What I’m reading: Gay Berlin, yesterday and today
Paolo Grossi: THE TIERGARTEN TALES
This story collection spans more than a century of gay life in and around Berlin. The earliest – three stories plus an epilogue that combine to make a novella – is the study of a complex marital ‘arrangement’ in 1890s Prussia. Felix Kimmich, the son of a well-to-do landowner, camouflages a lifelong liaison with his butler-turned-secretary (with a few rent-boys on the side) behind a marriage of convenience to a broad-minded lesbian; the conventions of the era are beautifully captured and inventively circumnavigated.
A concentration camp story has the commandant developing a crush on an inmate who is there by mistake, like the Boy in Striped Pyjamas. A modern setting introduces a gay widower trying to effect a reconciliation with a bi friend’s estranged and disturbed young son. The love affair between a viola player at the Berlin opera and a blind boy in the audience is exquisitely poignant, and emperor/queen Frederick the Great is treated to a charming episode he would surely have relished.
Paolo Grossi is an Italian writing in English about Germany – an intriguing back-story. His style reminds me happily of Angus Wilson, who wrote gay-themed stories and novels in the 1950’s and 60s with an elegance and restraint that are not always on offer to readers of 21st-century fiction. And, of course, The Tiergarten Tales inevitably bring a few pleasing echoes of Christopher Isherwoood – ‘Mr Issyvoo’.
Paolo Grossi is a writer I hope to see more of.