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)