This book is not meant for innocents of whatever age.
The author repeatedly draws attention to the anatomical differences between the sexes … 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 which the author replies: I am a moralist.
-Epilogue, rejected by original German publisher
Erich Kastner’s book paints a picture of life in Berlin in 1931, the doomed Weimar Republic in a time of rapidly rising unemployment, after Wall Street crashed and before the Nazis took over.
It’s snort-out loud funny in parts and sexually adventurous, but has so many references to philosophical ideas, economics and class politics structure, by time I was 60 per cent through (apologies for Kindle terminology) it still felt like “homework” (to quote one book club member).
I felt as though I had skim-read until then the whole heartless affair, which felt a bit like reading Oscar Wilde in its disdainful descriptions of hapless characters Fabian bumped into, and in its confident one-liners about life, love and society.
Fabian didn’t care about anything, so I didn’t either, and I was just waiting until he was finished.
Normally, If I were reading a book that threw up all sorts of historically contextualised political and social issues as the backdrop to the story of a person, I would tear about making sure I had all the implications and facts straight before hazarding a review.
“For this, frankly, I can’t be bothered,” I drafted loftily.
“I will only say it’s about cultural identity, political ideology, unemployment and class structure in Germany between the wars and if you don’t already know about those things, this book is probably not the way to learn.”
“In its defence, it might be a lot more satisfying read for someone who does already have an understanding of these things and be a brilliant portrait of a society. You’ll have to ask someone more learned than I.”
Then Kastner then sneakily swept aside his cape and revealed several major plot twists, and suddenly, just like that, I cared. When I finished I had felt things, and felt I owed it a more considered review. I went back and read the introduction, which when I skimmed it previously was like chewing sawdust, but which now made sense and provided a much clearer frame for the story.
Rodney Livingstone, with admirable intellectual energy (clearly lacking in yours truly) describes Fabian as:
The poised and ironic voice of a liberal democracy tragically doomed to destruction.
He reminded me that Fabian’s detachment, which I found so alienating, is the whole point of satire ( not to mention the source of all those laughs).
He describes what I could only react to emotionally:
The triumph of short-term commercial thinking leads to an inhumanity that permeates the whole of society. It ranges from the casual callousness of the letter announcing Fabian’s dismissal, via the indignant censoriousness of the crown eager to condemn and punish a little girl who has stolen an ashtray , right down to the ‘Anonymous Cabaret’, where people come to laugh at performers who are evidently insane.
This inhumanity is why I found the book so hard to love. Even now, I certainly don’t love it; I just respect it. I resent it slightly for wrenching my feelings with an unexpected plot twist. I am not sure I will forgive it.
But I will reverse my earlier resolution that for people who want to learn about this particular time and place in Berlin in the 1930s, this is the wrong book. In fact, I think it’s probably just the right book.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch Cabaret, which I still think will be a lot more fun.