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Archive for the ‘Erich Kästner’ Category

I shall be rather sad to see 2018 go.  While the world had its problems, for me 2018 was a wonderful year.  I spent lots of time with loved ones, travelled to some beautiful places, and started a new job that makes me happy every day to go to work.  Everyone I love is well and content and I am being supplied with almost daily photos of my one-year old niece – life is good.

My busy year cut into my reading time but I still managed to read (if not always review) some wonderful books this year.  Here are my ten favourites:

10. Green Money (1939) – D.E. Stevenson
After reading more than three dozen books by Stevenson, I thought I’d read everything worth reading.  Happily, I was wrong.  I loved this Heyer-esque comedy about a young man suddenly saddled with a beautiful and dangerously ignorant ward.  This is Stevenson at her most sparkling and confident, full of humour and warmth.

9. Anne of Green Gables (1908) – L.M. Montgomery
Is it fair to put a book I’ve read twenty or more times on this list?  Possibly not (and sorry to Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes, which almost made my top ten but was bumped in order to include this) but I’ll do it regardless.  Anne of Green Gables is perfect.

8. A Positively Final Appearance (1999) – Alec Guinness
Who knew an actor could write so well?  This was Guinness’ third book but it is the first I have read (though certainly not that last).  Covering the period from 1996 to 1998, his diaries are marvellously free of celebrity gossip and are filled instead with sharp observations about the world around him, a fond portrait of his family, and, best of all, insightful comments on the books he is reading.

7. Lands of Lost Borders (2018) – Kate Harris
After overdosing on travel memoirs last year, I restricted my intake in 2018 but thankfully still made room to enjoy this beautifully-told tale of a great adventure.  Harris’s memoir of cycling along the Silk Road, from Istanbul to India, was a wonderful reminder of the joy of exploration.

6. Bookworm (2018) – Lucy Mangan
Mangan’s memoir of childhood reading was warm, funny, and stirred up wonderful memories of my own early reading.  Intriguingly, there was very little overlap between the books Mangan loved and the ones I read as a child but that made no difference to my enjoyment.  Mangan captures how it feels to be a child who makes sense of the world through what she can find in the pages of books and that is definitely something I can understand (as I suspect can most of you).

5. When I Was a Little Boy (1957) – Erich Kästner
A beautifully written – and illustrated – memoir of growing up in Dresden before the First World War, I adored this Slightly Foxed reissue.

4. The Fear and the Freedom (2017) – Keith Lowe
A superb look at how the legacies of the Second World War shaped the second half of the twentieth century.  Lowe looks at so many things, including the inventions and institutions that were created as a result of the war, but I was most fascinated by the less tangible changes it wrought, the mythological, philosophical, and psychological shifts across the countries impacted.  I found the chapter on Israel especially memorable, where the Holocaust survivors were initially treated harshly since their victim-status did not fit with the young country’s view of itself as a nation of heroes and fighters.  The way the nation’s identity changed as survivors began telling their stories in the 1960s, from a nation of heroes to “a nation of martyrs”, is fascinating.

3. The Flowering Thorn (1933) – Margery Sharp
After a few hit-or-miss encounters with Sharp, this was the year she became one of my favourite authors.  And that all started with this tale of a sharp young society woman whose life changes when she adopts a small boy and goes to live in the country.  In another author’s hands, this could have turned into something unbearably twee.  Instead, it is sharp and marvellously unsentimental yet still full of warmth.  I adored it and am already looking forward to rereading it.

2. The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (1996) – edited by Charlotte Mosley
Great wits and writers, Mitford and Waugh’s letters cover decades of occasionally hostile friendship, stretching from World War Two until Waugh’s death in 1966.  Both rather competitive by nature, they saved some of their best material for this correspondence – sloppiness (like bad spelling) was called out.  Full of fascinating tidbits about their own books as well as their famous friends, I was utterly absorbed by this book (and by Waugh’s awfulness).

1. The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) – Svetlana Alexievich
Without question, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of Soviet women’s experiences of the Second World War was my book of the year.  More than one million Soviet women served in the military during the war (half of them in active combat roles) and Alexievich captures the full and fascinating range of their experiences in their own words.  It is a powerful and upsetting book and one I will not soon forget.

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I seem to make a habit of reading memoirs by famous authors before I ever read any of the books that made them famous.  And you know what?  I like it.  It’s an interesting way to approach a new author, learning first about them and then their works.  And it can make you so, so much more eager to read their other books than you would otherwise have been.  At least, that was the case for me when I read When I Was a Little Boy by Erich Kästner.  Kästner won fame for his many successful children’s novels (most notably, Emil and the Detectives and Lottie and Lisa, the inspiration for The Parent Trap) and it is for children that he wrote this beautiful memoir of his own childhood in Dresden.  Recently reissued as a beautiful Slightly Foxed edition, it is now readily available in English for the first time since the 1950s.

Kästner was born in 1899 into a humble family.  His father, Emil, was trained as a saddlemaker but worked for a luggage maker in Dresden while his mother, Ida, had worked as a maid but retrained as a hairdresser when Erich was small so she could work independently.  It was not an affectionate marriage but nor was it a hostile one; it was simply a mismatch.  Ida had never been in love with her husband but had agreed to the match on the urging of her sisters, whose logic seemed pretty solid:

What did a young girl know about love, anyway?  Moreover, love came with marriage.  And even if it did not come, it didn’t matter all that much; for married life really consisted in working, saving, cooking and bearing children.  Love was no more important than a Sunday hat.

In this case, love didn’t come but, as the sisters had advised, it didn’t really matter.  Because there was Erich, her one child, and Ida loved him totally and completely.  Amid the darkness of her internal life (Erich came home to suicide notes several times, which would send him frantic out into the streets to search for her, terrified he might be too late this time), she had a son who lit up her world.  Emil is fondly mentioned but it was Ida who dominated young Erich’s childhood.  He was her life and it was a responsibility he took seriously, trying to live up to all her hopes and dreams for him:

Ida Kästner wanted to be a perfect mother to her boy.  And because she so much wanted to be that, she had no consideration for anyone, not even for herself, and she became the perfect mother.  All her love and imagination, all her industry, every moment of her time, her every thought – in fact her whole existence she staked, like a frenzied gambler, on one single card – on me!  Her stake was her whole life to its last breath.

I was the card, so I simply had to win.  I dared not disappoint her.  That was why I became the best pupil in the school and the best-behaved son possible at home.  I could not have borne it if she had lost her great game.  Since she wanted to be and was the perfect mother, for me, her trump card, there seemed no choice but to become the perfect son.  Did I become this?  I certainly tried to.  I had inherited her talents – her energy, her ambition and her intelligence.  That was at least something to begin with.  And when I, her sole capital and stake, sometimes felt really tired of always winning and of only winning, one thing and one things only kept me going: I truly loved that perfect mother.  I loved her very much indeed.

Ida wasn’t as overwhelming as that may make her sound.  She and Erich were also the best of friends, taking hiking holidays together throughout the country, and Erich had his freedom, indeed a shocking amount of freedom compared to children these days.  At seven, he was extraordinarily proud to be allowed to walk to school all alone.  Except he wasn’t entirely alone.  Years later, Ida admitted that she would see Erich off from home and then surreptitiously trail him all the way to school, ducking behind other pedestrians if it looked at all like Erich might turn around and spot her.  He had his freedom and she had her reassurance.  Everyone was happy.

With a mother like Ida, it is no surprise that Erich had a carefully planned life: he studied hard and was to become a teacher, inspired by the teachers who had boarded with the Kästner family.  But when he actually stood in front of a class for the first time in his mid-teens, he (and they) realised he had no aptitude for it.  And so a new and rather extraordinary plan was hatched: he, the son of a saddlemaker and a maid, would go to the university.  And, after serving in the First World War, he did.  To his mother’s extreme pride, naturally.

But a memoir of childhood is not really about planning and career plotting.  It is snapshots of nostalgia-tinged moments: of walks through the beautiful city with his father, of visits to his rich but mean maternal uncle, of hiking holidays with his mother, of the sad demise of his zuckertüten (sugar cone – a traditional gift for students on their first day of school), in short, of all the really important but insignificant moments that make up a childhood, the memory of which never seems to dull:

‘More than fifty years have passed since then,’ declares the calendar, that horny old bookkepper in the office of history, who controls chronology and with ink and ruler marks the leap years in blue and draws a red line at the beginning of each century. ‘No!’ cries memory, shaking her curly locks. ‘It was only yesterday.  Or at most the day before,’ she adds softly with a little laugh.  Which of them is wrong?

They are both right, for there are two kinds of time.  The one kind can be measured with instruments and calculations, just like streets or plots of ground.  But the other chronology, our memory, has nothing to do with metres and months, decades or acres.  What we have forgotten is old.  The unforgettable was yesterday.  The measure here is not the time but the value.  And the most precious of all things, whether happy or sad, is our childhood.  Do not forget the unforgettable.  I believe that this advice cannot be given early enough.

Isn’t that nicely put?  I loved the writing in this book.  I loved Kästner’s optimistic view of the world, despite the difficult elements of life (which he does not shy away from discussing), and his frequent asides to his readers, his earnest desire to pass on what he knows.  He is writing for you, whoever you are.  This story is meant to be shared with you.

By the time Kästner was writing in 1957, he was living in Munich.  He’d gone to university in Leipzig, spent almost twenty years in Berlin, and had settled in Munich after his Berlin home was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid.  And yet the city that retained all his love and affection was the Dresden of his childhood, a city of beauty and history and one he knew intimately from years of wanderings – a city whose death he was still mourning:

Dresden was a wonderful city, full of art and history, yet with none of the atmosphere of a museum which happened to house, along with its treasures, six hundred and fifty thousand Dresdeners.  Past and present lived in perfect unity, or rather duality, and blended and harmonized with the landscape – the Elbe, the bridges, the slopes of the surrounding hills, the woods, the mountains which fringed the horizon – to form a perfect trinity.  From Meissen Cathedral to the Castle Park of Groszsedlitz, history, art and nature intermingled in town and valley in an incomparable accord which seemed as though bewitched by its own perfect harmony.

[…]

Yes, Dresden was a wonderful city.  You may take my word for it.  And you have to take my word for it, because none of you, however rich your father may be, can go there to see if I am right.  For the city of Dresden is no more.  It has vanished, except for a few fragments.  In one single night and with a single movement of its hand the Second World War wiped it off the map.  It had taken centuries to create its incomparable beauty.  A few hours sufficed to spirit it off the face of the earth.

The Frauenkirche today, rebuilt and much brighter than the pollution-stained black church Kästner was used to from his childhood

I wonder what Kästner would make of Dresden today, with the Old Town skyline now restored to its pre-war image.  Would he find the Frauenkirche, with its painted “marble” columns, unbearably tacky or reassuringly familiar?  What would he make of the modern additions?  I suspect he would find it disconcerting – elements of the familiar in juxtaposed with the new.  And even if it looks the same, you can’t get rid of the memory that it wasn’t just buildings that were destroyed in those few days but also 25,000 people.  In all the ways that mattered, the city of his childhood was gone.

I loved this book.  I loved reading about Dresden, a city I dearly love, as it was more than a hundred years ago; I loved reading about how young Erich spent his days, learning about the norms of boyhood in a time and place long gone; I loved the simple sketches throughout, illustrating Erich’s various adventures; and I truly loved old Erich’s fondness for it all.  Another really wonderful choice from Slightly Foxed.

 

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