Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist, by Erich Kästner

A witty satire of 1920s Berlin, a city in financial and cultural upheaval, resonates in our time

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 12:17


Book Title:
Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist


Erich Kästner

New York Review Books Classics

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Money makes the world go round, or so the nasty little master of ceremonies in Cabaret sang suggestively. A lack of cash tends to send ordinary life spinning ever further out of control. In times of recession, such as the present, it may offer slight consolation to ponder an even worse financial collapse, such as the crash of 1929. The German writer Erich Kästner’s brilliant satire Going to the Dogs, also known as Fabian, was first published in 1931, and an English translation followed within a year. The book acts as what Kästner described as a “distorted mirror” of the reality of mass unemployment and despair. It is set in the world so vividly evoked by the painters Otto Dix and George Grosz and by the literary geniuses Joseph Roth and Hans Fallada, both of whom grasped the human tragedy magnificently. Kästner identified the absurdity, and this remarkable little novel is very funny, often shocking and ultimately profound.

Jakob Fabian, the central character, is highly educated, a doctor of literature “aged thirty-two, profession variable, at present advertising copywriter, 17 Schaperstrasse, weak heart, brown hair”. Although he comes from a modest background in the provinces, Fabian, because of that education, is able to observe the society of Weimar Berlin. His idealistic and vulnerable friend Labude is a medical student. Together they engage with the low life of the city, one of heavy drinking and easy sex.

They are knowing without being overly cynical, and are likable. Labude tells Fabian about an incident he has witnessed: “When I was in the National Library this morning, they arrested one of the professors – a sinologist. For twelve months he’s been taking rare prints and pictures from the library, and selling them.” Fabian asks: “Why did he trouble to learn Chinese if he was to finish up by living on theft?”

The conversations between the two friends are convincingly handled. Labude has his problems, which are compounded when he discovers that his long-distance girlfriend back in Hamburg has been unfaithful to him. His devastation is movingly conveyed by Kästner, who moves easily between the burlesque and the profound.

When the narrative opens Fabian is working as an advertising copywriter. He soon loses his job to a lesser employee, who earns less. The streets of Berlin are depicted as thoroughfares of despair. Women are aggressively offering sex at a price while also demanding it for their own amusement. There are elements of farce, such as the music hall offering a programme performed by lunatics. Elsewhere, Fabian meets an inventor who, having escaped from the asylum, takes to living on the streets.

Fabian offers him his sofa to sleep on as long as he hides in the wardrobe when the landlady patrols the rooms. When Fabian’s mother arrives she makes the point that the inventor, who is rearrested and taken back to the madhouse, does not appear at all crazy.

It is a very witty, fast-moving and episodic book with a vaguely theatrical tone. Fabian, having lost his job – a complication he wishes to conceal from his kindly mother – wanders the streets during his working hours. At one point he helps a woman burdened by packages. She gives him a tip. He finds this intriguing and remains where he is, helping other shoppers and collecting further tips.

While in the studio of a lesbian artist he meets a young woman who has a law degree and is open to working in the film industry, as either lawyer or actress. Although Fabian’s relationship with her is not as convincingly drawn as his relationship with his mother, it does develop the essential tenderness of Fabian, a man of the war generation whose weak heart emerges as the prevailing metaphor of the book.

There is an unusual ease about this unpretentious yet sophisticated work, though its depiction of women could cause some irritation. It is a morality play with a difference. Jacob is less a lost innocent than a lost soul. He accepts his various disasters because, as a melancholic, he expects them. “If you are an optimist, you should despair. I am a melancholic, so nothing much can happen to me . . . I look on and wait.”

It is also interesting that he views the evils of his time as owing far more to spiritual than economic decline. Kästner, while telling the story of a particular moralist, is also looking more widely at a culture in upheaval.

Sex is another dominant metaphor, as various women attempt to seduce Fabian. It is as if easy sex has taken over from the failed currency that has even less value.

Erich Kästner was born in Dresden and, in common with Joseph Roth, served in the first World war. Like Fabian, he was well educated, completing his doctorate before moving to Berlin in 1927. Again, as with Roth, Kästner was a high-profile journalist. Initially published as a poet, he quickly became famous with the publication in 1928 of a children’s book, Emil and the Detectives, the first of a series. He also wrote songs for cabarets and scripted theatrical revues.

The skills and timing of a professional scriptwriter are apparent throughout Going to the Dogs. It is different from the work of Roth and Fallada and far less laboured and earnest than Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Kästner also captures the sense of a Berlin in which many respectable widows find themselves transforming their homes into boarding houses and pensions.

In ways, Fabian is an Everyman, the observer faced with decline and change. He sits in a cafe reading the headlines: “English Airship Disaster near Beauvais . . . Girl of Nine Jumps from Window . . . Election of Premier – Another Fiasco . . . Negotiations in Moscow . . . The usual thing. Nothing special.” Yet some of this news is special, certainly relevant.

Kästner’s work was subsequently banned by the Nazis; however, the fact that this book was published in 1931 in Berlin is interesting. It is a wickedly barbed portrait of the time between the wars, the death of Weimar and the rise of National Socialism. Graham Greene admired the book, and it is one of those classics that succeed in being both of their time and of all times.

Fabian counts his pennies in a desperate city full of strident, amoral women. The already poor become increasingly destitute and the rich tend to get found out. It all seems very simply done; it is not. Kästner balances comedy, the music hall and the grim facts of one man’s life in a wonderful novel that not only recalls 1920s Berlin, bringing Dix and Grosz to life, but also shines a spotlight on today.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent.