A PRINCESS IN BERLIN by Arthur R. G. Solmssen
Kirkus Star


Email this review


An autumnal but mica-sharp assessment of the diseased disarray of post-WW I Germany--as seen, in and around the curiously immobile circles of titled or monied German/Jewish families, by young Philadelphian painter Peter Ellis. Ellis is persuaded by Christoph Keith, the German officer whose life he saved during the war, to live and study in Berlin with the aristocratic Keith family, which includes younger brother Kaspar--an ex-officer cadet, a graduate of a street massacre, an anti-Semitic anti-Socialist who wants only a ""strong, proud Germany."" Ellis also meets Christoph's friends, the Jewish von Waldsteins, a banking family that claims to have been ""inextricably rooted in the culture and the history and the Kingdom of Prussia and the German nation since the eighteenth century. . . ."" So, enjoying the elegant civility of the von Waldstein ""island""--the Tea House, the lake, the Schloss, the gentle vistas--Ellis monitors this family, along with financial and intellectual associates who embrace a variety of political stances (from older generation certainties to the spasmodic enthusiasms of the younger). Also there are the lovely Princess Helena, courted by Christoph, and Lili von Waldstein, with whom Ellis falls in love. And, with somewhat bothered detachment Ellis will sample another milieu too: the grimy household of his teacher Falke, with the two nymphet models, Baby and Barbel. But initially remote Ellis will soon be abruptly pulled down in the coming maelstrom when Christoph involves him--via a night ride and smuggled drugs--in removing Kaspar from a plot to assassinate the Jewish foreign minister Rathenau. Kaspar, in revenge, will murder his brother and Helena. . . and Ellis will kill Kaspar, returning home without Lili (how could a Baroness be sent to an anti-Semitic country?) but with his painting, ""A Princess in Berlin""--nude Barbel with one black stocking. In spite of such worn symbolism and familiar echoes from Isherwood to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Solmssen (Rittenhouse Square, Alexander's Feast) makes virtuoso use of fragmented dialogue (as time-lapse shocks into tragedy) and of meticulously detailed political/economic tremors, all of it splendidly exposing a society in extremis. Impressive historical fiction--Solmssen's most ambitious and acute work yet.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Little, Brown