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

My booty on a recent trip to Berlin was more yarn than print, but this was one of the books that made it into my bag for the trip home.

I bought it from St George’s English bookshop and if you would like more detail about the wonderful bookshops in Berlin, I wrote something about them here.

It has a quote on the back from The Times Literary Supplement

Damned for its improper subject matter, Going to the Dogs showed the crumbling Berlin of Christopher Isherwood’s stories with something of Isherwood’s sharp intelligence, but a far more tragic sense of implication.

It’s a comparison I’m looking forward to making for myself, having acquired the relevant Isherwood volume, also a slim affair, at the same time. One can certainly agree that Kästner has an eerie feel for what is happening in Germany and what the outcome will be, an outcome he knows will be far more widespread. In 1931 he is well aware that he is watching the downfall, the disintegration, the degeneration of Europe. It’s horrifying to be aware, reading it now, and seeing the ways in which it compares with Europe now, that there was no hindsight on the author’s. He was calling it as he saw it day by day.

We have here the displacement of workers by machine, public sex with no restraint, Nazi bullies in the street. The sex, which has been reinstated in the modern edition, is sordid and unrewarding. Kästner clearly had some pretty messed up attitudes towards women. As an adult living on his own with money to spare and a laundry around the corner, he nonetheless sent his washing to his mother. I had assumed, observing other men who have such relationships with their mothers, that it was about the sons’ power. The introduction to this book explains it otherwise, as a symbol ‘perpetuating the illusion of dependence.’ He wrote to her every day. At the same time he was a womaniser who, as such creatures do, took care to try to make sure this didn’t turn to trouble, though I gather in the end it did. Whether he was yet an alcoholic I don’t know.

In fact ‘Fabian’ could be autobiographical. The reason his stories of the low life in Berlin read like they are true is because he was there, part of it. Fabian is curious. Kästner was curious. When he insisted on staying in Germany during the Nazi period, I think that is the bottom line. Straightforward curiosity. He was, after all, at his own book burning and not because he was invited or forced to be there. He fled during it when a member of the crowd recognised him, but it is evident he is curious in that way good writers always are. Was he a moralist too? Maybe he lost that over the years of living with Nazis and trying to work legitimately in Germany even though the Nazis despised him. Maybe we should see the end of Going to the Dogs as having profound meaning for Kästner. Maybe that’s why what might have been his greater work, his chronicles of the horror to come after this book was written, never happened. Maybe Europe itself in the end recovered, whereas Kästner went to the dogs and stayed there.

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