Dürrenmatt: an anecdote by Feyerabend

Feyerabend was referring to a seminar series he ran while teaching at Zurich university. One of the invited speakers was Freidrich Dürrenmatt. He

…came to speak on Platonic entities, and used a chair instead of a bed as an example. His conclusion: the Platonic chair is nothing but the idealised hind end of the sitters. Dürrenmatt had been warned that there would be other talks and that he had to restrict himself to twenty minutes. ‘Oooch’, he replied. ‘I won’t know what to say anyway, I won’t talk for more than ten minutes.’ He was late, and we started without him; when he arrived, he produced a huge manuscript and would have gone on forever if he hadn’t been stopped after twenty-five minutes. (Mrs Huber, who was chairing the meeting, hestitated to interrupt, but I, sitting next to her, egged her on: ‘No exceptions for big shots!’) Dürrenmatt didn’t say a word. He came to dinner with us afterward, tried to get me drunk, told me he had read Against Method, and entertained us with stories about himself and Hohler. But he refused to come again. ‘You don’t let a person finish!’ he yelled at the organiser when he next rang him – and hung up.


The Silent Angel by Heinrich Boll

I must make a few notes here before I forget all about this book, read soon after finishing After Romulus and then Romulus, My Father. These books are written about life after escaping from Europe after WWII. The Silent Angel is about the first days in Cologne after Germany gave in. The town was particularly devastated by the Allied bombings.

It was Boll’s first novel and he couldn’t find a publisher. It is easy to point at the subject matter for that. I gather he is known as Germany’s post-war conscience and it isn’t clear that Germany wanted to have one. As a huge number of Nazis, as well as sympathisers must have done well politically and economically in the reconstruction, one can see that the market for such a book would be uncertain at best. And yet, one can’t exactly say he gets stuck into his compatriots either. He portrays one wealthy bad man, bad before, during and after the war. But that’s it. Everybody else is okay. As if the odd bad man were enough to explain the whole appalling rise and spread of the Nazis. I hope his conscience took stronger hold at some point in his work.

I found it easy to read, but I skipped chunks of description and I am left feeling it reads like a first novel. He really struggles to communicate to the reader the horrors which are his subject. He wants to be poetic, he wants to be spiritual and he wants to be matter-of-fact: all the things that Gaita manages to perfection in his books. Both writers are talking of people who have nothing. Cologne was devastated by the Allied bombing, which meant uncertain or no electricity, most buildings in a state of ruin, food so short in supply that people are perpetually hungry, money that means nothing. Romulus and his son Raimond live in a raw shack with no electricity and a diet which reflects their poverty. But somehow the spiritual in Gaita is leaden in Boll and the matter-of-fact has a tedium that I imagine doesn’t have to be there. As for the poetic failing, given it’s in translation, maybe that’s the most forgivable failing.

All in all, I think Boll did the right thing by incorporating many bits of this novel into other works. One for the die-hard Boll fans and no doubt interesting for anybody reading about that immediately after the ceasefire period. But I hope others have done it better.

The ending is splendid. Carry on just to get there.

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

When I read Goodbye to Berlin, I innocently thought that the anti-semitism in it belonged to the characters. Now, reading Mr Norris Changes Trains, I see that isn’t so. The anti-semitic comments are gratuitously those of the author. Still, I wondered. If he were living in Germany, was it that he felt it made him safe throwing in just a few words in a few places to prove his credentials?

But now I see that his private words have always been littered with this abhorrent attitude, the more so since he lived in Berlin and must have known what was happening.

For me that’s a game-changer. Mr Norris Changes Trains was not a special book and now it’s a repugnant one. Uggh, Mr Isherwood. I say Goodbye to you. Should you get on my train I will change to another one.

On the other hand, perhaps one can learn something from such a book. Perhaps it explains an entire class of English with their armour of scornful prejudices protecting them from the real world as they engaged in their wasteful frivolity.

The fact is that it is easy to read and tells a story of the period and place which is worth reading if you can stomach knowing where Isherwood’s feelings lay.


Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

Whilst in Berlin recently we went to see Cabaret in German in a spiegeltent. Splendid. Naturally I was looking forward to reading about the very same Sally Bowles in this book, but it turns out that Sally Bowles is a complete English Arse. Utterly unbearable. I think it would be fair to say she’s been thoroughly fixed up for the musical and bravo for that decision. Certainly this book improves on the pages in which she is not to be found.

There is much to separate this book from Kästner’s Going to the Dogs. Partly it is a matter of style – Isherwood’s humour, when it arises, is entirely ordinary, whilst Kästner’s is odd to say the least. Then again there is the care Kästner has for his subject, the ruination of his country and his continent. One can equally feel, as Isherwood himself acknowledges, that he, in contrast, is an outsider, floating in a flotsam sort of way through his German period, knowing he can and will leave when it gets too tough. Probably, as others have said, Kästner’s book is the better written of the two, but this is not to damn it with faint praise.

If there are points of departure, there are, of course, similarities. Not least, that they are slim volumes, episodic in nature. Both authors intended to write something grandiose about Germany, something as spralling as their actual works are spare. I wonder if it reflects on the men themselves, or on the utter horror of the period, that neither did so.

For this is another something the books share. They are story books about Berlin in the late twenties/early thirties. And an integral detail of the day-to-day humdrum is Nazis. When you read a history book of this period, the fact that it is looking back and knows what it is looking at and knows what it is looking for, will give Nazism a predominant position. But the horror here is that it isn’t predominant, it is just a fact of life, not really any different from any crazy group now clashing on the fringes of normal social life. I don’t really know what that means, but after a while this crazy group wasn’t a crazy fringe collective any more. It was Germany. The same people who had looked at these despicable people and expected them to fade away, became them. That makes me think that actually, in the first place, they weren’t crazy outsiders either. They were just people who had families and jobs and histories and gardens who did some sort of Avon Calling on all of Germany and don’t people just love that Avon ring at the door?

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.