TALES OF VIBRANT GAY LIFE, NO LONGER LOST IN TRANSLATION by Donny Levit
Michael Gillespie celebrates a literary and personal triumph
In October 1650, a pamphlet written by Massachusetts Bay Colonist William Pynchon was the cause of great consternation to Puritan officials. Pynchon was accused of heresy for penning The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption and all copies were promptly burned. This was the first recorded book burning and censorship event in the fledgling United States.
Book banning – or the attempt to do so – is on the rise. According to an American Librarian Association report, there have been no less than 1,651 titles subjected to legal attempts to remove them from libraries throughout the U.S. this year alone.
Just over a century ago, author and theater director Erwin Ritter von Busse published Berlin Garden of Erotic Delights, five stories that explored gay life in early twentieth-century Germany. Publishing under the pseudonym Granand in 1920, his storytelling is witty, vibrant, compassionate – and treats his gay protagonists with grace.
Before long, regional courts in Berlin and Leipzig banned Granand’s work twice – in both 1920 and 1921. The gay characters, depicted without apology or shame, were considered “indecent,” and all copies were confiscated. Granand’s work was forgotten.
Fast-forward to 1993, when Berlin Garden of Erotic Delights was republished in German. That’s when South Orange resident Michael Gillespie comes in. A translator and scholar who holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Indiana University, Gillespie recently retired from teaching global arts and cultures at New York University. He has played a pivotal role in giving new exposure to Granand’s work.
As Gillespie tells it, he’s not exactly sure where he stumbled upon the stories. One possibility is that he came across it while visiting Berlin at the Schwules Museum (Queer Museum), a grassroots effort that preserves and interprets the history of LGBTQ+ people. However, his husband, Marvin Taylor, believes the discovery took place at A Different Light bookstore (closed for more than a decade) in Manhattan’s West Village. “My now husband, Marvin, remembers me standing in one of its aisles leaning against the shelves engrossed in reading the Granand text and looking up and telling him, ‘I need to buy this.’...But I have no such memory,” Gillespie writes in the translation’s introduction.
In many ways, the story of Gillespie’s journey to publish his English translation of Berlin Garden of Erotic Delights is bookended and inspired by Taylor, who was the long-time director of rare books, manuscripts, and special collections at New York University. The couple has lived in South Orange for 20 years.
In 2019, Taylor suffered the first of two strokes. During the COVID pandemic, Gillespie’s focus was on his husband’s rehabilitation, but in addition he was able to make significant headway on the translation. “The key words describing both this project and Marvin’s recovery are persistence and patience,” he says.
When it came to getting his translation published, however, that persistence and patience had to last almost three decades. “The stories immediately captured my attention,” says Gillespie. “I started translating it simply for my own pleasure and without the prospect of publication in mind. If I had put a lot of effort into finding a publisher, I probably would have become quite discouraged.”
At the same time, Gillespie never let go of the project. “I found myself curiously going back to it every so often…every few years. Most people had no idea that I was working on it at all because I never talked about it,” he says.
In addition to the potent subject matter, Gillespie was intrigued by the way in which Granand’s characters used language. “It’s the quirkiness, in the sense of the word choices that he makes and the narrative intrusions that he brings. He’ll have a long segment in which two characters are talking, and their interaction with each other is very stage-like,” Gillespie says. “It would have been easy to soften or eliminate some of his quirkiness. But I think that would have been a mistake.”
Gillespie uses the opening segment of the story “Nocturne” as a way in which to detail how a small phrase plays a large role in the translation:
In a small crystal tray is an attractive jumble of gold cufflinks studded with small diamonds, tie tacks, rings with beautifully sparkling stones, bracelets made of platinum and gold—everything a bit flashy and, for a young man, which Freddy after all is, also a tad over the top [translator’s emphasis]. But for Freddy, these things are absolutely no luxuries but more like necessities of life, or, to put it another way, the trappings of his profession.”
The original German reads “Ein wenig viel.” Its literal English translation is “A little much.” Gillespie, however, renders this as “A tad over the top.”
“‘A tad over the top,’” he explains, “has the same meaning as ‘a little much.’ But I think it’s better able to handle that sort of cascade – that catalog of items. It ends up with a note that sings, rather than merely states. It has the capability of supporting that long paragraph, and the alliteration...helps it sing a little bit.”
The very act of providing an English translation for Berlin Garden of Erotic Delights adds Gillespie to the century-long narrative of this book and its censorship. “It’s quite interesting and unfortunately probably more understandable to us now given [our] recent history than it might have before,” says Gillespie. “Censorship was banned in 1919. Now suddenly this book was banned a year later. What it demonstrates, in part at least, is how quickly these things can change – that one day what you thought was regarded as a fundamental constitutional right isn’t. And it’s a little spooky that we now have our own contemporary parallel. The Weimar period is well known as being a weak democracy, unable ultimately to stand up to the emergence of the bullying mobs in the street.”
On a personal level, the act of publishing the English translation is both a triumph to Gillespie as well as to his husband. “He’s been recovering from the strokes for several years,” Gillespie says. “We’ve had to work on his reading and it’s not always been easy. He still has a way to go. But I think of him as a success story thus far.”
Gillespie has put his husband to work. “In terms of this project, I have tried as much as possible to get Marvin involved in it. I told him that he’s my social media manager, because he has far more friends on Facebook than I will ever have. I feed him some material and he really does it and puts it up so it keeps him engaged,” he says. “Persistence and patience – these words connect his recovery and this translation to each other.”
Berlin Garden of Erotic Delights by Granand, translated by Michael Gillespie and with an afterword by Manfred Herzer, was published by Warbler Press on June 8, 2022. The book is widely available and can be purchased locally at Words Bookstore in Maplewood.
Donny Levit is a writer and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. You can hear him DJ his indie rock shows Under the Influence and Newish Radio and his jazz show Kind of Pool on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio, @newishradio, @kindofpoolradio.