Berlin: The City and The Court

By Mary Helen Dupree

Berlin: The City and the Court
By Jules Laforgue
Trans. William Jay Smith.
New York: Turtle Point Press, 1996.

From Theodor Fontane to Jeffrey Eugenides, the city of Berlin has had many literary observers, but perhaps none as reluctant as the nineteenth-century French poet Jules Laforgue. Laforgue, who is sometimes called the French Keats, was one of the most influential French poets of the nineteenth century; his poems combine Baudelairean world-weariness with fantastical references and outbursts of exalted intensity. In 1881, Laforgue went to Berlin to be installed as "French reader" to the elderly, neurotic Empress Augusta. Laforgue's daily duties consisted in reading the latest French newspapers, novels and memoirs aloud to the Francophile empress, who disdained all things German. The rest of the time, Laforgue was free to observe the social and court life of the German capital, which he did with a playful lyricism and a near-photographic exactitude. His observations are collected in the small volume Berlin: The City and the Court (Berlin, la cour et la ville), which was first translated into English in 1996 by the American scholar William Jay Smith.

Berlin: The City and the Court
is perhaps the only description of Berlin from the perspective of a nineteenth-century French flaneur or urban stroller. Laforgue self-consciously embraces this moniker while defining it as essentially un-German: "Germans, even Berliners, are not strollers... there is no German word, and the chronicler must write: der Flaneur von Profession" (154). Ironically, it was a Berliner, Walter Benjamin, who made this term an object of scholarly inquiry in his monumental work on nineteenth-century Paris, Das Passagen-Werk. As Benjamin writes, the flaneur is by definition an outsider; he observes the city through the veil of the crowd, but is never truly at home in it. In his writing, Laforgue often indicates his dual outsider status, as flaneur and Frenchman, through displays of outright snobbery and contempt. Laforgue describes Berlin as a prosaic, ridiculous backwater, the very opposite of cosmopolitan Paris. He is utterly indifferent to Goethe and Schiller and has nothing but disdain for contemporary German literature. Seeing Paul Heyse's play The Right of the Strongest at the National Theater, Laforgue writes that "no Parisian writer would dare present [it] to any director, its characters are so poor and so conventional" (181). Laforgue's scorn extends to Prussian militarism, Berlin fashion and the state of German railway cafeterias. Such comments are not simply attempts to appeal to the prejudices of a French readership. Rather, Laforgue's alienation from Germany is an integral part of his self-depiction as a writer and observer, and lends a skewed, funhouse-mirror quality to his observations of Berlin city and court life.

The flaneur's tour of Berlin begins with the court and the eccentric and ambitious personages that inhabit it. Obsessed with titles and decorations, the court of Wilhelm I cultivates a rigid hierarchy and an overblown self-importance. The most memorable character by far is the Empress Augusta, nervous, aged and domineering:
The first word uttered by this mournful and rather sibylline voice is always to say how exhausted, half-dead the lady is, while across her forehead she slowly passes a long pale hand, with a single ring on her ring finger, an extraordinarily well-cared-for-hand, of which she is quite proud. One has before one a being all nerves, who seems only to endure because of them, an emaciated, worn face with eyes of an imperceptible but implacable gray. (93)

Next comes the elderly Emperor, Wilhelm I, an affable old soldier with no interest in art, literature or science: "He has read only one French novel, The Wandering Jew of Eugène Sue" (72-73). Wilhelm's duties as emperor seem mostly to consist of a kind of showmanship: he oversees military exercises and parades, appears at balls and visits neighboring courts. Not surprisingly, all the pomp and circumstance conceals deep-seated tensions. The middle-aged Crown Prince is eager to ascend the throne, while his parents have no intention whatsoever of giving up their powers. It has been little more than a decade since Bismarck declared the new German empire, and everyone seems slightly uncomfortable with the new scheme of things. The atmosphere is one of a "slight state of siege" (61).

In the second half of the book, Laforgue takes on the comfortable, commercial Berlin of theaters, shops, restaurants, cafés, beer halls and carriages. Here, the flaneur is in his element, the street. Laforgue's description of morning on Unter den Linden is characteristically evocative:

8:00 A.M. Workmen dragging past, shopgirls with their cheap little hats, four enormous tumbrels chock-full of those red cabbages so dear to the people of the city. In big letters on the side of a lorry stacked with coffins: Coffin Factory, 32 Flower Street. How wretched are the little buses with seats for ten people on the roof. Two masons drawing a cart loaded with mortar. To another cart a man is hitched by a strap while a woman pushes. (144-145)


At night, a different side of Berlin emerges, with the demi-mondaine bellying up to the sausage-vendor's stall (159). In Laforgue's street scenes, one catches a whiff of the rough-and-tumble, working-class Berlin that would later be made famous by Heinrich Zille's paintings and drawings and the cabaret songs of the 1920s.

For the most part, however, Laforgue's Berlin is polite, complacent, and middle-class. There is no graffiti; no one reads in the street; there are no sidewalk cafés. The violence and unrest that have characterized much of modern German history are apparently absent from this early Berlin, as is the vibrant cultural scene that today attracts young people from all over the world to the German capital. In his introduction, written in 1996, Smith draws parallels between Imperial Berlin and the repressive regimes of both the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic; he also mentions paramilitary groups in the United States and neo-Nazi fringe groups in Germany as heirs to the Prussian love of militarism described by Laforgue. A more interesting question, which Smith does not quite get around to asking, is whether the structures of conformity and repression that were so apparent in Laforgue's time have not survived in a more subtle form in the quasi-bohemian, fun-loving culture of post-1989 Berlin.

Laforgue's volume was first published in 1922, long after his death, and since then it has received relatively little attention on either side of the Atlantic. This is a shame, because Berlin: The City and the Court is one of the most compelling descriptions of Imperial Berlin in any language. Smith's translation is elegant and lucid, far more readable than the excerpts translated by David Arkell in his 1979 biography Looking for Laforgue. It is accompanied by Simone Sassen's black-and-white photographs of Berlin, which complement Laforgue's visually evocative style. One could make more of this photographic dimension. Photograph albums are a major motif in Laforgue's poetry, and one can imagine Smith's translation published as a large coffee-table volume full of photographs of parades, carriages and broad avenues. Even without the photographs, however, Berlin: The City and the Court is itself a kind of album, a collection of images at once photographic and poetic, intimate and fantastical. Like Benjamin's panorama, it offers a rare, new view of a well-traversed city and its difficult history.


Originally from Alabama, and currently living in Berlin, Mary Helen Dupree is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, where she is working on a dissertation on German actress-writers in the late eighteenth century.