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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Brecht's Mistress

Jacques-Pierre Amette

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To purchase Brecht's Mistress

Title: Brecht's Mistress
Author: Jacques-Pierre Amette
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 228 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Brecht's Mistress - US
Brecht's Mistress - UK
Brecht's Mistress - Canada
La Maîtresse de Brecht - Canada
La Maîtresse de Brecht - France
  • French title: La Maîtresse de Brecht
  • Translated by Andrew Brown
  • Awarded the Prix Goncourt, 2003

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting approach to Brecht and post-war East Germany -- and love and spying

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Criterion . 1/2004 Anthony Daniels
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/4/2006 Neil Gordon
The Spectator . 27/12/2003 Anita Brookner
TLS . 12/12/2003 Ian Brunskill

  From the Reviews:
  • "Unfortunately, all Amette’s book does is convey an atmosphere: a sub-Chekhovian evocation of East Berlin during its hardest years. There is not much characterization of Brecht, and certainly no examination of his horrible equivocations. (...) I doubt that La maîtresse de Brecht will be read in a hundred years’ time, but the award of the prize will at least increase its sales" - Anthony Daniels, The New Criterion

  • "Amette's novel is, perhaps, deliberately rather Brechtian in its technique of alienating, or distancing, the audience through dramatic devices that undercut theatrical illusion. (...) But while Brecht's anti-naturalism illuminated and ironically commented on the nature of drama (and by extension, of reality), it's not clear that Amette accomplishes either." - Neil Gordon, The New York Times Book Review

  • "That maturity and versatility -- the dramatist's ear for dialogue, the screenwriter's eye for the details of location, the critic's relish for ideas -- are everywhere evident in La Maitresse de Brecht, a delicate, elegiac tale of political failure and defeated love. Amette's narrative is tightly controlled, his prose spare, often beautiful, precisely judged; there is a sense of the importance of what goes unsaid. (...) What might have been an arid retelling of history and ideas, becomes a persuasive drama of hope and disappointment, and a powerful evocation of a vanished time and place." - Ian Brunskill, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       After World War II and an exile of some fifteen years, Bertolt Brecht returned to Germany. He chose to settle in the Soviet zone, in East Germany, where he led the Berliner Ensemble. His theatre group was highly regarded (domestically and abroad), but also viewed with considerable suspicion by the Soviet masters (and their local representative).
       Brecht's international stature made him nearly untouchable (though he did choose to hold onto what amounted to a get-out-of-jail (i.e. East Germany)-free card in the form of an Austrian passport when he settled in Berlin -- a fact Amette oddly fails to mention). Nevertheless, the authorities took considerable interest in everything he did, and Amette's novel is a fictional inside-account of how they kept an eye on him.
       Brecht's mistress of the title is Maria Eich, a young actress who, by post-war standards, is very guilty by association. Her husband was a particularly nasty Nazi (who managed to escape to Portugal, leaving wife and young daughter behind), and her parents were similarly inclined. The east German authorities tell her she'd have even more trouble in the American zone, and offer her a good deal: they'd get her a position in the prestigious Berliner Ensemble (and papers so that she'd have no trouble visiting her daughter, living with her mother in the western half of Berlin) if she, in turn, would spy on Brecht. She agreed.
       Brecht's womanizing is legendary, and Maria becomes yet another woman handy to have around for the taking. She's also at least a passable actress, and plays a variety of roles, including some significant ones. All the while she's also photographing all of Brecht's papers, and writing reports on everything she hears. There's little that's particularly useful -- and a surprising amount that's duplicated, as she is obviously not the only in-house spy. Indeed, the book is less concerned with Brecht's politics and uncovering secrets: it's a spy novel only insofar as it demonstrates the waste of time and effort, and the personal cost of this sort of invasion of privacy. What Amette is more concerned with are the personal dynamics.
       Brecht isn't really the central figure, though he is the pole around which all revolves. But his stature leaves him as little more than a figure to be observed: there's nothing much that can be done about him. Amette's portrait is guarded and feels like it is at a certain remove: just as he is for many of the characters, Brecht remains essentially unknowable, an odd sort of mystery man.
       Maria is one of the almost interchangeable women-cogs in his life, occasionally favoured, occasionally bedded. Amette's deliberately presents it in this odd way:

     It sometimes happened that Brecht would summon Maria into his smal study-bedroom. In general, this is how it went: Maria would lie down, and be slowly undressed. After the erotic phase, the master would take a shower. Maria surreptitiously photographed the documents on the wooden table.
       Amette emphasises Maria's passivity, with Brecht completely in control (she doesn't get undressed, she would "be [...] undressed"), What they do hardly sounds like sex (here or elsewhere), and it certainly does not involve anything resembling the usual give and take between sexual partners. Among the few more explicit descriptions is one where Brecht replaces "his failing virility with a hair brush" (which does not appear to have been Maria's idea) -- suggesting a need for some sort of conquest (even by proxy) that Amette unfortunately does not delve into more deeply.
       At one point:
She thought, 'He doesn't take me, he subjects me to a body search'
       It doesn't seem entirely adequate, but by photographing his papers and reporting on him, Maria is, of course, also taking Brecht, in a manner of speaking (and her nosing around is, if not as intimate as the body searches, equally intrusive in a different sphere). Spying is one of the few ways Maria can exert any control or regain some self-respect (though it's hardly satisfying given that she has compromised herself by getting involved in this whole charade in the first place).
       What Brecht's needs are -- purely sexual ? a need to display his dominance over women ? a desire to understand her (as the 'body search'-approach might imply ) ? -- isn't made clear. Amette's Brecht, here and elsewhere, is decidedly ambiguous, his intentions, desires, even some of his beliefs remaining ultimately unfathomable. That's part of the point: that spies are trying to find the secrets (or the truth) and can't just reinforces the idea.
       The other significant figures in the novel are the spy-duo of Hans Trow and Theo Pilla. Trow is the one who enlists Maria, and whom she reports to. Pilla does more hands-on work. Matters are complicated by the fact that Trow and Maria are also attracted to one another, but can't act on their desire. He represses his feelings, but even then Trow isn't exactly the ruthless spy-master of Cold War movies. In fact, he's a softy.
       Maria makes her choice and goes to the West. Ironically, she can't escape her fate: the Americans have her report on all she knows, the same senseless yet seeming endless questioning that never provides any real or new answers or information.
       The novel is oddly and somewhat misleadingly divided into three parts labeled clearly with a place and date, though in fact the short chapters run fairly smoothly chronologically, making these demarcations more confusing than anything else (the last is presented as: East Berlin 1952, yet almost immediately jumps to West Berlin, and with barely any of it taking place in 1952 -- indeed, within ten pages the reader finds him/herself in 1961). Several major events are touched upon, but generally only glancingly; Amette is more suggestive than descriptive in considering specifically Brecht's actions (such as his letter in support of Ulbricht in 1953 after the demonstrations of 17 June) For the most part this is quite effective, but especially for those not familiar with Brecht's biography or German history in the post-war period it may seem somewhat vague.
       The story is Maria Eich's, and once she has left Brecht's orbit he is an even more distant and mysterious figure, his actions (and even his death) considered only second-hand and from a distance. Her conscience troubles her -- "Would she one day be able to justify herself for having spied on Brecht ?" she wonders even long after she has stopped -- but this is a novel dominated by moral -- and other -- ambiguities. Circumstances lead most of the characters to be hopelessly compromised, unable to be true to themselves (though Maria eventually makes a start of it) -- with Brecht standing out even more as a polarizing figure for being someone who apparently does only and exactly as he wants. And yet Amette suggests even he compromised himself.
       Brecht's Mistress is an interesting historical novel. Amette's surface-skimming approach is possibly a bit too light for readers accustomed to being told everything and buried in detail, but he has an appealing style and there's an intriguing story here as well.

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Brecht's Mistress: Reviews: Bertolt Brecht: Books by Bertolt Brecht under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jacques-Pierre Amette was born in 1943.

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