Banning books and burning them wasn’t the worst Nazi crime but it was a heinous act of premeditated vandalism and barbarity. It just goes to show how much ‘guns, billy clubs and jack boots’ fear words, in this case the words. Even though this novel was originally published only a few months into the Nazi Reich both the author and the publisher, Rowohlt of Berlin, would have been aware of its provocation to the new order: It was an act of bravery. Am Rande der Nacht, or At the Edge of the Night, is a little gem of German literature, which sadly since being banned by the Nazis has only appeared in expurgated form. Thankfully Simon Beattie has gone back to the original text for this brilliant new translation, now unexpurgated, which captures the beguiling beauty and intelligence of the Lampe novel. At the Edge of the Night is the story of a German port city, the docks area, on one September night. An eclectic cast cross paths in the street, the nightclubs and bars, the apartment blocks and on the boats in the harbour. It’s a captivating collection of vignettes and filmic little scenes full of life and the foibles of human nature. We witness their loving and laughter, see them dancing and recognise their longing – thwarted dreams, self-loathing and hatred. They are conformists and misfits – prostitutes, housewives, sailors, children et al. Lampe has a deep insight into normal daily life and life on the fringes. There is not a misplaced word in this brief novel that will stay with you. You may like or dislike the characters but you will recognise them as true.
At the Edge of the Night no sooner saw the light of day in 1933 than it was banned by the Nazis, joining the growing list of; “damaging and undesirable writings.” Among its transgressions were homoerotic undertones and the depiction of a relationship between a black man and a white woman. Lampe said his novel was “born into a regime where it could not breathe.” Fortunately his hope that it would live again in another age has been realised. Lampe had to face terrible adversity in his short life; he was diagnosed with bone tuberculosis at five and spent three years away from his family at a sanatorium on Nordeney island. Although he survived it, he was left disabled. He spent the years of the Reich surviving from job to job, place to place (he was not fit for military duty). In 1944 the only manuscript of a new collection of short stories was burned up in an air raid that destroyed his apartment. Most tragic of all, at the age of just 46 in 1945, he was questioned by Russian soldiers and summarily shot. The apparent reason was that they thought he didn’t look like his identity card photograph (Lampe had lost a lot of weight during the war). How a man who was both disabled and homosexual survived the Nazis one can only imagine – it seems incredible given that he first came to their attention in 1933. However, survive he did, only to die at the hands of the invader/liberators, a few short days before the end of the war. Truly the gods have a strange sense of irony.
Beattie tells us, in the introduction to the novel, that Lampe was a big movie fan, it coloured his writing style; the quick scenes, cuts between characters, vivid images. Reading the novel it doesn’t take long to appreciate this, so I have referred to the passages I have chosen to give you a flavour of the story as scenes:
The first scene: Hans and Erich are hanging around in the park, its usually about this time of the day that ‘they’ arrive. Fifi and Luise are waiting too but if ‘they’ don’t come soon they will leave, it is almost time for bed. Then the children spot them – the rats, hairless tails, horrible fascinating creatures, Luise screams and the rats scuttle into the drains for sanctuary. The boys scoff, the girls ask an old man on a bench for the time, then scurry off home, bumping into frau Jacobi who gently chides them for being out late. Their mothers’ words will be harsher. In a couple of pages Lampe has captured the fascination of children for the grotesque, youthful innocence, the distinctions boys and girls make between gender, and the loneliness of an old man.
Scene two: Frau Jacobi passed the girls alighting from a tram making its way down harbour street. The conductor doesn’t want to pick up the drunks coming out of Bellman’s restaurant, he shouts at them. Then he turns to the students sitting behind him; where are they going? Oscar and Anton are taking the Adelaide to Rotterdam. The conductor teases them about the raucous entertainment on Captain Martens’ ship. The boys are daunted but looking forward to what the night might bring. There are hints of the closeness of the boys relationship.
Scene three: the old man is still sitting on the bench in the park waiting for the young man to arrive, he usually comes this time of night. The old man wants to chat, he doesn’t want to sit alone at home. Karl and Bertha have their own lives now, they don’t have much time for her father. When he arrives, the young man is distracted, not in the mood to chat, as he scurries away the old man teases him about his need to rush to the cinema. The old man wonders if perhaps Karl and Berta are home? It’s glimpse of Loneliness, desire and longing.
Scene four: Karl and Berta aren’t at home, they are on a steamer on the river, neither thinking of her father. Berta is enjoying a dance with ship’s helmsman as her husband snores on the deck. The strawberries and alcohol are intoxicating and she winds up in the helmsman’s cabin. Later that night, back on land, Berta is dancing with the black man at the Astoria, when her husband questions their familiarity she deflects his suspicion. Adultery, sexual desire, inter-racial coupling, marital unhappiness and dis-satisfaction, desire, brief moments of excitement.
Through the night we move from the steamer, to the Adelaide, to the Astoria and the apartment block where frau Jacobi, the children and their families live. Strange relationships and connections reveal the workings of the human heart. On board ship Oscar and Anton meet an old friend, Bauer is now a steward, they witness his complex relationship with Captain Martens, they have a bond that Bauer is unable to break;
“He’s so horrible to me. Humiliating me in front of you like that!” [Bauer]
“Why does he do it?” [Anton]
“He wants to torture me. He enjoys it. He’s always after me. He’s ruined me.” ’
“Yes, it’s certainly a strange kind of love. But you see, when you’re all alone at sea and can’t take women with you, you’re bound to go a bit strange, resort to such things.”
Reading Lampe reminds me of John Dos Passos, who, in turn, was influenced by the German writer Alfred Doblin’s novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). Dos Passos is one of the originators of the non-linear novel. At the Edge of the Night is in that style, vignettes, fragments of stories that capture a moment or a mood gradually building a picture of a time and place. Lampe sticks strictly to the fiction, the cinematic form, he does draw on factual material, he is more compassionate than Dos Passos with his characters. The style of the novel would have been radical at the time, avant garde even, but it’s easy to follow. I have just recently reviewed Nocilla Lab by Augustín Mallo, a new experimental Spanish novel, it’s clear that the narrative reflects Lampe’s style.
Lampe novel is loosely structured, it struck me when I was reading At the Edge of the Night that there are similarities with the disparate voices of Under Milk Wood (this novel pre-dates Dylan Thomas’ play by twenty years). I detected the same sadness and melancholy apparent in Thomas’s writing. The story of a night in the city is all human life glimpsed; tragedy, melancholy, violence, love, coming of age. The novel is tender and poignant, elegant almost poetic.
Paul Burke 4/4
At the Edge of the Night by Friedo Lampe
Hesperus Press Ltd 9781843916543 pbk Feb 2019