Arnon Grunberg



On Erich Kästner – Avner Shapira in Haaretz:

‘On the night of May 10, 1933, the children’s author Erich Kastner left his Berlin home and watched as his books were burned by the Nazis.
The weather was “funereal,” he described his impression of that night in the Opernplatz. He was the only one of the 200 writers whose works were being burned to be present at the event.
Standing near the spitting bonfire, he heard the speeches condemning the banned authors, poets and philosophers. At one point he observed a student throwing two of his works into the flames, stating that they demonstrated “decadence and moral decay.” A young woman in the square recognized the author and a commotion began but he weathered the incident unscathed, unlike his books.
The book-burner wouldn’t have known that one of the works that outraged them, the adult novel “Fabian,” was actually a watered-down version of an original manuscript that had been substantially censored by Kastner’s publisher. The book, published in German in 1931, is a powerful satirical sketch of the joyful hedonistic revelry in Berlin during the twilight years of the Weimar Republic, a blink of an eye before it fell into the depths of Nazi tyranny.’


‘Born on February 23, 1899 in Dresden, Kastner served in the Germany army towards the end of World War I. He studied in the University of Leipzig and after completing a doctorate on Frederick the Great, moved to Berlin. He worked as a journalist and critic for a left-wing magazine and started to publish poems.
In 1928, he came out with his first children’s book, “Emil and the Detectives,” which was a huge success. “Fabian,” published three years later, was his first novel for adults and his best known in this genre.
The protagonist, Jacob Fabian, lives in a rented room in Berlin and works as a copywriter for a cigarette company until getting fired, forcing him to join the widening circle of unemployed in the early 1930s. He and his good friend Labude, who also has a doctorate in literature, wander together in Berlin, taking in the city’s lively, lewd nightlife, hopping between clubs, cabarets, and other venues of entertainment where they encounter Nazis and communists, homosexuals, bigtime and smalltime criminals, artists, beggars, weirdos, and men and women engaged in all varieties of prostitution.’


‘There is practically no record of the publisher’s discussions with Kastner over the changes he demanded, says Hanuschek. “Most of the publisher’s archive was lost during World War II,” he told Haaretz in an interview from the University of Munich, where he teaches. “There is almost no correspondence from the publisher’s archives, they are all war losses. All that is documented is that Kästner discussed the title with the first publisher. He wrote to his mother that he was annoyed about the changes requested, without any details. The fact that he did not publish this version himself after the war could be due to the fact that he did not know about its existence for a long time (it survived in his mother’s estate).” For her part, Hammerman says she had wanted to translate the original book, “The censorship, which was done even before the Nazi era, moderated the subversive nature of this lovely work and undermined its special combination of humor and sadness, frivolity and misery. Kastner was forced to delete erotic details and expressions, and even to totally remove two key plot elements, which forced him to change the structure of the book. In one Fabian’s manager undresses in front of him and another employee to show them the ugly scar in his lower body following the removal of his cecum. This brilliant, grotesque scene had to be removed because was offensive to the dignity of the executive class.’


‘There are autobiographical elements in the fictional Fabian. Both Kaster and his creation were Dresden natives who moved to Berlin, they were the same age, and had the same social and academic backgrounds. Even Fabian’s mother, who visits him in the big city, bringing food and clean laundry, is a literary image of Ida Kastner, the author’s beloved mother, who herself, or women like her, appear in many of his works. In real life, Ida continued washing and ironing Erich’s clothes and sending them in the mail even during the war.
His close relationship with his mother was one of the reasons Kastner remained in Nazi Germany despite his leftist view and the ban on publication of his work. Nevertheless, he was allowed to publish with a Swiss publisher and he also earned money by writing screenplays for the German film industry under an assumed name.’


‘Aside from his sense that he wouldn’t be able to strike roots in a foreign country, there was another reason Kastner remained in Germany. While many prominent writers left the country when Hitler rose to power and continued to write about the country from their distant lands of refuge, he wanted to observe his country closely, identify the processes it was going through and collect material for a lengthy novel he planned to write about the Third Reich. Only after the war did he realize that, “The German Thousand-Year Reich was not material for a great novel … The task of architecturally untangling the limbs of the millions of victims and hangmen that had piled up over 12 years was impossible. You can’t set statistics to music,” as he wrote in his book Notabene 1945, which brings together a small part of the diary he kept during the war years.
A more comprehensive edition of Kastner’s war diaries were published in German in 2018 under the title “Das Blue Buch,” (“The Blue Book”), after the book with the blue cover and empty pages in which the author hid his original writings, which were written in code.’


‘His political acts were his written works,” Hanuschek says. “After the war and after the mass murder of European Jews, he found that wrong, too little.’

Read the article here.

Kästner’s children’s books delighted me when I was a kid, and I believe they still do. I can recommend ‘Emile and the detectives’ to any parent, any child and probably also to childless adults.

It’s a pity that Kästner’s poetry is not mentioned in this article. It might be a tad too traditional for the taste of quite a few poetry lovers, but a lot of his poetry survived amazingly well. His poems are mostly funny and filled with melancholia at the same time, they testify to his understanding of the mechanics of desire, in other words of mankind.

Here's on my favorite poems Die Unverstandene Frau, unfortunately just in German:

Er band, vorm Spiegel stehend, die Krawatte
Da sagte sie (und blickte an die Wand):
"Soll ich den Traum erzählen, den ich hatte?
Ich hielt im Traum ein Messer in der Hand.

Ich hob es hoch, mich in den Arm zu stechen,
und schnitt hinein, als sei der Arm aus Brot.
Du warst dabei. Wir wagten nicht zu sprechen .
Und meine Hände wurden langsam rot.

Das Blut floss lautlos in die Teppichranken.
Ich hatte Angst und hoffte auf ein Wort.
Ich sah dich an. Du standest in Gedanken.
Dann sagtest du: 'Das Messer ist ja fort...'

Du bücktest dich. Doch es war nicht zu finden.
Ich rief: 'So hilf mir endlich!' Aber du,
du meintest nur: 'Man müsste dich verbinden',
und schautest mir wie einem Schauspiel zu.

Mir war so kalt, als sollte ich erfrieren.
Du standest da, mit traurigem Gesicht,
und wolltest rasch dem Arzt telefonieren
und Rettung holen. Doch du tatst es nicht.

Dann nahmst du Hut und Mantel, um zu gehen,
und sprachst: 'Jetzt muss ich aber ins Büro!'
Und gingst hinaus. Und ich blieb blutend stehen.
Und starb im Traum. Und war darüber froh..."

Er band, vorm Spiegel stehend, die Krawatte.
Und sah im Spiegel, dass sie nicht mehr sprach.
Und als er sich den Schlips gebunden hatte.
griff er zum Kamm. Und zog den Scheitel nach.

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