28 January 2013

Erich Kastner: Garish Days

“Now I am 31, or so they say,
With a small poetry business of my own.
Alas, my hair is starting to go gray,
And all my friends are getting overblown.”
 - Erich Kastner

Two of the best books to appear in 2012 are reissues from the 1920s, specifically the Weimar Republic.  One, Microscripts by Robert Walser(1878-1956)  has never been published in its complete form before.  Walser’s reputations as one of the great modernist writers becomes even clearer with this handsome edition that includes an off-kilter essay by Walter Benjamin and a charming appreciation by Maira Kalman.

Going To the Dogs by Erich Kastner (1899-1974) comes as a surprise.  Poet, novelist, screenwriter, Kastner is known to contemporary readers by his delightful children's book Emil And The Detectives (1929).  A happy coincidence gives license to consider these two writers at the same time.  Kastner, who endured more than a decade in the asylum that was the National Socialist regime in Germany has a darker vision than Walser who spent even more years in a normal insane asylum.  Indeed, Walser himself once declared: "I'm not here to be a writer, I'm here to be a madman."

The period from 1929 to 1933, was one of staggering unemployment as much as runaway inflation in Germany.   Kastner's protagonist Fabian tells his girlfriend Cornelia, “Formerly a gift and a commodity were two quite different things.  Now a gift is merely a commodity that can be bought for nothing.” Social relations were strained to breaking by the need to move in search of work.  Sexual relations were often reduced to little more than a room for the night. All these changes are presented most obviously in the lives of women.  For Kastner the sexual disarray that resulted from the economic freefall revealed more about the health of society than the morals of  individuals.   

 Night clubs had proliferated during the first world war when public dancing was forbidden, and became emblematic social life in Weimar Berlin,   In his book Weimar Etudes Henry Pachter remembered: “Going through the memoirs of some famous people who had access to high society …. I get the impression that they were all writing about the same party, the same one-legged prostitute, the same supplier of cocaine.”   Contemporary readers take pause; Kastner's unsavory cabaret spectacles and bars where patrons communicate by telephone from table to table and women dance in cages have become commonplaces today.

When we meet Jacob Fabian, he is ‘aged thirty-two, profession variable, at present advertising copywriter.’ At the Exotic Bar he is picked up by an attractive woman who takes him home with her.  Fabian feels compromised, however, when  her husband offers him an allowance if he consents to become a regular.  Fabian's landlady is also compromised, a voyeur who spies on her lodgers through keyholes.

Fabian does a lot of walking in the city but for him, it solves nothing.  Aimless, enervated by the impossibility of a normal life, he observes himself with the same detachment he brings to street-shootouts between Fascists and Communists,   most of them unemployed.   These brawls resolve nothing but suit the authorities just fine, he thinks to himself as he turns away.  Fabian loses his job, his girlfriend Cornelia abandons her stduies to work for the sleazy filmmaker Makart, and his friend Labude commits suicide, the victim of a cruel hoax   When Fabian finally commits a moral act, jumping into the river to save a drowning boy, we are told he cannot swim.  A hideous metaphor, but all too apt.

The public that had been charmed two years before by the sweetness of K√§stner’s vision in Emil and the Detectives reacted with indignation to his diagnosis of social decay in Going To The Dogs.  Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera (1928) had couched its scathing portrayal of the metropolis in a heady blend of cabaret-style music with the classical avant-garde.  Alfred Doblin's modernist montage of a novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) tested the endurance of its readers with its dark and lengthy tedium.  Better known is British expatriate Christopher Isherwood's Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) which has had several reincarnations, first as the  play I Am A Camera in 1951 and as a musical Cabaret (1966) and then a movie of the musical (1972).
Kastner, born in Dresden in 1899,  was marked by the fate of his parents: his father, a craftsman forced into low paid factory work by industrialization and his mother, a genteel woman who became a hairdresser and took in boarders to make ends meet  Yet Kastner managed to attend  teacher’s college and earned a doctorate in literature
When the Nazis came to power, Kastner was in Switzerland.  So, while his friends were busy escaping from Germany, Kastner was trying to get back in to care for his elderly  mother.   In the event, he remained throughout the war,  surviving multiple interrogations by the Gestapo only on account of the immense popularity of Emil and the Detectives.

Why Robert Walser chose to write  stories on strips of paper in an imitation of medieval German script is difficult to pin down.    Exactly when he began writing his little pencil stories is unclear but, taken altogether, they constitute a miniature world that we recognize as ours.  Walser explains his method best.   "(C)haracters in books  stand out better, I mean, more silhouettishly from one another, than do living figures, who, as they are alive and move about, tend to lack delineation.”
 “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary.  We already see so much.”

Listening to the radio, riding in an automobile, or waiting for a train, he reacted to modern technology with attentive interest.    “It’s almost romantic to think that in all these countries, be it in the sunlit daytime or at night, trains are indefatigably crossing back and forth.  What a far-reaching network of civilization and culture this implies.  Organizations that have been created and institutions that have been called into existence cannot simply be shrugged off.  Everything that I achieve and accomplish brings with it obligations.  My activity is superior to me.”

Walser's life reads like the plot for a novel by Franz Kafka: a bank clerk and a butler in a Silesian castle ends his days as an inmate in an asylum.   The Swiss-born Walser spent more time at the Waldau Sanatorium  in Berne (twenty-three years)  than he did in Berlin, from 1905 to 1913.   While in Berlin, Walser published three novels.  He was productive and optimistic there. Subsequent developments made him unable to support himself in the metropolis and, downcast, he moved on, the one constant in a peripatetic life that may have made the asylum seem welcoming.   Although Walser recognized the lineaments of mental illness in himself, he attained an enviable wisdom.   His writing is replete with the coming and going and coming and going of what we think of as happiness, "the shakiest of things and also the most solid."

Going To The Dogs by Erich Kastner, translated from the German by Cyrus Brooks, New York, New York Reveiw Books: 2012 (1931) .
Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, New York, New York Review Books: 2012.

Images:   Dodo, given name: Dorte Clara Wolff (1907-1998)  The artist studied at the prestigious Reimann Art School.  She had a successful career in fashion illustration but is best known for her caricatures that appeared in the satirical magazine Ulk, published in Berlin.   If you think her images portray alienation between women and men, you have understood her work.
1. Wedding At The Dachgarten, 1929, Kunstbibliothek, Berlin.
2. Madame Baker, reprinted from Ulk, 1928, State Museum, Berlin.
3. In The Loge, 1929, reprinted from Ulk, State Museum, Berlin.
4. The Hero, 1928, State Museum, Berlin.
5.Sisters, 1928, Jewish Museum of London, UK.
6. The Man With The Glacier Eye , 1928, Jewish Museum of London, UK.

17 January 2013

In The Absence Of Swans

As Henri Riviere depicted it, the Ile des Cygnes ( Island of the Swans), lies deserted under snow.   The winter light produces only pale skinny-fingered shadows of the bare trees.  With the Seine to the left and the right of it, the island seems far from the bustle of Paris in wintertime.   But the empty allee is punctuated by a streetlamp, a sign of civilization,  and the Eiffel Tower is visible in the background.

Once there was no island and no swans lived there.  But, as Louis XIV saw it, in the beginning there was the Sun King and, in his name, all things became possible.   A  century after the Sun King had passed from culture into history, Voltaire agreed with the expansive Louis: "Almost everything was either reinvented or created in his time. "  

Before there could be swans there was the idea of swans.   In the summer of 1676  Louis was enjoying his latest addition to Versailles, a labyrinth  where the  birds swanned  about for the entertainment of royal guests.  His imagination captured, the King pictured  swans  gliding  along the Seine as his guests made the excursion from Paris to Versailles.  So  Louis ordered the purchase of hundreds of expensive water fowl.

Although tiny in size compared to the waterworks Louis had caused to be installed at Versailles,  an island is no insignificant feat of engineering.  Conveniently located between the exclusive 7th and the wealthy16th Arrondissements.of Paris was a nondescript mound of dirt in the middle of the Seine.  If the phrase "mound of dirt" sounds flippant,  its origins in the pollution of a congested urban water highway are prosaic.  The King's engineers were ordered to fill in the land between four tiny islets, one of which the Isle des Vaches (Isle of Cows) had been used by peasant farmers as a place to graze their cattle.

Thanks to the parochialism of competing Parisian politicians this particular  mound of dirt was claimed by two separate jurisdictions,  its history the product of  competitive earth-moving. Whether the island was originally part of a bridge-building project or a natural accretion of soil to remnants of the Siege of Paris, c. 885, is uncertain.   We do know  that King Charles IX  had ordered 1,200 victims of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre to be buried there in 1571.

Critics of the monarch's project fretted that the swans were not cut out for urban life, but Louis ordered the local gendarmes to guarantee their welfare, no simple task.     An island in the middle of a city is valuable real estate that invites exploitation, even one that is only about 2800 feet long and 36 feet wide (850 meters by 11 meters).  After Louis XV granted the island to the City of Paris in 1722,  it was  in turn site of a factory, a mill, and a slaughterhouse.    The American inventor Robert Fulton conducted his early experiments in navigation with steam engines on the Ile des Cygnes in 1802. And then, during the major renovation of the Louvre in 1855, an incalculable amount of debris needed to be disposed of.  Parking it by the Seine in what was an affluent area provoked an early outbreak of NIMBY (not in my backyard), leading the authorities to send  the debris up the Seine in barges to be dumpd on the Ile des Gygnes.

For the International Exposition of 1889,  on the  occasion of the construction of the Eiffel Tower, a small replica of the Statue of Liberty was erected on the island.  Today, you can view both monuments from a single vantage point.  However, the swans have moved upstream to the Jardin des Plantes. 
Image: Henri Riviere, De l"ile aux cygnes, (On the Island of Swans),  ca. 1900, Musee d'Orsay. Paris.