Friday, December 07, 2012

Erich Kastner will not apologize for pulling no punches!

The recent NYRB Classics edition of Erich Kastner's corrosive, depressing novel of the excesses of late Weimar Germany, Going to the Dogs (1931), includes a preface that Kastner wrote for a 1950 edition of the book. Judging by the tone of the preface, the intervening years--marked, of course, by the war--had done nothing to dim his satiric fury at what he saw as the rampant moral failures of the era, moral failures that had, he clearly suggests, opened the door to the Nazis. After arguing that charges of immorality were in fact perfectly wrong--that the book makes no sense if it's not fundamentally a moral book--he closes with a ringing defense of moralists that remains powerful sixty years later:
The present book which depicts life as it was in the big city, is no poetic photograph album, but a satire. It does not describe what things were like; it exaggerates them. The moralist holds up not a mirror, but a distorting mirror to his age. Caricature, a legitimate artistic mode, is the furthest he can go. If that doesn't help nothing will. It is not unusual that nothing should help, nor was it then. But it would be unusual if the moralist were to be discouraged by this fact. His traditional task is the defence of lost causes. He fulfils it as best he may. His motto today is as it has always been: to fight on notwithstanding!
Am I right in thinking that this defense would apply to satirists as well? What are satirists, after all, if not bitter moralists fighting in the last trench?


  1. Just watched an interview with Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye. He said satirists cannot change anything (he said even Swift only managed to get one small piece of legislation about Ireland altered) but they have the role of bringing people's attention to things they might otherwise not notice and it is then up to them what they do about it. I had no idea Kastner had written an adult novel. I loved his children's ones. Would you recommend this, despite its depressingness?

  2. Interesting--I didn't realize Kastner had written children's books.

    I'd definitely recommend this one: it paints almost exactly the picture of late Weimar Germany you expect, but it does it with surprisingly funny satire and some real bite. It's remarkable how quickly Kastner inculcates the feeling that all is folly, everything is failing, and everything that lies ahead is going to be bad.

  3. Lottie and Lisa (which later became The Parent Trap at the cinema, but was a much better book), The Flying Classroom, Emil and the Detectives, all with charming drawings - I must check my copies and see if he did those as well. But maybe it was a quite different Erich Kastner. I ought to look him up.