A REVIEW OF THE HUSTLER BY JOHN HENRY MACKAY
Der Puppenjunge: die Geschichte einer namenlosen Liebe aus der Friedrichstrasse by John Henry Mackay was published in Berlin in 1926, and translated from the German by Hubert Kennedy as The Hustler: The Story of a Nameless Love from Friedrich Street, published by Alyson in Boston in 1985.
by Peter Lamborn Wilson writing as Hakim, December 1985
Anyone who's ever been involved with boy prostitutes will instantly recognize John Henry Mackay's The Hustler (Der Puppenjunge) as nothing less than genuine realism - almost "Naturalism". Apparently nothing much ever changes in this particular corner of life: on the psychological level, Mackay's testimony would describe Baltimore or Manila in the 1970s with as much sharpness as Berlin in the 20s.
Christopher Isherwood says of The Hustler, "I have always loved this book dearly - despite and even because of its occasional sentimental absurdities. It gives a picture of the Berlin sexual underworld early in this century which I know, from my own experience, to be authentic."
Perhaps it is a personal reaction, but I would go so far as to say that Mackay's version feels more authentic to me than even Isherwood's infinitely more famous Berlin stories, first because Mackay - despite his Scottish birth - was a true Berliner, while Isherwood-the-Camera was an outsider, and second because Mackay was able to deal with his own involvement on emotional and political levels which Isherwood deliberately avoided.
No doubt Mackay's involvement strikes Isherwood as "sentimentality" - but Isherwood is "cool" and "Modern" and thus almost incapable of telling the difference between sentimentality and sentiment. Mackay's hero - Hermann, a 20-odd year old publisher's assistant - is certainly a sentimentalist in the Goethean manner which no doubt lingers on in Germany even today. And Hermann is assuredly a younger version of Mackay himself (a former publisher's assistant). But the older Mackay, the Mackay who wrote the book, at times seems almost nauseated by his hero's naive romanticism. The Hustler is in fact an anti-sentimental book.
Hermann falls in love with a 15-year-old hustler named Gunther, who represents the epitome of a "type": the indifferent and listless boy, achingly beautiful, thoughtless and not very bright, a narcissist and therefore utterly charming. Even though Mackay has replaced all explicit sex scenes with (. . .)s he makes it clear that Gunther's technique is to lie back looking bored while his lover/customer sucks him off . . . and that's all. (Incidentally despite ellipses, the book was still banned for obscenity.) Hermann meanwhile romanticizes Gunther to excess, first by failing even to realize the boy is a prostitute, then by trying to "save" him through the power of True Love.
Mackay's realism extends so far that neither character seems merely stereotyped despite their predictable behaviour. Gunther for instance turns out (surprise!) actually to be a nice boy - and Hermann's lapses from his own self-imposed role make him likeably human as well. Hermann's sort of masochism masked as Idealism is a common trait amongst boy-lovers. Mackay deals with it because it exists, because he experienced it - but he remains concerned with finding a way out of this bind rather than merely describing it. Hermann has already, at the beginning of the book, accepted himself without shame as a homosexual; what he has not yet attained, but will begin to grasp by the end of the book, is the actual knack of love.
Although Mackay wrote at the dawn of the "Homosexual Liberation Movement", his political maturity is amazing; The Hustler seems in no way "dated" in this sense. In fact, it appears both more radical and more profound than most of our contemporary "Gay" ideologies. Mackay published Der Puppenjunge under a pseudonym, "Sagitta". Under his own name he wrote on Individualist Anarchism and the philosophy of Stirner. In The Hustler he carefully and clear-headedly brings these two sides of his life together in passages like these, addressed to Hermann by a Wise Mentor (after the affair has ended with Gunther in a hideous reform school and Hermann sentenced to two months - two months!!! - in prison):
"It is a love, like every other. But whoever cannot understand it as love, or will not, never understands it . . .
"There are few human beings who have not become criminals against their fellow humans - not directly, but rather indirectly, in that they tolerate and advocate laws such as this one (against all homosexuality) for example . . . And what are all the crimes in the world compared with the ones carried out by those in gowns and vestments, robes and uniforms! . . .
(about Gunther): "Only think about the beautiful hours with him. It is all that we will one day have, the memory of such hours. Cherish them. But don't bury your whole youth in useless brooding. Consider: only this hour is yours. How many happy and beautiful hours you can still have and will have, if you only will . . . Courage and strength will return under your will. Will it!
"Since it is passing, let it be light - your love! Let it be light - you cannot load your burden on to young shoulders, who neither want nor are able to carry it! Let it be light: like a day in spring; like the glow of summer like the hour of happiness it is. And do not question! Do not question! Since it stands outside of all laws and morals of people, it is freer and - perhaps also more beautiful for it."
Mackay never made the Gay-Rights error of mistaking a sexual preference for a political agenda. He understood that there exists a psychology of freedom which is a necessary precondition of any politics of freedom. He accepted that love is real, but not to be identified with possessiveness, ego-projection, power-tripping or self-destructive and unconscious behaviour. Thus he was able to depict the negative aspects of prostitution, for example, without losing sympathy for the unique persons caught up in its sadness and/or happiness. (In fact, intriguing minor characters parade through the narrative all but unnoticed by obsessive Hermann or selfish Gunther; only Mackay seems to see them, and he leaves the reader wishing the plot could have offered them larger roles.) Individualist Anarchism devotes itself to the discovery of what it means to be human, beyond all masks of religion, law, moralism, race, class and culture - and thus perhaps anarchism is the only political philosophy capable of dealing with love as a psychological reality beyond all bullshit, beyond all role-playing, beyond all the narrow demands of Church, state, Family and School.
As an anarchist, Mackay enriched the chilly egoism of Nietzsche and Stirner with a genuine (and non-sentimental) warmth. As a boy-lover, Mackay evolved beyond the sly death-drunk paedophilia of Thomas Mann, the Graeco-humbuggery of Stefan Georg, the emotionless hedonism of Gide - and went on to envision a boy-love without neurosis - even in the midst of horrendous persecution and nearly universal blindness. For this alone The Hustler deserves our closest attention.
As an artist however Mackay failed to produce a book as well written as Death in Venice or The Immoralist. His notion of symbolism, for example, extends to producing a heat-wave which bakes Berlin while Hermann longs for Gunther, and a thunderstorm to accompany their first love-making. Compared, say, to the profound and subtle weather-symbolism of Musil's Man Without Qualities, this is painfully sophomoric. From a purely aesthetic point of view the best part of the book is the description of the hustler's milieu - well observed and skillfully rendered. The affair of Gunther and Hermann, while convincing enough, lacks a certain interest because neither character has any real sense of self - no wit, no irony, no doubleness. But artistically worst of all is the last part of the book, where Hermann's inner life is reduced to a preachy harangue, lacking all dramatization and thus nearly lifeless - despite the beauty of Mackay's sentiments (quoted above).
As for Hubert Kennedy's translation, although a few Germanisms have crept in, it reads smoothly - contemporary, but without violating the flavour of the period. His introduction and notes are informative and assured - and the book contains a delightful map and old photographs of places mentioned in the text. The cover, a plate from the vanished homophile magazine Der Eigene (which published some of "Sagitta's" polemic pieces) is both appropriate and elegant (unlike the artwork in most Alyson publications). The typesetting is enhanced with art-deco capitals, and the whole book is tastefully produced.
Despite its flaws The Hustler will be devoured non-stop by any boy-lover with even the slightest taste for books, because its ultimate value is not precisely literary. In fact anyone interested in the sort of book in which an extraordinary individual expresses himself without reservation ought to be charmed and fascinated by The Hustler. To read such a book is to experience a life rather than merely reflections of ideas about life - and for such an experience one may overlook all sorts of structural and stylistic faults.
Mackay convinces by the burning of his soul, not by the elegance or cleverness of his writing. Death in Venice may be a masterpiece, but its life is abysmal and repulsive. If I were to choose a book to live by, I'd much sooner pick The Hustler.
Review originally published in Pan: a magazine about boy-love, XXI (Amsterdam, December 1985), pp. 20-22.
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