prodigal son of the family, and has no great ambitions for himself other than to seek out physical pleasure.

"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."

New English Library 1982, Henri Gervex ("Rolla", 1898)
Presented as von Bek's death-bed reminiscence of a great past romance, The Brothel in Rosenstrasse details his illicit relationship with Alexandra, the nubile young daughter of a European aristocrat. In 1897, von Bek meets Alexandra in the fictional, Renaissance-inspired city of Mirenburg and takes her on an odyssey of hedonistic pleasure. In order to deflect scandal, von Bek plans to eventually marry the girl in Paris, as he is truly in love with her. Unfortunately, they become trapped in Mirenburg when an Austrian/Bulgarian military force besieges the city for several months. During this time they are forced to seek refuge at the famous brothel in Rosenstrasse ("Mirenburg's greatest treasure"). While trying to make the best of the situation, von Bek and his curious young lover end up engaging in several sexual trysts with the courtesans and guests of the brothel. However, to von Bek's consternation, his efforts to expose his "Alice" to a wonderland of more worldly pleasures threaten to have a disastrous effect on their future together.

Phoenix 1993, René François Xavier Prinet ("The Balcony")
Perfection, Greed and Destruction (Style, Structure and Theme)

The Brothel in Rosenstrasse continues Moorcock's exploration of "historical romance", a realism-based approach to fantasy featured prominently in the Mervyn Peake-inspired novel Gloriana (as well as in The War House and the World's Pain, although that novel leans a bit more towards "genre" fantasy). However, in contrast to those two works the prose here frequently varies in its temporal setting without warning. Throughout the narrative, von Bek makes abrupt detours (notably unheralded by paragraph breaks) back to his present life in Italy detailing his thorny relationship with his overbearing manservant, Papadakis. On one level, this could be read as the mental meanderings of an old man nearing death. However, on a structural level the author uses these juxtapositions to draw subtle connections between scenes set in 1897 Mirenburg and 1920s Italy. Perhaps, when Mirenburg falls into a state of siege, this turn also reflects on "old" von Bek's imprisonment in his own bed and his dependency on the nagging Papadakis. 

Cyborg Records & Tapes Inc 1992 (cassette cover)
Von Bek's account also sometimes diverts into whimsical asides which recount adventures before and after the main narrative (again, creating a sense of free-wheeling reminiscence). The first chapter ("Mirenburg") is also notable for its many meticulously-drawn character profiles of various bystanders seen on the streets of the city (as well as some subtle foreshadowing of a political conflict which will explode in the middle section of the book). While the middle section ("The Brothel") fleshes out the various relationships developing amongst the characters frequenting the brothel, the final chapter ("The Siege") describes the resolution to von Bek's relationship with his young "Alice" (a tragic ending which is reflected in the downfall of Mirenburg itself). These three sections can be characterized as below:

"Here is perfection - here is human greed - here is destruction." - MM, Death Is No Obstacle (1992)

In his conversations with Colin Greenwood in the book Death Is No Obstacle, Moorcock notes that the book has a didactic theme, one warning against the destructive power of erotomania: "Living wholly for power, particularly erotic power, leads to no good...It came out of my distinct belief that self-indulgence and power-seeking in sexuality spoils a good thing." In the book, Von Bek is brought down by his veiled and overt efforts to exert power over his young nymphet in pursuit of self-definition. At the same time, Mirenburg is destroyed by internal and external political forces seeking power over its government. 

Finally, with a title like The Brothel in Rosenstrasse , the novel naturally contains scenes of an explicit, adult nature. Although frank descriptions of flesh and fluids are present, they never become vulgar since these unselfconscious accounts serve to highlight the dramatic arc described through the shifting of sexual power between the main characters.

Carroll & Graf 1987, Max Kurzweil ("Lady In A Yellow Dress")
Von Bek Lives

Aside from its literary and thematic merits, The Brothel in Rosenstrasse is also important to the Moorcock multiverse in that it establishes the von Bek family line (of Saxony) as a continuing thread through several novels and story sequences. In the past, characters like Elric or Corum might travel to different planes, and members of the League of Temporal Adventurers (such as Oswald Bastable) might travel through time. However, instead of a single character, the von Bek books follow von Bek family members drawn from different historical eras. In other wards, the conception of the von Bek "dynasty" allows for storytelling on a large timescale, placing them in a consistently-constructed "quilt of history" through thematic and dynastic links.

The Brothel in Rosenstrasse also introduces the city of Mirenburg, which is a kind of "realistic" analogue to the Eternal Champion's legendary city of Tanelorn. Mirenburg's buildings feature Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture, and styles from various centuries and traditions can all be found in adjacent structures within its borders. Although seemingly destroyed in this novel, Mirenburg would later play a central role in future novels, including the later Elric sequence, "The Moonbeam Roads" trilogy.

Detailed Synopsis

Publisher's Weekly Review
Wiki Entry
Wikiverse Entry
Goodreads Entry
Death Is No Obstacle (Colin Greenland and Michael Moorcock, 1992)

Previous chapter: The War Hound and the World's Pain (1981)

Aug 24, 2021

The War Hound and the World's Pain (1981)

New English Library 1983, Chris Achilleos
Von Bek

Published in 1981, The War Hound and the World's Pain introduced a new character whose family lineage would soon grow into another important branch of Michael Moorcock's ever-expanding literary multiverse. Although this novel could be considered "heroic fantasy" of a sort, it has more depth than most of the 1960s "pulp-styled" adventures, and actually reflects more of a post-Gloriana approach to historical extrapolation.

Taking place in 1631 during the height of the bitter Thirty-Years' War, The War Hound and the World's Pain describes the exploits of Germanic infantry captain Ulrich von Bek, guilty of the usual war indiscretions and thus forced to make a literal "deal with the Devil". In order to spare his soul from an eternity in Hell, von Bek must obtain the Holy Grail for Lucifer, who hopes to use the sacred artifact to "buy" his way back up to Heaven. However, in order to complete this quest, von Bek must face both human parasites infesting war-torn Europe as well as "infernal" forces arrayed against him in the "Mittelmarch", a territory in which Hell intersects with the Earth. However, his greatest challenge may be to learn the cost of being worthy to lift the legendary Grail vessel.

L'Atalante 1993, Paolo Uccello

A 17th Century War Hound

The Thirty Years' War took place from 1618 to 1648 and cost up to 8 million lives, making it one of the most devastating conflicts of the pre-modern era. In simplest terms, this war was caused by a disagreement between Catholic and Protestant political forces in Europe, and thus a kind of Christian "civil war". The War Hound and the World's Pain takes place shortly after the Sack of Magdeburg, in which the Protestant citizens of Magdeburg were mercilessly slaughtered (and worse) by frenzied members of Germany's Imperial Army (serving the Holy Roman Empire). As the novel begins, Ulrich von Bek identifies himself as one of the participants in the Magdeburg holocaust, although he has now abandoned his company due to a plague raging through their ranks.

White Wolf 1995, Janet Aulisio
A 17th Century Champion

Von Bek's pessimistic outlook is similar in some respects to a few of Moorcock's other Eternal Champions (Elric, Erekose, etc.). Like a few of these darker Champions, he has a "shaded" sense of morality defined by pragmatism. However, unlike Elric or Corum, von Bek exists in a real historical period of Earth's past, and is clearly human. Also, since his account is written in the first person, the narrative is able to present a more keenly-intimate psychological portrait of von Bek's mental journey. And, because the story makes use of a well-established Judeo-Christian belief system (or at least a Miltonian one), Moorcock can spend more time having van Bek debate the underlying consequences of the beliefs, rather than having to worry about explaining them in the context of a "fantasy mythology". 

Timescape 1981, Rowena Morrill
“Ritual is the truth made into a child’s game, at best..."

However, it's ironic that, by setting the story in a Biblically-informed universe, the author can directly challenge the accepted dogma (of the 17th century, anyways) surrounding the interpretations of these subjects. In other words, Moorcock uses this opportunity to provide "allegorical commentary" on these existing faiths, mostly imparted through von Bek's debates with the sagacious hermit Philander Groot (although some of his exchanges with his "simply-minded" Kazak companion Sedenko prove illuminating in their own way). 

It's even more ironic that the key to von Bek's salvation lies in his rejection of "marvelous" forces, and instead lies in his faith in mankind's own self-reliance (and acceptance of self-responsibility, presumably). In the narrative, the Dukes of Hell oppose von Bek (and Lucifer) in fear of being abandoned by their leader. Little do they realize that the fulfillment of von Bek's quest requires the banishment of both God and the Devil, thus ushering in of an "Age of Reason" (i.e, the Enlightenment).

“Everything that is fantastic leagues against me,” I said, repeating Klosterheim’s warning.

“Aye. Everything that is fantastic is threatened. Some believe all these marvels you have witnessed to be productions of the World’s Pain. Without that Pain, some say, they would not be necessary. They would not exist.”

“You suggest that mankind’s needs create them?”

“Man is a rationalizing beast, if not a rational one,” said Philander Groot.

In any case, like in the ending to Stormbringer and The Quest For Tanelorn, the "ideal" state of the Balance occurs when both Law and Chaos are nullified.

Seghers 1983, Keleck
The Middlemarch

The "Mittelmarch" described in the novel translates to "Middlemarch" in English. The word might reference George Eliot's novel, but it also recalls imagery from the verse of Dante Alighieri (who was a noted source of inspiration to Eliot). In The War Hound and the World's Pain, Mittelmarch refers to patches of supernatural territory on Earth which exist as "borderlands" between Hell and Earth. These marches can only be accessed by those "damned to Hell", since they are in fact, part-Hell. It's ironic that, since the Grail is ultimately guarded by a denizen of the outer Mittelmarch, it can only be found by a damned soul - yet, the seeker must be "worthy". This might initially appear to be an impossible contradiction, but it turns out that to be worthy only requires one to realize that the "World's Pain" (of which the Grail is supposed to cure) is derived from its very worship of the Grail and its implications. One only needs to acknowledge that humanity should trust itself, rather than a clay pot. 

It might be worth noting that the priest von Bek encounters in the Middlemarch version of Ammendorf is named after Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, whose book Simplicius Simplicissimus Moorcock has cited as a source of some inspiration. Klosterheim's name is borrowed from Thomas de Quincey's 1832 gothic mystery Klosterheim; or the Masque. Also, the maternal figure who von Bek meets at the border forest to Heaven is named Lilith, after a notorious Biblical character sometimes identified as Adam's first wife (prior to Eve). One might also wonder if the Middlemarches might be connected to the Dream Marches separating the "Heaven" and "Hell" illustrated in Moorcock's 1979 Eternal Champion story, The Swords of Heaven, the Flowers of Hell. 

Structural Enlightenment

The War Hound and the World's Pain is divided into 18 chapters. Unlike the Eternal Champion novels, von Bek's novel is not divided into three or four "Books". However, it is possible to break down the narrative into a few arcs which use classical epic narrative devices to convey wry allegory (headings below are my own invention). Unavoidable spoilers follow...

  1. The Lover and the Bargain (1-3): After meeting the beautiful and mysterious Sabrina, the soldier von Bek meets her master, the Devil. He is then offered a Quest in which he can redeem both their eternal souls.
  2. The Companion (4-7): Von Bek meets the Muscovite warrior Sedenko (a Champion's Companion if there ever was one). Like von Bek, Sedenko is damned to Hell, and thus his eternal fate also falls on von Bek's shoulders.
  3. The Wizard, and the Adversary (8-11): Von Bek meets the Grey Lord Philander Groot, a neutral (but insightful) character who directs von Bek forward on his Quest. During this section, von Bek also engages in his first struggle against his Enemy, Johannes Klosterheim, a twisted apostate of Christ who now patronizes Arioch, Lucifer's rival in Hell. 
  4. The Great Battle (12-15): Several smaller conflicts climax in a great battle, with Klosterheim at the head of a massive horde of Hell-creatures. Victory requires the timely intervention of Philander Groot, but ultimately leaves von Bek alone to complete the Quest. Also von Bek kills a dragon...
  5. The Grail (16-18): Von Bek finally comes face-to-face with the Grail, and proves himself worthy not by deed, but by a penetrating understanding of the source of humanity's woes. Then, after overcoming his enemies through the power of his own belief in the Grail's true meaning, he returns to Lucifer with his prize. He soon learns that the Devil will now be responsible for mankind's acceptance of the truth which had earned von Bek the Grail: that the age of miracles is past, to be replaced by an Age of Reason. Ironically, the Enlightenment could not arrive until mankind had been able to obtain the Grail, and the only way for mankind to be worthy of the Grail was to realize that it no longer needed it.
“It might be possible to free Man from his captivity, his dependency on either God or Lucifer. We could see the dawning of a New Age. An Age of Reason.”

“But what if Man’s Reason is as imperfect as the rest of him?” I said. “Why should we praise his poor logic, his penchant for creating laws which only further complicate his lot?”

“Ah, well,” said Philander Groot. “It is all we have, perhaps. And we must learn, must we not, through trial and error.”
Delta Vision 2008

Finally, it's interesting to see the appearance of the names Arioch and Xiombarg in a narrative defined by Judeo-Christian beliefs. In this way, Moorcock already seems to be positioning a convergence of his historical fantasy von Bek series with the Eternal Champion sequence (although Gloriana had already hinted at such a convergence earlier). In years to come, members of the von Bek family (as well as Klosterheim) would frequently fight alongside Elric and other Eternal Champions (and Temporal Adventurers) of the Multiverse.   

Millennium 1992, Mark Reeve

Synopsis and More Notes (Spoilers)

Wikiverse Entry

Next: The Brothel in Rosenstrasse (1982)

Previous: My Experiences in the Third World War and Other Stories (1969-89) 

Jul 16, 2021

My Experiences in the Third World War and Other Stories (1969-89)

Mayflower/Granada 1981, Art: Melvyn Grant
In addition to his expanding book sequences (Jerry Cornelius, Corum, Hawkmoon, Oswald Bastable, Dancers At the End of Time), in the 1970s Moorcock also wrote several notable short stories. These magazine and anthology pieces range over a wide variety of genres, and include an existential sf short ("Last Vigil"), a drug-fueled requiem on 60s rock ("A Dead Singer"), a sword and sorcery self-parody ("The Stone Thing"), an ironic Twilight Zone-ish moral fable ("Environment Problem") and a connected series of politically-ambiguous, sexually-charged alternate history vignettes (collectively referred to as My Experiences in the Third World War). All of these also eventually appeared in various Moorcock anthologies from the late 70s and early 80s.
Speculation 23, Art: Pamela Yates (Online Archive)
The earliest of the shorts discussed here is a Jerry Cornelius episode titled "The Dodgem Arrangement", published in the July 1969 issue of the fanzine Speculation (#23). This story was written after The Final Programme but before the completion of A Cure For Cancer. Like the Cornelius stories of that period (such as those found in The Nature of the Catastrophe and The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius), "The Dodgem Arrangement" experiments with narrative structure, while at the same time wryly comments on the state of fractured modern society. Although part of its message is a critique on the "state of the Empire", the raw appeal of this story comes from Jerry's irrepressible, anarchistic nature.

To be fair, I do also think of Jerry as a personality. He’s perhaps not wholly reliable or consistent and maybe not entirely politically correct. For me, he’s a character combining the endearing and enduring traits of a number of my contemporaries as well as being a latter day Pierrot, Colombine, and Harlequin, responding to the world around him with, if not always appropriate sentimentality, at least an admirable resourcefulness and malleability, and almost limitless good humor. Jerry’s a pretty light-hearted existentialist. He once claimed to be too shallow to hold on to his miseries for very long. I think he also said somewhere (or I might have said it for him) that it isn’t especially important if all we’re doing is dancing forever on the edge of the abyss. It’s scarcely worth worrying about. The really important thing, of course, is the dance itself and how we dance it.

MM - 2003, The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius ("Introduction")

In any case, the "plot" mainly consists of Jerry pontificating on modern culture whilst causing havoc in whatever neighborhood he finds himself in. In Speculation #23, David Pringle ("shortly to begin a University English  course") writes an apt introduction which is also well worth looking at. This story also later appeared as either "The Dodgem Division" or "The Dodgem Decision" (note that "dodgems" are apparently the same as "bumper cars").

Art: Eddie Jones
"Last Vigil" appeared in the magazine Vision of Tomorrow (No. 11, August 1970). This story depicts the ruminations of a far-future "last man" (or close to last) on a small planetoid, as he calmly faces the imminent, hours-away collapse of the universe into another Big Bang star-core. However, before the "end of time" arrives, he ventures out into the wilderness on an impulsive excursion. There he comes across the last surviving native of the planetoid, whose race had long ago been driven extinct by mankind's arrival. This story fits well with other Moorcock sf works like The Black Corridor and The Time Dweller. Note that, although sometimes published as "Waiting For the End of Time", this story is not part of the Dancers At the End of Time sequence.

Abelard-Schuman 1973
"Environment Problem" appeared in Richard Davis' 1973 anthology Space 1. This is a modern "Faust tale" in which the wily, self-assured main character believes that he has found a way to "happily" enjoy an afterlife spent in Hellfire. The very ending features a twist (of course). 

Michael Joseph 1974, Art: John Riley
"A Dead Singer" appeared in the 1974 anthology Factions, edited by Giles Gordon and Alex Hamilton. This is a free-wheeling "road-trip" tale featuring Shakey Mo Collier (Jerry's bandmate/roadie from the Cornelius sequence) driving a resurrected Jimi Hendrix around modern England. Together they investigate what has happened to rock and roll, and if there is any hope for its future.
Art: James Cawthorn (as "J. Allen Frazenkel")
"The Stone Thing" (1974) is a no-holds-barred parody of heroic fantasy, in particular Moorcock's own brand of idiosyncratic myth-making as illustrated in the Corum and Elric books. This short (but hilarious) post-modern fantasy portrait appeared in the fanzine Triode 20 (October 1974), and then in Fantasy Tales (Summer 1977). Many readers will probably have first read it in the 1985 DAW Books anthology Elric At the End of Time.  

Elric At the End of Time, DAW Books 1985, Art: Michael Whelan /
Fantasy Tales, Summer 1977, Art: Jim Pitts
My Experiences in the Third World War
Savoy Books 1980, Art: Michael Heslop
  • "Going to Canada"
  • "Leaving Pasadena"
  • "Crossing into Cambodia"
  • "The Dodgem Division"
  • "The Adventures of Jerry Cornelius: The English Assassin" (comic)
  • "Peace on Earth"
  • "The Lovebeast"
  • "The Real Life Mr Newman (Adventures of the Dead Astronaut")
In 1978 and 1979 Moorcock wrote three short stories which eventually appeared as a linked sequence in My Experiences in the Third World War (1980): "Going to Canada", "Leaving Pasadena" and "Crossing into Cambodia". A fourth episode in the series, "Casablanca", appeared in 1989 in the anthology Casablanca. These alternate history "travelogues" are narrated by an undercover Russian spy named Volker as he navigates through several politically-sensitive periods of the late 20th century (with each one taking place in a different country/continent). The over-arching premise begins during a "cold war", but by the last episode a nuclear conflict has been well under way. Usually presented in collections in narrative chronological order ("Casablanca", "...Canada", "...Pasadena", "...Cambodia"), these shorts were actually written "out of sequence", with "Crossing into Cambodia" appearing first, and "Casablanca" appearing 10 years later. Thus, if read in publication sequence, the story goes backwards in time. 
However, this allows the stories to chronologically reflect on contemporary conflicts ending/arising at the time they were written, thus following "real" history. For example, "Crossing into Cambodia" (1979) takes place farthest in the future, but its premise more closely evokes brutal imagery from the Vietnam War (which had ended four years prior to the story's publication). "Going To Canada" and "Leaving Pasadena" (both 1980) contain commentary on the Cold War and its origins. "Casablanca" (1989) takes place earliest, its framing premise depicts a Muslim power struggle in North Africa. Actually it may be interesting to read the sequence first one way and then the other...

Additionally, Moorcock approaches his theme - a third global war - in an unexpected way, or at least one which a reader might not expect when imagining WW III. In popular media, WW III is usually depicted as an apocalyptic "flash-point" conflict essentially lasting a matter of hours and visually portrayed as swarms of atomic mushroom clouds blossoming all over the globe (immediately followed by a "nuclear winter"). However, Moorcock's modern version of a "future war" story depicts the next global conflict as a series of slow, inefficient tactical moves (both hidden and overt) taken by regime-change agents who are seemingly more concerned with their "wild-at-heart" mistresses than some kind of dogmatic national/religious agenda. However, it's worth noting that these stories are also the products of an "unreliable narrator", so part of the charm here is in parsing through Volker's subjective self-awareness of reality. The narrator "is revealed not so much by what he says as by what he selects to say to the reader."

Denoël 1979, Art: Stéphane Dumont / New English Library 1979, Art: Tim White
Publication-wise, "Crossing into Cambodia" first appeared in Maxim Jakubowski's anthology, Twenty Houses of the Zodiac (1979). "Going To Canada" and "Leaving Pasadena" first appeared together in the Savoy Books' 1980 Moorcock collection My Experiences in the Third World War. "Casablanca" appeared nine years later in Moorcock's 50th birthday anthology, Casablanca (1989), but was soon reprinted with the three earlier stories in the 1990s Earl Aubec omnibus anthologies. Since "Casablanca", a few additional stories in the Third World War sequence have appeared, with the most recent ("Kabul") being published in France in 2018 (Kaboul Et Autres Souvenirs De La Troisième Guerre Mondiale).

Postscript 1: Some of the stories described here first appeared in book form in the Moorcock anthologies Moorcock's Book of Martyrs (1976) and Dying For Tomorrow (1978).

Moorcock's Book Of Martyrs (Quartet Books 1976, Art: Chris Achilleos)/ 
Dying For Tomorrow (DAW 1978, Art: Michael Whelan)

  • "A Dead Singer"
  • "The Greater Conqueror"
  • "Behold the Man" (novella version)
  • "Good-bye Miranda"
  • "Flux"
  • "Islands"
  • "Last Vigil" ("Waiting for the End of Time")  
Postscript 2: My Experiences in the Third World War also includes pages from "The Adventures of Jerry Cornelius: The English Assassin", a series of comic one-sheets co-written with M. John Harrison and featuring artwork by Mal Dean and Richard Glyn Jones. These were originally published in IT (International Times) from June 1969 to January 1970 (#57-71). Scanned pages can be seen online at the IT archive.