Sunday, September 22, 2013
W.H. Auden Bids Good-Bye to Weimar Berlin
Kadeko was one of the moment’s leading hotspots for edgy and satiric entertainment. Night after night it drew Berlin’s most obscure and disregarded artists and writers, along with a smattering of more successful ones and even the occasional cultural icon. Though Ziggy had never been there, it was Sebastian’s favorite club, and he talked about it endlessly. Who was there, who said what, who said what about whose work, and what the various newspaper columnists had to say about it. Then he would get loudly depressed at how hopelessly corny their act was, compared to Kadeko’s more outré offerings.
After all he’d heard about Kadeko, Ziggy couldn’t believe what a dump it actually was. It was shabby and smelled of spilled beer. Its ceilings weren’t half as high as at the Admiralspalast and there was only a single level of balcony boxes. It was smoky and grubby with small round tables crowded together on its main floor and booths along the walls. On the stage some clowns were riding around on bicycles swinging at each other with phalluses whose bases resembled the Eiffel Tower while a small combo played harsh circus music. He followed Sebastian as he made a beeline toward one of the booths in the back where a large group of men sat together.
“Hi everyone,” Sebastian said brightly. He put his hand on Ziggy’s shoulder. “This is my brother Ziggy.”
Collectively, the men in the booth regarded them with the sleepy diffidence of a dragon that hadn’t yet fully awakened from a lengthy hibernation. Finally one of them mumbled, “Hullo Loerber.” And that was all Sebastian needed to dart into an empty space on the couch and start talking about how great it was being with some real artists for a change.
Rather than insinuate himself among them, Ziggy remained where he was, surveying the scene around him. He thought he recognized one or two faces from magazines; film actors, he thought. There were some older couples, out for an evening of fun, elsewhere there were people huddled together discussing business of some sort. Everyone else seemed to be in their thirties or forties. Some of the women had silk dresses and artistic hairstyles, others looked like they might be prostitutes. Waiters flittered about with trays full of beer glasses and the occasional bottle of champagne.
Suddenly a man’s voice shattered his musings. “Franzi Loerber! Quit ignoring me and come over!”
Ziggy turned around to see a spectacularly ugly man sitting alone at a table. The man pointed to the empty chair next to him. “Come sit with me and have some whiskey.”
“Actually I’m not Franzi, I’m his brother Ziggy,” said Ziggy.
The man regarded him bemusedly. “The Magical Loerber Brothers. So you’re Ziggy, come sit anyway,” he said.
Not having anything better to do, Ziggy sat down and the man immediately put out his hand. “My name’s Auden,” he said and they shook. “Would you like some Johnnie?” he asked, pointing to his bottle of Johnnie Walker Red. “I’ll have the waiter bring another glass.”
“No thank you, I can’t,” said Ziggy. “We have to go back to perform in a few minutes.”
“Well now, I wouldn’t want to ruin that,” the man said. “I’ve seen you all perform many times. Really quite delightful, I must say. Most of this stuff here tries so hard to be dreadful. They carry so much meaning on their sleeve, but there isn’t any spark, any poetry coming from any of it. If it wasn’t so sarcastic, I wouldn’t even come here. I went to see Schoenberg’s Erwartung performed the other day. That atonal shit gives me a headache. But the Loerber Brothers, they’re like jazz. The kind of jazz you see in cartoons.”
Ziggy looked at him in surprise. Nobody had ever said anything like that about them before. He loved cartoons even more than movies because of the way things moved in them. Rabbits became automobiles, fish became airplanes, dogs engaged in marital spats, guys got hit, broke into a dozen little versions of themselves before recombining a few seconds later. To be compared with a cartoon was better than anything he could think of.
Auden smiled at him. Even though he was probably not yet thirty, his face was already given to immense folds and creases, like some ancient reptile. He stared at Ziggy as if from an endless distance of time.
“But don’t you think we’re a little too traditional for the modern era?” Ziggy asked. “All we do is just old-fashioned circus stuff; acrobatics, songs, tap-dancing, juggling, magic.”
“Exactly!” shouted Auden so excitedly several existentialists looked up with curiosity. “It has a magic! Every time I see you lads perform, I can tell it’s exploding pure and unfiltered, straight from Gustav Loerber’s id. It only pretends to be traditional. What it really is, is surreal! I remember that the last time I saw you do the Hawaiian Hallucination, I …,” Auden let his voice trail off like he’d just recalled something he thought better than to mention. Up on the stage a skinny woman in a short black dress and tiny round hat stood singing something about guys she’d had sex with. Her voice wasn’t very good, but she sang with a matter-of-fact defiance that almost made up for it.
“You are English?” asked Ziggy.
“Yes, I am English,” Auden answered, with just a touch of brittle annoyance, as if once again he’d found himself cast in the hated role of an English tutor, obliged to carry on banal social conversation. “I am English, I teach English, I write poetry and I am a homosexual and I am a full-fledged member of several artistic and literary circles which do not talk to each other. And I think Bertolt Brecht is a pompous twit, which I have the authority to say because I am a regularly published cultural critic. And please do not bother telling me that you would like to visit London some day because the truth is London is a dreadful, joyless place that sucks the life out of you.”
“Do you consider yourself avant-garde?” Ziggy asked.
Auden laughed and shook his head. “I don’t know what I am.”
Ziggy nudged his head in the direction of the men in the booth Sebastian was talking to. “Do they consider themselves avant-garde?”
“Oh, they consider themselves all sorts of things,” answered Auden. He pointed to one of them. “See him? The other day he denounced Mickey Mouse as revanchist.” A slight smile curled on his lips. “Mickey Mouse. Can you imagine?”
He looked directly at Ziggy, anger flashing in his eyes. “And you know what? Nobody stood up for Mickey Mouse. Nobody, not one of them. You see what’s going on, don’t you? If nobody will defend Mickey Mouse today, who will defend Weimar democracy tomorrow? They won’t lower themselves, I’m afraid. Politics is beneath them.” He poured himself more whiskey and took a deep swallow.
“And yes, I love Berlin.” He stared emptily at his surroundings. “But it’s gone now. All of this you see around you is not real anymore. It’s just an echo, and in a little while, there won’t be even that.”
Not knowing what to say, Ziggy looked back at the stage and suddenly he imagined himself there with his brothers, all of them suspended from dangling lengths of fabric, performing one of their acrobatic routines. He saw himself twisting and weaving among the flat strands, his right leg wrapping itself into it while the left leg swung free and his upper torso flexing and pivoting till his head and arms swung down pointed directly down to the stage, and the whole while Franzi and Manni were twirling by their arms around him like dragonflies. Then suddenly they jumped down from the fabric and were running away. And from the darkness rifle shots were ringing out. And then he looked over and saw Sebastian tumbling toward the ground. He looked at Ziggy and sang out, “If I forget Thee, O Jerusalem,” which somehow, inexplicably, turned into; “Get her into the closet!”
“…in London you spend your whole life pretending,” Ziggy heard Auden saying. “Pretending you’re something you’re not, something they tell you that you have to be, just to please some pompous, pretentious, boring old….queens! I’m so sick of it. Living lies poisons you. Promise me you’ll never do that, Franzi.”
Another pause, another sip. “But you do have to play with the hand you’ve been dealt,” he added.
Trying to shake off his visions, Ziggy turned to stare at Sebastian, still holding forth among his friends. As much as he wanted to fit in, it was obvious he didn’t. Though he had adopted some of their sophistication, his brimming enthusiasm completely negated the hoped-for effect. But they indulged him the same way they might a pretty girl who’d found her way into their company; laughing generously at her remarks and acting attentive.
“Come on,” said Auden, “let’s have a drink to old Berlin. I don’t know when I’ll ever see it again. Chris and I are leaving for Amsterdam tomorrow. I don’t want to see what it’s going to turn into. Just give me a hug, Franzi.” He sounded so sad.
What was it about Berlin anyway? wondered Ziggy. How could anyone of such obvious refinement love anything so relentlessly crude?’ He let Auden put his arms around him and bury his head into his shoulder, only to suddenly feel a wet tongue slithering into his ear. Ziggy sprang up from his chair, pulling himself away from the man’s bear-like embrace. He ran over and grabbed Sebastian. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“But what about Robitschek?” asked Sebastian. “Isn’t he coming on next?”
“Robitschek was yesterday,” said one of the avant-gardists.
“Come on,” Ziggy pulled Sebastian towards the door. “We’re late.” Then he remembered they had no money left for the taxi. “Can you get any of your great friends to stand you the fare back?”
“I don’t want to do that,” cringed Sebastian.
“Oh for God’s sake!” said Ziggy.
Three minutes later, against his wildest undertakings, Ziggy had found someone wanting to play the numbers game, and five marks the richer, they hailed a cab back to Admiralspalast.
(This is a chapter that got cut during the final edits of my novel Germania, first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here).