Translated from German by Sophie Duvernoy
NYRB Classics are quietly building a capsule library of seminal novels from the Weimar Republic. The first I read was Erich Kästner’s shocking Going to the Dogs. (So shocking, in fact, that I had to put it in the dock.) Then there was Alfred Döblin’s modernist masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz. (Which took some getting used to, but I got there with the help of a group read.) They also have also published Vicki Baum’s wonderful Grand Hotel. Now I come to Gabriele Tergit’s never before translated Käsebier Takes Berlin. First impressions? More easily digestible and entertaining than the others. However …. well, I’ll come to that in due course.
1929 and Käsebier is a small time singer performing in what I think is the equivalent of a working men’s club in some backwater of Berlin. His songs hark back to a less complicated time and appeal to his audience’s sentimentality. One night, a journalist sees his show. A review follows …. the club is mobbed thereafter, with people fighting for tickets. Soon the bandwagon is in full motion. Everyone wants a piece of Käsebier – especially for Christmas 1930. And with so many products on the market, including shoes, pens, dust clothes, bubble bath, branded cigarettes, you can
“Walk with Käsebier, write with Käsebier, bathe with Käsebier, smoke Käsebier.”
There’s even an indestructible rubber doll.
A group of business men decide to build an apartment block on the Kurfürstendamm with an integrated theatre for Käsebier. Not that they have consulted with the artist. They’ll reel him in when the project is well underway. It’ll be a slam dunk, except major building projects are fraught with risk and when the business partners can’t agree on what kind of apartments they want to build (luxury accommodation or social housing?), the building contractors are fighting for their existence in the volatile economic situation, and the theatre must be up and running before Käsebier’s fleeting fame disappears, the risks increase exponentially. Inevitably even, as it is 1931 before building works are completed. The world has moved on and is no longer feeling sentimental.
What of the journalists who kickstarted the Käsebier phenomenon? They sit back and watch in amazement. While the business men are bickering amongst themselves, they, too, have issues. Circulation wars! In 1930 Berlin had 40 daily newspapers with a combined circulation of three million copies. An unsustainable situation. Tergit, herself a journalist, is writing from first-hand experience. The first chapters of the novel are set in the vibrant newsroom of the center-left Berliner Rundschau. There is robust discussion and good-natured ribbing among colleagues, a long-time respected editor at the top of his game, and plenty of news. (Which accounts for the delay in publication of the Käsebier review.) But cultural shift is coming. We call it dumbing-down these days, and that’s effectively what the owner of the newspaper effects when he insists on putting coverage of Käsebier’s “successful” European tour on the front page. (In fact it’s also fake news. The tour was a flop.)
In her introduction, the translator points out that this dumbing-down was an indicator of rising anti-semitism given the extent to which Jews valued high-culture or Bildung. Just as Tergit takes an oblique look at Käsebier’s rise to fame (in which the artist actually plays very little part), so too her references to anti-semitism. There are no direct attacks on Jews here. But Miermann, the editor of the Berliner Rundschau, and other characters are assimilated Jews. Not easily identifiable to me but clear enough to Tergit’s contemporaneous audience. Events and his questioning whether assimilation was worth it eventually make Miermann’s heritage clear, but it took Duvernoy’s explanation to help me spot the others.
Which leads me to the “however” in my opening paragraph. I obviously missed some of the nuance. That Käsebier Takes Berlin is a finer satire than I appreciated on first reading, when I was confused by the noise of the chaotic wheeler-dealing, I have no doubt. Perhaps I should have read the introduction before reading the novel in this case? (A rare exception to the rule.) Anyway, I feel a second reading will be forthcoming. That’s something that I will look forward to (which is more than I can say for the aforementioned Kästner and Döblin).