Berlin: The City and the Court

Jules Laforgue, Author, William Jay Smith, Translator, Simone Sassen, Photographer
Jules Laforgue, Author, William Jay Smith, Translator, Simone Sassen, Photographer Turtle Point Press $13.95 (225p) ISBN 978-1-885983-02-2
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
Paperback - 306 pages - 978-1-245-01397-0
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In 1881, the symbolist poet Laforgue (Les Complaintes) left Paris for Berlin, where he would spend five years as reader to the Francophile Empress Augusta. While there, he carefully recorded many details for a book that wasn't published in France until 1922, some 35 years after his premature death. Perhaps Laforgue hadn't finished, as in many places it seems more a choppy collection of notes (""People do not read in the street; you never see people with leather briefcases under their arms. No interesting street names... No sidewalk cafes."") and the ending is abrupt. But Laforgue is startlingly frank, especially about his Russian-born employer and the mutual disdain between Berlin and its empress. He also hints at more important matters--strains among William I, his son and grandson and between the younger Hohenzollerns and Bismarck, all of which shaped William II's disastrous decisions. But mostly Laforgue is a sharp, thorough and often wickedly funny observer of Prussian manners, dress and mores--most of which suffer by comparison with those of Paris, as when he describes a knife grinder attracting clients by striking his grindstone with ""a hammer that produces a rather unpleasant sound. The benumbed visitor then recalls the Parisian plumber's cheerful whistle."" One can almost taste the bitterness of this child of the Second Empire who finds himself among the hated victors of Sedan. Smith's translation is able, though in his introduction and (less frequently) in his notes, he often slips from useful background to entirely pointless commentary (""Laforgue would have been interested to see that German bad taste in women's clothes has found its match in present-day Washington""). (July)
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