16 February 2009

I Am My Own Wife

This book inspired not only a Pulitzer Prize-winning play but a legion of fans for Von Mahlsdorf and her wonderfully idiosyncratic voice. This is out-and-out inner glamour, East Berlin-style, and Charlotte is the gentle aunt of more unruly offspring like Hedwig, rock-and-roll East Berlin cabaret junkie and one of queer celluloid's most important characters. Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf was born Lothar Berfelde, the son of a distantly aristocratic Markish family on his mother's side, and a brutal military father. Riding crops and uniforms were not for him, however, and he spent hours studying his female classmates ("What a lovely flared skirt and what beautifully embroidered trimming!") whilst his father beat him. He went to live with his great-uncle, who loved him quite simply out of respect for Lothar's eccentric but consuming love of furniture, specifically from the post-Biedermeier, the Gründerzeit. This is Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf's story, a love-song to a country and a culture she is keen to uphold through her collection of its' furniture despite Naziism and the Berlin Wall, and the shadow of bigotry ever-looming. A subtle and old-fashioned transvestite who loves to dust, Charlotte finally finds her home in an old palace which she fills with her obsessive collecting and rejoices "This house is my fate". It is testament to Mahlsdorf's extremely peculiar character that this book succeeds in promoting equality where others haven't. This is not a flippant foray into gay politics, but a firmly personal tale of a furniture collector who lived through an oppressive time and liked to wear a twin set and pearls and play with the cat o' nine tails. Sublime.

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