Friday, 13 May 2016

Book Review: The Red House by Else Jerusalem

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2016 review of a book written
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Vienna around 1900 is often idealised as a hub of European culture and as a hotbed of science and modern arts, which the capital of multiethnic Austria-Hungary under elderly Emperor Francis Joseph I certainly was, but place and time were also marked by growing decadence. The number of registered and secret prostitutes in the city – estimated 50,000 of nearly 1.7 million inhabitants – indicates that things weren’t at their best. Nonetheless, it was as if those more or less miserable women, many of them in fact or almost children, didn’t exist. It was a taboo to mention them as it was to talk about sex in general, a taboo that the novel The Red House by Austrian writer Else Jerusalem clearly broke portraying the lives of prostitutes in a brothel and centring on Milada who was born into the milieu. It’s inevitable that she becomes a prostitute, but she feels the desperate need to help and end the misery.

Else Jerusalem was born Else Kótanyi in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, in November 1877. She studied Philosophy at the University of Vienna for four years, but was excluded from taking exams and formally graduating for being a woman. In the following years she was active as a performer and writer. In 1899 she brought out the highly controversial collection of three novellas titled Venus am Kreuz (Venus on the Cross) that dealt with prostitution. In the same line followed the novella collection Komödie der Sinne (1902; Comedy of Senses) and her only novel The Red House (Der heilige Skarabäus: 1909) that became a bestseller and was translated at least into English. After her divorce from Alfred Jerusalem (whom she had married in 1901), she remarried in 1910, immigrated to Argentina with her husband Viktor Widakowich (who was a professor at the University of Buenos Aires), and practically disappeared from the literary scene. As far as is known, Else Jerusalem died in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in January 1943.

In the late 1800s, Milada grows up in The Red House in Vienna’s red-light district where her mother known as Black Katerine lives and works. She arrived from Bohemia with her childhood friend Janka when she was pregnant with Milada and right away, one of the many women in town engaged in prostitution spotted the two young as well as beautiful strangers to initiate them in the prosperous business. While Janka only sacrifices herself for the sake of her friend, proud Katerine embraces the trade to take revenge on Janka’s rich cousin who refused to marry her. Janka manages to convince Katerine to send Milada to convent school in the hope that the girl will be attracted to the pious life of the nuns, but it doesn’t work out because she is headstrong like her mother and too impressed by the superficial glamour of the prostitutes around her. When Milada is eleven years old, things change for the so far independent lodgers of the Red House because Mrs. Goldscheider, the new owner, turns it into an elegant brothel. She picks only a few of the former lodgers to work for her, among them Katerine who within a short time withers, gets sick and eventually dies. Milada stays on as a maid at first and as from fifteen years old as a prostitute although her character isn’t cut out for it. She is hardworking, stern, sensitive and in addition intelligent as well as eager to learn. When greedy, but inexperienced Miss Miller buys the brothel, Milada soon advances to the position of manager, gets a good share of the revenues and takes care that the girls are as well as they can be under the circumstances. By the time she is twenty-one years old, Milada is tired and haunted by disgusting memories. Then the medical student Gust Brenner appears on the scene and they fall in love. His father, however, is one of the richest men in town and thus their relationship is doomed.

It’s a colourful and shattering picture that the novel The Red House paints of the lives of sex workers in glamorous Vienna around 1900. Although the strictly chronological plot and characters are entirely fictional, the constant abuse and misery that those women live every day are only too real and I dare say that overall the fate of prostitutes hasn’t changed that much until this day. The original German edition of the novel came out in 1908, became a bestseller and remained in print until at least 1954, while the 1932 English edition seems to be the only one ever. Today this timeless milieu study is a largely forgotten classic even here in its country of origin. Mind you, I never heard of the author or the book until I came across them searching for the works of female Austrian writers of the early twentieth century on the internet! Critics considered the ending rather naïve and this may in fact be true, but then the author only gives her protagonist a future – that may be happy and successful or not like when a romance novel ends with a wedding. The language of the German edition feels exceedingly authentic thanks to the frequent use of direct speech written in the local dialect and the rich idiom of immigrants from parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where other languages than German were spoken, notably Bohemia. At the same time this has at times been quite a challenge because after more than a hundred years certain expressions are no longer in use or have never been in use in my part of Austria.

It’s true that prostitution isn’t a theme in which I have a particularly keen interest and yet fate would have it that The Red House by Else Jerusalem is already the second book of the kind that got into my hands this year (»»» read my review of The Diary of a Lost Girl by Margarete Böhme). I am happy to say that reading it has been an amazing experience! Who would ever have expected that such a timeless gem of literature could remain forgotten in the depths of libraries for decades? Moreover, the novel has been made into a silent film titled The Green Alley (Die Rothausgasse) in 1929 and at least some enthusiasts will still know it. At any rate, The Red House by Else Jerusalem calls for being rediscovered and reissued, but maybe you can dig out a copy of the English edition somewhere already now… or convince a publisher to bring out a new edition.

Nota bene:
Since Else Jerusalem died early in 1943, her work is in the public domain. A digital edition of the German original titled Der heilige Skarabäus can be downloaded for free from ngiyaw eBooks. Moreover, the small Viennese publishing house Das vergessene Buch has reissued a German edition with a very useful afterword by the scholar Brigitte Spreitzer from the University of Graz in October 2016.

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This review is a contribution to:

http://www.peekabook.it/2015/12/2016-women-challenge.htmlhttp://www.read52booksin52weeks.com/

15 comments:

  1. I am faculty at university and have tried to locate Jerusalem's book and cannot find it. Where did you find it for the purpose of this review? Please direct me to a source for The Red House. Many thanks, A.M. T

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    1. I'm sorry, but I have no idea where to get the English edition entitled The Red House (which is why I classified it out-of-print and forgotten classic) because I read the German original. Der heilige Skarabäus can be read online at Austrian Literature Online of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek and it is available as a book-on-demand via amazon. Maybe Andrea Gibbons or someone who commented her article Else Jerusalem and Vienna's Prostitutes can help you, though. Good luck!

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    2. Hi A.M.T. I'm Else's great grandson. If you drop me a note, I can send you a copy I have of the English edition. You can reach me at
      mig_ortiz@yahoo.co.uk
      Regards
      Miguel

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  2. I am current reading an English edition I borrowed through an Interlibrary Loan with my local library. The book is from University of Alabama, Birmingham, Mervyn H. Sterne Library University College. I will be returning it to my library on 12/10/2016. I hope that helps you request and borrow the book.

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    1. Thank you very much for the information! Considering how many access this blog post, the book seems to be much in demand. And you're the first who shared his/her knowledge of where to find an English edition in a library.

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  3. I'm happy to inform you that the new publishing house "Das vergessene Buch" (the forgotten book) with seat in Vienna has republished the long forgotten novel "the red house" in the original german language in October. The novel is bound in white linen, edited and provided with a substantial afterword by Prof. Dr. Brigitte Spreitzer from the University of Graz.
    Maybe an English translation can now be published on better grounds.
    The book can also be bought on amazon:
    https://www.amazon.de/heilige-Skarab%C3%A4us-Brigitte-Prof-Spreitzer/dp/3950415831/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1481575064&sr=8-1&keywords=der+heilige+skarab%C3%A4us

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    1. Thank you very much for the information! I haven't checked for German-language print editions as late, nor have I visited the website of DVD publishers after the end of May (I was hoping for a German edition of Maria Lazar's No Right to Live in time for the letter "L" of my Alphabet of Women Writers).
      It would be great if an English or American publisher brought out a new translation.

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  4. Thanks for writing this! I've been looking for a copy of 1932 English edition with no luck. I'll keep my eyes peeled and come back here to see if anyone has found it.

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    1. I hope that a publisher will finally get the hint and bring out a new translation, but my blog is small and little known...

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  5. That book was translated and published in Finland in Finnish in 1911.

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    1. If that is so, the name of the book and the link to would be lovely. Being a Finn myself, I could read the translation.

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    2. Well, I don't speak Finnish and I can't contact anyone who commented as Anonymous, but on worldcat I found the following bibliographical information:
      Else Jerusalem
      Pyhä sontiainen: kuvaus porttola-elämästä
      Helsinki: Työväen sanomalehti oy, 1911

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    3. By the way, having been an immediate best-seller, Der heilige Skarabäus has been translated into many languages in the first half of the twentieth century although I haven't checked which.

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  6. I'm going to tweet a link to this blog. Maybe if we try to get word out an English translation will be put back in print. It sounds like an important book that shouldn't be forgotten and I would love to read it someday. In the meantime I'm going to try an track it down in a local library, wish me luck!

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    1. Thanks for the tweet! I agree with you that The Red House by Else Jerusalem is an important book that shouldn't be forgotten. It's amazing to see how much this book is in demand... and yet, no new English edition in sight so far. Let's hope that this will change soon, maybe thanks to your tweet.

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