Translated by Cyrus Brooks

Introduction by Rodney Livingstone

Two years after Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, Erich Kästner published his excoriating exposé of the dying years of the Weimar Republic.  Mark my words.  This bears no resemblance to the charming Emil and the Detectives. (Mind you, there are enough hints on the book cover ofwhat is to follow….).

Let the author speak for himself, from the epilogue:

This book is not meant for innocents of any age.  The author repeatedly draws attention to the anatomical differences between the sexes.  In several chapters he causes ladies and other women to run around without any clothes on.  He repeatedly draws attention to what is known rather off-puttingly as intercourse.  Nor does he scruple to refer to abnormal sexual practices.  He omits nothing which might lead the guardians of morality to express the view that the author is a purveyor of filth.

To this the author replies: I am a moralist.

This is a point of some controversy.

Case for the prosecution
In this novel men and women prey on each other in the most unfettered way. A husband with a nymphomaniac wife vets her proposed lover before leaving her to her pleasures.  A married woman takes pity on a jobless, hungry young man, only to satisfy other appetites of her own.   A film maker ruthlessly exploits the ambitions of a young actress, who complicit in her own corruption opines “The only way to get out of the mud is to get yourself thoroughly muddy“.  There’s more and worse …

Case for the defence.
All true but contrast their ammorality with that of the protagonist, Jacob Fabian.  A young man who meanders his way through this muck, avoiding its worst excesses.  All Fabian wants is to make a decent living and settle into a loving relationship.  The times he lives in deny him both.  The economic crash sees him join the masses of the unemployed, surviving on a weekly income of DM 24.50, and he loses his girl to the film director mentioned above.  You can see that he is a decent sort of chap in the way he treats his mother, shows compassion to a child shoplifter, and, that finally sickened by the callousness of the society, he retreats from Berlin and returns home to the provinces (Dresden).

Case for the prosecution
Yes, yes but such perversity – surely you coukd have made your point without all this salaciousness?

Case for the defence
Now you’re  missing the point.  The author isn’t presenting things as they were, he is exaggerating them.  The moralist holds up not a mirror but a distorting mirror to his age. (Kästner).  It renders the indictment all the more searing.  Plus this treatment isn’t reserved only for the sexual politics of the day.  Kästner lampoons both left and right wing ideologies, too busy tearing strips out of each other to care about the well-being of their state.  He lampoons the privileged classes, too  high to be interested in anything other than their dissolute lifestyle.  Ideologically Fabian occupies the middle ground – a white-collared liberal beleagured on all fronts.  After his best friend Labude kills himself, in perhaps the most shocking incident of all (and one based on an episode in the author’s life), Fabian is a lost soul.  There can only be one outcome.

Case for the prosecution
This is profoundly depressing. Wouldn’t it make for more uplifting reading to give Fabian a back-bone?

Case for the defence
And turn him into some kind of moral crusader?  This is satire, not farce.  Fabian is a moralist in the Berlin of 1931, a little man, too inconsequential to make a difference, too liberal to align with either of the politcal extremes. The Weimar Republic was on its knees following the crash of 1929.  Democracy had already failed. Germany had been ruled by emergency decree since 1930.  Kästner could see the direction of travel. To turn Fabian into a hero would have negated the underlying message of his extraordinarily prescient novel.

Case for the prosecution (contains spoilers)
The ambiguous ending casts doubt on that prescience.  Couldn’t the fact that Fabian, unable to swim, drowns after jumping into the Elbe to save a young boy, be interpreted as a call to action?  Come on Fabian, it’s high time you learned to swim against the tide of these events?

Case for the defence
Or it could be his final retreat.  I can do nothing.  It is time to leave.  Whichever way the ending is read, the fact remains – Kästner foresaw that there was no place in the Germany to come for people like Fabian.  No wonder this novel is perceived as one of the key novels of the Weimar Republic.

 4_stars.GIF (With thanks to Rodney Livingstone’s introduction for help building the case.)

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2014

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