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.


The LondonJazz site said...

What a great piece David. It sparked off all sorts of quick / happy / knee-jerk / tangential thoughts. First my eye was caught by the book design where they's taken Christian Schad's self-portrait and moved the title of a book about Kaestner as 'moralist' to cover up the nipples.

Kaestner wrote my mother a number of short postcards from all sorts of places during his life, always with a wry sideways way of looking at the world. I imagine he would have been amused by that.

Now I'm going to read your piece properly! Seb

David said...

Yes, I love Schad's rather sexy self-portrait with model, and I wondered about the careful coverup: it's an American edition, so would it be transatlantic prudishness?

The other illustrations on the alternative jackets intrigue me, too.

As does your easy revelation of postcards to your mother. Would love to know more, though not necessarily here if you'd rather not.

Anonymous said...

David, I must echo Seb's response about tangential thoughts. There are so many connections to be made in your article, and you make most of them. But they don't stop when you put down your pen! They continue in the readers, self included, and our own connections. The first for me was in your mention of Eugene Onegin. When the title appeared in your post of last August, I was unfamiliar with the opera; since then, we were fortunate here to have the Met production televised by PBS, for those who are not in the New York area. I watched with my opera-loving Aged Relative, for whom the work was also, apparently, unknown (although, did I recognize some of the dance music?). I was especially struck by the statement repeated during the opening scene, "Heaven sends us habit to take the place of happiness," and how little many of the characters remained satisfied with "habit."

I'm most interested in the contrast you discuss in the differing treatments of the deaths of the poets. Lensky's death, as you point out, by senseless duel, seems treated so without feeling, compared with Sebastian's, and Simon's eulogy for him. And here there is another tangent for me: "For a poet one never has flowers enough...I cannot know what you have suffered" recalls to mind Shaw's final and challenging stage direction in Candida, "They embrace. But they do not know the secret in the poet's heart." Among the various poets, Sebastian, though ill-fated, appears to be the only one truly appreciated.

I thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful way you have found of connecting these writers and characters. You illuminate how people can share sensibility, though separated by distance and time; and, even though beginning in different circumstances, can meet at the same point. The lovely quote you choose for ending this piece, "But good deeds are beyond book-keeping. The moral and the arithmetical equations work out differently" perfectly explains the way in which people are closer in their connections than not. -- Elizabeth

David said...

You know, Elizabeth, any 'grazing' readers might think this is a bit of a love-in, but again I'm so genuinely moved by what you've written. After the bile poured out by fanatical Tippettians over my Arts Desk review of King Priam - where I think I perfectly reasonably pointed out flaws in the musical argument and much bigger ones in the production - it's like coming home from a hostile day in the office to sit round the table with friends.

I think Tchaikovsky has a lot of sympathy for Lensky, much more than Pushkin, who simply mocks him and the way Olga easily forgets him. Onegin does not, of course, and I think Kasper Holten was right to have the poet's body lying at the front of the stage all the way through the final act.

David Damant said...

Give all thou canst; high heaven rejects the lore
of nicely-calculated less or more

[I like the effect of the hyphen]

Susan Scheid said...

From the very title of your post, you’ve caught Walser’s spirit—and clearly Kästner’s as well, though I don’t know his work (yet). I, too, picked up The Tanners as the first of Walser’s novels to try—also on the promise of Sebald’s introduction, which captured his man so well right from the first lines (“from the beginning, he was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways”). One of my favorites among the “long speeches” you mention was Kaspar’s, responding to his brother Klaus’s prodding that he go to Italy “so as to come into his own there as a mature artist.” Too long to quote in full, but here’s part of Kaspar’s wonderful rant in response:

“Why Italy? Am I suffering from an illness, must I be sent to recover in the land of oranges and pine trees? . . . . I find it infuriating when people accuse me of harboring plans to become a better artist in Italy. Italy is just a trap we bumble into if we’re stupendously dumb. Do the Italians come visit us when they wish to paint or write? What use is it to me to go into raptures over bygone cultures? Shall I—if I am honest with myself—have enriched my spirit by these means? No, I’ll just have spoiled it, made it cowardly. . . . In truth, lost, bygone things are never so utterly worthy of our estimation; for when I gaze about me in the present, which is so often disparaged as lacking beauty and grace, I find no dearth of images that delight me and beautiful sights enough to fill both eyes to overflowing. This mania for all things Italian that has strangely, shamefully beset us makes my blood boil.” [102-103]

I picture Walser himself, on one of his long meanders, working himself into an overflowing lather on the subject he puts in Kaspar’s mouth. Or perhaps it’s his own brother Karl’s words he’s taking as his starting point here, who knows? (And speaking of meanders, of course I’m so pleased that my little post of “Gorgeous Somethings” led you to Walser, and now will lead me to Kästner.)

As I write, I’m looking out at about 18” of new snow, give or take. Quite a brilliant day today, trees waving in the wind, and every now and then a huge gust. We’re waiting to be plowed out, but it doesn’t matter. Very happy to be indoors, warm and dry, and look out the windows. Looks more than a bit Nordic out there . . .

David said...

Now that one I knew, Sir David, but would never have had your brilliant thought of yoking it with the last sentence. Thank you.

And your 'rant' is well chosen, Sue. I did want to give more of a sense of those unlikely thinking-out-loud speeches in which our hero and his friends indulge, and thought the opening declaration would have done as well as any, but I was certainly struck by that curious idea of reciprocity (or not) between northern and southern Europe...

Trust you have good supplies. As you write, you're warm and safe, while my heart sinks to think of the good (and bad) people along the Thames and in the Somerset levels. Very good article leading today's Guardian by climate change prof as to why and how we should now be acting. It does no harm to remind people how the present 'it's a lefty fantasy' Minister for the Environment has reduced provisions for events like this by 40 per cent. Another columnist has to point out that the richer folk affected have moaned on about state interference and 'EU laws' for years and now they're crying out for that intervention.

Susan Scheid said...

Had to race right over, on seeing your response to Elizabeth, to check out the TAD "Britten-Tippett" debates, oy! You kept your head, though, and kept to the facts, including confirming the lack of glockenspiel. Nicely done.

As for climate change, yes it's hard to understand how anyone could refuse to recognize the import of all these extremes, and yet, and yet. Terrible about the flooding, just terrible.

PS: I do love the way David D wings in with the wonderful quotes. And a PPS to David D about Saint Petersburg, David N was right in his surmise. We hope against hope for better times, as we would love to go there.

PPS: David N: You may be amused to know that the capcha today shows a teddy bear with a ribbon-tie around its neck and asks us to type in things like "chocolates" and "true love."

David said...

Oh, I know, Sue, there's no pleasing some fanatics. I mean, I admire the piece and it holds my interest, even in a production as poor as that, but it just doesn't move me and I have to ask whether that's my blind spot or certain shortcomings in the actual material, however brilliantly orchestrated.

Re your PS - yes, I was thinking how much I loved the apt quotations too. And the PPS: I'm waiting for the word 'commercialism' and 'exploitation' to pop up. Preferably to the sound of kerchinging cash registers and the beep of credit cards. Well, I'm alone in Lyon, having had a lovely morning of cakes from Bagariet at home with the diplo-mate, and off to have a little meal solus before interviewing Vadim Repin here tomorrow. I stumbled across Les Halles de Lyon on the way here and nearly fainted avec une extase supreme.

Gavin Plumley said...

Thank you for these introductions, not least the reminder of that Krøyer painting. Smiles of a summer night indeed. I have a beautiful book of reflections on Walser that I picked up in New York last summer. Will find the details and post later.

Incidentally, we were thinking of driving to Scandinavia this summer with the hound, but costs have made us turn to our old familiar, yes Austria, but we've found a splendid house north of Innsbruck and will therefore be able to make pilgrimage to Garmisch, of which I'm sure you'll approve.

David said...

As I wrote, Gavin, I was especially drawn to The Tanners by the Sebald intro with the familiar punctuating pics - I think you're a fan of the great W G, as who would not be?

Skagen is well worth a drive, though it's a long one north from Copenhagen (we took the train) and as you say Scandinavia is expensive (and Norway prohibitively so). Our Danish sojourn turned out to be one of the most costly ever, as not only did we have (and indeed want) to stay in Brondums Hotel, where all the Skagen artists used to congregate, but having hired bikes to cycle through woods and past dunes, and J being without waterproofs, when it began to pour I put his wallet too loosely in a pocket and it fell out, never to be regained.

But you can never go wrong with Austria, can you, and I'm surprised how cheap rural B&Bs can be. Hope you can make special arrangements to get into Strauss's villa - it proved fruitless when I went in the 1980s and can still be tricky. But there's the grave and of course the Zugspitze..

David Damant said...

The expensiveness of a country ( for a foreigner) depends on the exchange rate and I would guess that Norway's Krone is high because of their oil. Within the Euro-zone the result of "one currency fits all" is that one's purchasing power can vary. To make "true" comparisons one uses "Purchasing Power Parity" which means taking a package of things one spends money on and sees how much they cost country to country. On this basis the Scandinavian and Swiss currencies are the most overvalued. You can look at PPP on the internet. There are other factors of course

David said...

London, apparently, has just outstripped the more likely candidates as most expensive city in the world. And we know why that is at the moment - a critical time for the lifeblood of the centre oozing away in unaffordable and unoccupied housing. What our local council, Hammersmith and Fulham, is doing to its council housing is as criminal as Shirley Porter's Westminster shenanigans now long in the past.