Thursday, 13 February 2014
Moralists adrift: Kästner and Walser
I was going to put 'idealists' but strictly speaking while Swiss genius Robert Walser's alter ego, the sublimely detached Simon Tanner in his 1906 novel about the siblings of that name, fits the bill, Erich Kästner's advertising copywriter Jacob Fabian, more or less alone in 1930s Berlin, tends rather to an ironic pessimism. I read the novels in quick albeit unhistoric succession, finding as many correspondences as differences.
Their styles could not be more different. As as you'd expect from the author of Emil and the Detectives, the prose of Kästner's Going to the Dogs (published in the original German as Fabian: The Story of a Moralist) is laconic and ironic. Walser's unique, unbearable lightness is expressed in lyric flights of fancy and long speeches in which the bizarre characters think aloud, stream-of-consciousness wise. I bought The Tanners, incidentally, partly on what my blogging friend Susan Scheid has written about Walser's microscripts, partly because the introduction was written by the late, great W G Sebald, whose seemingly free-flowing style takes a cue from Walser and who characteristically includes plenty of intriguing photographs as in his bigger works.
Both provide equally fascinating portraits of their times. Tanner's novel is very difficult to date, for a while at least - and since my edition didn't give the publication year, I was guessing for some time. It's the poetic descriptions of summer evenings in the city with big-hatted, long-dressed women drifting along, that suggest fin-de-siecle pictures of Edwardian ladies. I'm especially thinking, though the background scenes are completely different, of the Skagen painters in northern Denmark, not least Peter Severin Krøyer in his Summer evening on the Skagen southern beach with Anna Anker and Marie Krøyer.
The lightness I mention is also, of course, an evasion. One senses that Simon Tanner can't go on for ever, moving on from job to job until he ends up in a charitable copywriting institution which doesn't even pay his rent (a dea ex machina hovers at the end). He seems to remain, like Mark Tapley in Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit, jolly in unpromising circumstances, but the sands of time are running out. As they did for Tanner, who spent decades in a mental asylum, soon restored, it seems, to health but refusing to leave. His death is as uncannily anticipated in The Tanners as was Pushkin's by the killing of callow young poet Vladimir Lensky by Eugene Onegin in a senseless duel.
In short, Walser went out for one of his walks from the asylum, this time in the snow of Christmas Day 1956, and was found dead of a heart attack, lying there, captured thus by a photograph which has been much reproduced and turned into art. Just so, on one of his many mountain ascents, Simon discovers the poet Sebastian. 'Looking at him, one couldn't help feeling he hadn't been strong enough for life and its cold demands'. And in his self-communing eulogy, he declares:
What splendid peace: reposing and growing stiff beneath fir branches in the snow. You couldn't have chosen anything better. People tend to inflict harm upon eccentrics - and this is what you were - and then laugh at their pain. Give my greetings to the dear, silent, dead beneath the earth and don't get too badly scorched in the eternal fires of nonexistence...Farewell. If I had flowers, I'd strew them over you. For a poet one never has flowers enough...I cannot know what you have suffered. Your death beneath the open stars is beautiful. I shall not soon forget it.
There's another surprising death of a friend in Going to the Dogs. Not to mention a shockingly abrupt ending. But the actions of hero Fabian, faced with even more desperate employment prospects in post-1929 Berlin, have such a daily beauty about them. It's a picaresque ramble round the clubs, brothels, offices and private rooms of the city, knitted together symphonically in the kind of dream-sequence also favoured in Emil and told from a perspective which, even if this weren't such fine literature, would be more valuable as insider documentation than, say, Isherwood's novellas (and Going to the Dogs doesn't even have the benefit of hindsight; it was published in 1931, not long after Emil). So, of course, are those in the novels of Hans Fallada, but I sense an even greater all-round candour here. Sex is portrayed realistically, sometimes comically, perversions accepted without censure; political idealism is dismissed by Fabian, apologising to a friend who wants to initiate a 'radical bourgeois pressure group' among the young for
not believing that you can ever make reason and power lie down together. Here you have, unfortunately, an antinomy. My conviction is that there are only two alternatives for mankind in its present state. Either mankind is dissatisfied with its lot, and then we bash each other over the head to improve things, or, and this is a purely hypothetical situation, we are content with ourselves and the universe, and then we commit suicide out of sheer boredom. The result is the same. What use is the most perfect system as long as people remain a lot of swine?
Nevertheless Kästner did have a blueprint for 'the triumph of decency' and human change, and he was still around for the post-1945 West German government to take some notice. He campaigned for peace and on anti-nuclear issues up to his death in 1974. A Mensch indeed, and nothing sums up him or his writing for adults - which essentially is the same as that for children - better than this passage. Fabian has just seen his mother off on the train back to the provincial town where he grew up, and returns to his flat.
There were flowers on the table, and a letter. He opened it. A twenty-mark note dropped out, and a scrap of paper. 'A little present. Love. Mother,' was written on it. There was something else at the bottom of the sheet: 'Eat the cutlet first. The sausage will keep for some days in grease-proof paper.'
He put the twenty-mark note in his pocket. There was his mother in the train; very soon she would find the twenty-mark note he had slipped into her handbag. Mathematically considered, the result equalled nothing. For both were now as poor as they had been before. But good deeds are beyond book-keeping. The moral and the arithmetical equations work out differently.