October 2014 Reader's Den: "Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist" by Erich Kästner, Part 1
"We live in stirring times . . . and they get more stirring every day." - Going to the Dogs, Chapter VI
Welcome to the Reader’s Den. This month we’re taking a trip to Weimar Germany via Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner, translated from the German by Cyrus Brooks. This novel, originally published in Germany in 1931 under the title Fabian, follows Jakob Fabian, a well educated but underemployed youngish man, as he moves through a decaying Berlin after the economic crash of 1929. Now considered to be a key novel of the Weimar Republic, Fabian’s bleak and cynical tone was not appreciated by right-wing critics of the time, and when the Nazis came to power in 1933, Kästner’s books, seen as offensive to the "German spirit" and morally destructive, were among the many they burned.
Fabian made its first appearance in English in 1932 in a bowdlerized translation omitting some scenes with frank sexual content. The complete translation, including the epilogue rejected by the original German publisher in 1931, Kästner’s preface to the 1950 German edition, and a new introduction by Rodney Livingstone, was published by Libris under the title of Fabian in 1990 and reissued by New York Review Books Classics in 2012 as Going to the Dogs, Kästner’s original working title. Jakob Fabian goes from one disappointment to another as the novel progresses, and German society moves closer to the abyss.
German poet, novelist, satirist, screenwriter Erich Kästner (1899 - 1974) is best known today for his children’s books, such as Emil and the Detectives (1929) and Lottie and Lisa (1949), the basis for the popular Disney film, The Parent Trap. In 1964 he received the Hans Christian Andersen Award for his contributions to children’s literature. His children’s books display a lively sense of humor and never condescend to their readers. In an introduction to a 2007 edition of Emil and the Detectives, Maurice Sendak writes that Emil “shows us the heroic nature of children, how they can stick together and accomplish wonders without the help of the inept grownups.” In Going to the Dogs, Kästner employs his trademark humor and irony to shows us the inept grownups.
Kästner characterized his own writing in a speech to the Zurich PEN in 1957, quoted in the introduction to Going to the Dogs:
"Our guest, Ladies and Gentlemen, is no belletrist, but a schoolmaster! If you look at the whole range of his works from this point of view - from picture books to the most risqué poem - the situation becomes crystal clear. The man is a moralist. He is a rationalist. He is a descendant of German Enlightenment, the sworn enemy of all the false ‘profundity’ which never goes out of fashion in the land of poets and thinkers. He is wholly devoted to three inalienable imperatives: integrity of feeling, clarity of thought and simplicity in word and sentence."
I'll be posting discussion questions for Going to the Dogs the week of October 20, but as we read, I think it would be interesting to apply Kästner's own imperatives to the novel and think about how well he succeeds with each one. Another general question is whether this novel that depicts late Weimar Berlin with such immediacy has something to tell us about our world today. Please feel free to post any thoughts or questions about the book, the author, or the general topic in the comments section below. You don't need to wait for the formal questions. You can request a copy of the print book or the e-book through the library catalog.
And if you'd like to experience a day in the life of Berlin in 1927, watch this classic silent film by Walter Ruttman, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, available through the Internet Archive. It's a little over an hour long.
The classic 1929 film, Menschen am Sontag [People on Sunday], about a group of Berliners enjoying a weekend outing, also provides an interesting look at the city during this time.