‘I hate furniture and clowns.’
And kicked on by that first line, we follow Edmonde Sieglinde Kerrl and her hazardous progress through Nazi Germany, from the rise of the party until the trials at Nuremberg. A lover of Shakespeare and opera, sexually liberated and haunted by the spectre of her deceased father, Edmonde is a beguiling heroine: a Nazi who retains her innocence; a killer, reader and dreamer; an avenger in search of an epic, as would suit her name.
Punchy and cinematic in structure (Marc Behm wrote The Beatles film Help!), the style of The Queen of the Night moves between a hardboiled breeziness and Nabokovian excess, particularly in its depictions of Edmonde’s sexuality. Because, this is an erotic novel as much as a depiction of war, a portrait of sex in the face of death.
‘We would tear off our clothes and race through the sunflowers tumbling and somersaulting and leapfrogging. And to be sure- ah!- we possessed every conceivable centimetre of each other, merging so harmoniously that we exchanged flesh, rhyming our delight for hours on end.’
Any book with an approach like this is going to provide a certain difficulty for contemporary tastes.
Compare The Queen of the Night with the way the Nazis, and therefore the Holocaust, are now represented in fiction, and you’re left somewhat bewildered at what you’ve signed up for. Broadly speaking, we’ve reached two different fictional approaches to these themes: those which are post-Pynchon (H,H, H or The Kindly Ones, maybe Martin Amis) where the destruction of Europe is presented as a grand meta-fictional labyrinth; and those which are post-Spielberg (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), where Nazis are represented as the blackest of black hats, against whom a narrative can rubberneck for the capacity for redemption at every turn.
And then there’s Queen of the Night. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that most aberrations are usually pinnacles of differing, perhaps vanished subcultures. It’s easy to forget, particularly as Max Mosley chips away at our shared memory, but for some time there was another narrative of the war: as kinky fetish. You can see it in The Night Porter, or read about it on the endless carousel of postwar men’s magazines (For Men Only, Real Adventure, Man to Man, Man’s World), or in the juicy novels for which a Swastika and décolletage on the cover meant a dollar in the bank. These pulped fictions finished what Christopher Isherwood started, and reached a peak in the popular culture of the 1970s, a time when anything at all could be sexualized.
Does The Queen of the Night escape this background? Well. Like the Olympia Press regulars who no doubt flipped through The Naked Lunch somewhat aghast, you can’t help but think that the subscribers to Man to Man (“The Nude Mailman Who Conquered An Island”) might have baulked at Behm’s approach. At the end of the novel, Edmonde will be painted as a monster. Yet Queen of the Night persuades because the reader can never believe her to be anything but sympathetic. Never simply a victim of history, always able to penetrate the pathetic aggrandizements of the party lackeys around her, she remains troublingly pure, right until the final, fabulous line.
If you can track down a copy at all, it’s best to enjoy the book for what it is: a grotesque fantasy, which owes less to the contemporary idea of the novel, and more to the deranged satires of George Grosz or Max Beckmann. I’ve never read a book so obviously begging to be filmed. Equally, I don’t know of one which retains such originality, but whose time has so clearly passed.
‘All I ever asked of life was just to go for long, long, long walks with my father, the two of us strolling along side by side, both of us alive.’
Text © Daniel Bennett