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Old, bedridden Rickhardt von Bek lies dying, circa 1936--and his bitter directives to an aged man-servant are interwoven with nostalgic, rueful, erotic memories of 1897: the year of playboy Ricky's obsessive affair with a headstrong Lolita, amid the destruction of Europe's most exquisite little city and its famous, idyllic whorehouse. In the first of the three long chapters that make up this short novel (published in Britain in 1982), Ricky--son of a rich German official (""close to Bismarck"")--recalls the old World glories of his favorite city, Mirenburg, sedate capital of the Middle European principality of Waldenstein. Even more longingly, he remembers Alexandra, the wellborn 16-year-old who was his eager, lusty mistress in fin-de-siÉcle Mirenburg: ""She requests instruction. I am inventive. . .Sexually I am a chameleon."" And, though Ricky occasionally frets about Alexandra's youth, ""I still cannot determine which of us exploits the other. . ."" Then, as recollected in Chapter Two, Ricky--to add further stimulation to the liaison--introduces Alexandra to Frau Schmetterling's elegant, comfy brothel, which ""has the ambience of an integrated nation, hermetic, microcosmic."" Here Alexandra embraces the decadent pleasures of cocaine, threesomes, ""ivory dildoes,"" and S&M, growing particularly attached to one of the whores and one of the guests (a titled British lesbian). Despite sporadic guilt--""Have I no morality left to me, after all?""--Ricky joins in the escalating ""erotomania."" But when civil war breaks out in Waldenstein (Chapter Three), the beautiful city is reduced to rubble; the brothel is transformed from a lush hideaway to a desperate hideout as the bombardments draw ever closer; and the ""wholesome lechery"" of the Ricky/Alexandra affair sours into jealousy and betrayal. ""One should never attempt to possess a beautiful whore, or hold on to the soul of a child, nor assault an idea as fragile as Mirenburg."" Like Moorcock's more ambitious historical novels (Byzantium Endures, The Laughter of Carthage), this mock-memoir is often densely vivid in its evocation of bygone European moods and manners. But the details aren't zesty enough (except perhaps for connoisseurs of erotica) to compensate for the static, uninvolving nature of Ricky's disheartening sexual adventure. And, with the brothel an obvious yet unconvincing symbol of Old Europe on the brink of extinction, this blend of sex and political history (with strained parallels between the two) is superficially impressive, ultimately shallow and inanimate.

Pub Date: July 8th, 1987
Publisher: Carroll & Graf