Finished reading DIE PUPENJUNGE/ THE HUSTLER: THE STORY OF A NAMELESS LOVE FROM FRIEDRICHSTRASSE by John Henry Mackay, published in German in 1926 under the pseudonym of Sagitta, which took me forever to read. It’s hyper-sentimental in the ways only cheap German Romanticism and bad melodrama can be and I could only take so much at one time.
Gunther and Hermann both arrive in Berlin from the provinces on the same day. They meet in The Passage, a famous arcade in Unter Der Linden and Friedrichstrasse, bombed during WWII, but which was a pickup place for prostitutes of both sexes in the Twenties. Both are completely clueless. Hermann sees Gunther’s panicked face and falls in love. But Gunther disappears and, cold and hungry, is quickly taken under the wing of an older boy, groomed to hustle, and becomes an underage prostitute. Meanwhile, Hermann becomes a clerk at a respectable publisher’s and leads a quite boring life until he once again sees Gunther by chance and all his sexual and emotional energies get directed onto him. Gunther thinks Hermann is a very odd john; Hermann doesn’t yet know the boy’s a prostitute. There are dozens and dozens of pages of monologues of Hermann’s feelings, his overpowering love, how to deal with it, how to make Gunther love him, how he suffers, etc. It all reminded me a little bit of Lillian Gish, hand on forehead, wandering through the streets of Paris looking for her sister in ORPHANS OF THE STORM…but without the artistry.
What I liked best was the description of a young hustler’s life, where they hung out, the relationships between them, the pecking order, the connection to drugs and the prevalence of cocaine, the cinemas they went to, the danger of the police, the punishment they received when caught. Christopher Isherwood loved the book in spite of the sentimentality because he said it described that scene accurately and as he himself had known it first-hand. The book is a tract against state oppression, particularly Paragraph 175 of the Penal Code, which prohibited relationships between men and proscribed prison sentences of 1-4 years for those caught. It was only abolished in 1994. More controversially, and perhaps a reason the book is less well known in English, is that the book is also a plea for Man-Boy love. John Henry Mackay, a Scott-German brought up in Germany, describes clearly at the end that this love, however intense, is temporary as can he imagine loving a man with a moustache? I read it because it was mentioned by one of the characters in Brendan Nash’s marvellous THE DIRECTOR…and I’m very glad I did. It would make a great movie now
Gregory Woods commented on this: ‘We’re spoilt. Imagine reading it in 1926! (I feel much the same about The Well of Loneliness.) Then it becomes a great book.
I do see that but, as with The Well of Loneliness would counter that it becomes a great book for a middle-class reader only. i wonder what a working class reader — and there might have been one then — would have made of Gunther’s having any joy and adventure in life finished by the age of 16. Hermann gets the inheritance and the narrator paints a future for him. But the poor working class boy, hustling and prison in the past, sheer wage slavery and drudgery under constant observation for the rest of his life, and without ever really having felt love, at leat not the kind experienced by Hermann….some thought.