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Reading Beyond Isherwood for Queer Joy in Weimar Berlin

How queer was Berlin in the 1920s really? Emily Wilson compares Christopher Isherwood's beloved novels to the lesser-known story collection of Granand, which unapologetically celebrates the beauty of queer joy.
von Emily Wilson (she/her), 02.11.2023

As queer readers, we are often on the hunt for representation in fiction, as well as recognition, validation and examples of queer joy. In 1929, homosexual writer Christopher Isherwood was looking for this in his own life when he received a letter from his good friend W.H. Auden telling him to come to Berlin – a city which the letter described as “a bugger’s daydream”. Keen to escape what he called the “heterosexual dictatorship” of his life in England, Isherwood enjoyed everything that queer Berlin had to offer. It was there, too, that he wrote the diaries that would be the basis for his Berlin stories – Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939).

In many literary circles, Isherwood himself is most praised for capturing the gay 1920s in these novels. However, despite Isherwood’s own homosexual experiences in the city (covered in his 1979 autobiography Christopher and His Kind), his Berlin stories are not as representative of queer experiences as commonly believed, and we easily fall into the trap of mistaking fiction by a queer writer for queer fiction. Fact is, that while Isherwood was a homosexual writer writing about Berlin, for readers looking to discover this epoch through a queer lens, Isherwood’s Berlin stories may well be a disappointing reflection of the culture.

So, when we look beyond Isherwood, we must ask ourselves which writers were covering these unique conditions in Weimar Berlin and where can we find this queer joy? The answer, I think, lies in Garden of Erotic Delights – a collection of five short stories written by Erwin Ritter von Busse and published under the penname Granand in 1919.

Just how queer was Berlin in the 1920s?

As was the case in many places after the end of the first world war, Berlin saw a period of social upheaval and disillusionment that led to a rejection of traditional values and norms in the early 1920s. There was, however, something unique about Berlin in the years of Germany’s first parliamentary democracy. The period which we now commonly refer to as the Weimar Republic was a surprising space for the nurturing of a queer society and culture. Here are just a few examples:

·         In the interwar years, Berlin was home to over 100 queer bars (more than any city today),

·         Due to relaxed censorship rules, at the height oft he interwar Berlin queer scene 25-30 homosexual periodicals were being published in Berlin weekly – the first of their kind in the world,

·         Police were tolerant of queer bars and clubs, male sex work and queer balls, allowing queer nightlife to grow,

·         In 1919, Magnus Hirschfeld opened the first centre for homosexual activism in the Tiergarten, which he named the Institute for Sexual Science. Here, he carried out the world’s first gender-affirming surgeries, educated people about homosexuality, and much more,

·         Celebrities like Claire Waldoff came out and lived openly in queer relationships – something which still causes a stir in the media today.

Despite the existence of Paragraph 175, the law that made sex between men illegal, there were spaces of queer joy in Berlin at this time – spaces that we don’t see in Berlin Isherwood’s novels, but which we certainly do in Granand’s collection. But how does Granand explore queer joy and why could he do it when Isherwood couldn’t? Let’s get into it.

Queer joy and acceptance in Granand’s Garden of Erotic Delights

The real queer joy that comes from Granand’s collection is its unquestioning representation. Where Isherwood gives us only one (very problematic) example of a queer relationship across his Berlin stories, each story from Granand’s “magical little collection” (in the words of Michael Gillespie, translator of the 2022 edition) covers a different gay relationship and celebrates queer joy through character, setting and the exploration of queer codes for positive representation. His characters are rich and varied, representing students, aesthetes, thieves, American businessmen, sex workers and even a trio of cadets (even if they are all men), and in each story at least one character is transformed for the better by his experience of queer love – which, though not explicitly described, is very much present. Characters kiss and go to bed together and use terms like “lovers”, “boyfriend” and even “marriage” to label their relationships, thus validating them officially. In all, the collection of stories offers a true sense of satisfaction, often not even found in modern reads – a sense of being seen, of being validated and accepted, where queerness is central to everyday life and transcendent of boundaries and circumstance. Beyond acceptance, Granand’s stories offer celebration.

This celebration is perhaps most literally seen in the first story of the collection, ‘The Nemesis’, where lovers Trudy and Erich attend two different queer balls. Granand uses these parties to transform the iconic Weimar Berlin nightlife into a space of queer joy and freedom - and he shies away from almost nothing to do so. Alongside first-time attendee Erich, the reader watches as men dance “in a slow, intimate waltz, with passionate feeling”, “kiss in the corners and sit on one another’s laps”, and gaze into each other’s eyes. Gender expression, too, is given space. Granand writes: “Some of the gentlemen appear in women’s clothing, wearing heavy make-up and displaying touchingly large hands and feet”. The attendees appear totally free of judgement, unselfconscious and safe in a time which we know was generally very homophobic. By presenting them in this way, Granand doesn’t just write a party scene, but something far more than that – a space where “there are no lies! Here is simple humanity, all poor sinners if you like, doing what they cannot help and being who they are.”

Of course, these short excerpts from ‘The Nemesis’ are just one example of queer representation from many in the lively and exciting stories. We could just as easily speak of how “the nocturnal love duet begins [...] freely and boldly in the bright morning light” in ‘American Style’, or the supportive nature and long-term plans of the lovers in ‘The Cadets’, where one of the men says: “We’ll be together forever, we’ll enlist in the same regiment… We want to really support each other’s ambitions”. Ultimately, they prove that this is not a version of Weimar Berlin that has been “developed, carefully printed, fixed”, as Isherwood writes of his account at the beginning of Goodbye to Berlin, but one that has been freely shared - authentic and intimate. Whether you are attending queer balls with Trudy and Erich Gruner’ (a classic case of lovers, to enemies, to – well, you’ll have read it and find out), experiencing queer desire for the first time with the burglar in ‘Nocturne’, or witnessing missed connections in ‘American Style’ (an uncannily similar story to Call Me By Your Name), Granand takes you through each story as an experienced guide willing to share this side of the culture. He gives the insider look that Isherwood is so often criticised for lacking. 

Give queer joy a space on your shelf

So, given this, why doesn’t Granand feature when we talk about queer literature of the 1920s and why does Isherwood still dominate this topic? Ultimately, we can’t deny that Isherwood’s works are beautifully written and give a unique English-language perspective into Berlin on the brink of the Great Depression and Hitler’s rise to power. As a middle-class, Oxford educated, white English man who ran in popular literary circles among the likes of W.H. Auden and Virgina Woolf, Isherwood is a safe option for many non-queer readers and non-German-speakers looking to dive into the topic. The fact that he was writing in English also allowed him to grow as a personality away from writing – on stage and on the screen. The growth of his celebrity of course contributed to his fame and the status of his Berlin stories. 

In my opinion, the problem is not Isherwood’s acclaim, but rather his prominence as the authority on queer Berlin in the Weimar Republic specifically, when his stories only sparingly explore queer themes and settings. For the modern reader, more can be expected from queer fiction and this can be found in the fiction of Isherwood’s contemporaries, including Granand.

Sadly, Granand’s book was banned by two separate German courts in Berlin and Leipzig in 1920 and 1921 for reasons of “indecency”. It remained out of public view for around 70 years after that. We know little about Granand and his life – but we do know that these stories are still worth reading. If you are interested in uncovering another side of the Weimar Republic, or just in reading a couple of stories that utterly celebrate queer joy, I completely recommend you source yourself a copy of Granand’s Garden of Erotic Delights. Michael Gillespie’s translation is the perfect way for you to dive into a new and different cultural narrative of queer joy of Berlin in the Weimar Republic - and a lot of gay kissing.