Long Read: Irving Wardle learned German just to read him, and then tried to invoke him on stage ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2011
This is a memoir of somebody I never met. Although it all happened inside my head, the experience went through the stages you find in an ordinary relationship—distant attraction, infatuated obsession, discovery of weaknesses and unforgivable acts, and final recognition that this person has entered your bloodstream.
It began in the 1970s when, during a short life as a magazine editor, I commissioned a piece on German theatre history from a dramaturge in Cologne. He kicked off with an anecdote about the Wiesbaden Schauspielhaus and how the Kaiser turned up to open it, only to find that there were no toilets and the magnificent entrance drive led up to the stage door instead of the auditorium. The story wound up with a four-line poem saying: “Look at that, they’re holding a Muses’ ball at the palace. All of them in their medals—too bad they’re clueless about art.” The piece hadn’t been translated, so what first caught my eye was:
Sieh da, sieh da: am preuss’schen Hof
Erblickt man einen Musenschwof…
Und alles ist im Ordensfrack…
Nur leider fehlt der Kunstgeschmack.
I knew no German, but for some reason this sounded like the voice of an old friend. His name, it emerged, was Kurt Tucholsky. It appeared again under a quotation a few lines further on: “Art has only one criterion: goose-pimples.” Tucholsky promptly went onto the shortlist of writers I’d like to have met.
I envisaged him as a vulpine dandy, an artist imposing himself on the world by the way he lit a cigar or adjusted his Homburg. Nobody I spoke to had ever heard of him, so when I had a sabbatical, I enrolled at the Goethe-Institut in London with the sole purpose of learning enough German to read Tucholsky.
The teacher was a failed musician who had studied composition under Stockhausen. She left us in no doubt that she was cut out for better things than teaching our uncultivated crew, largely made up of tourist guides who filled coffee breaks with horror stories of Australian coach parties. Progress was not fast, but in a few months I was grinding my way through the only book by Tucholsky I had found, “Panter, Tiger & Co”.
Or was it by Tucholsky? His name was on the cover, but inside were articles and poems by four very different characters: Peter Panter, a wise-cracking man-about-town; Theobald Tiger, a poet; Ignaz Wrobel, a political commentator; and Kaspar Hauser, an innocent witness of life’s atrocities. These were all pseudonyms, what Tucholsky called his “five fingers”. Working on Die Schaubühne, a pre-1914 magazine, he had wanted to blind his readers to the fact that most of it was written by him. But you didn’t need to read far before recognising this as more than a journalistic trick.
They were intensely visual: the rotund Panter gesticulating with his pipe while sending up Berlin’s absurdities; Hauser blinking at us, straight out of the egg; the irascible Wrobel, denouncing the Wilhelmenian high command while sporting a regimental haircut. Tiger, pictured as a circus animal going through a hoop, was the most protean. He wrote verse satires and cabaret songs, and his voice could be like the roar of an outraged crowd, or a heartbreaking whisper. Sometimes the chorus of politicised workers and the confessions of the pampered bourgeois author would meet in the same poem—whereupon Tiger himself seemed on the point of splitting into further subdivisions.
I got a bit closer to Tucholsky after scouting around the Berlin bookshops and finding the shelves loaded with collections of his work, still bestsellers long after his death in 1935. I knew nothing about the Weimar Republic or its hate figures, but there was no problem with the comic stuff. Even with dictionary breaks every other line, Tucholsky came over as a lacerating wit. Here’s a householder awoken by the sound of intruders; he creeps out of bed to spy on them and finds he has been watching a heel-clicking debate between two burglars’ unions over which has the right to loot his property. Or a hotel guest who spots a bathing beauty staring at him from the balcony opposite and tries to excite her by going into a body-building routine, only to take another look and realise that she is a plastic mannikin. There was masses of this stuff: a fantasy on the origin of zip-fasteners, and why there are holes in cheese; a news story on Berlin’s reactions to an escaped lion—“Who let the lion out? THE JEWS! Vote for German People’s Party!”
Alongside the comedy were attacks on German militarism, from the duelling code to the ration-pilfering habits of the officer corps, plus denunciation of all soldiers as murderers, and of Germany as a land of masters and slaves, but no men. There was advice, reeking of bitter experience, on how to stand your ground against teachers and judges. And piercing protests on behalf of the millions who had been fooled by the promises of post-war democracy.
Lord God! If you’re really up there as we’ve been taught
Come down from Heaven or send your son.
Tear off the banners, the helmets and the medals
And tell the nations of the earth how we’ve suffered,
How we were wiped out by hunger, lice, shrapnel, and lies.
In your name, the preachers have led us to our graves.
Come down now and explain why they lied.
Those of us who have knees are kneeling before you. Listen to us.
Drive us back under the ground, but first give us an answer.
While I was still sampling Tucholsky’s alter egos, I finally laid hands on a book about the man himself. It was a second-hand copy of an illustrated biography by Helga Bemmann (1990) which came as a shock. It was the pictures as much as the text. Far from the elegant figure I had imagined, Tucholsky was short and fat. There he was, bulging out of tight trousers, and captioned by a disenchanted female reader: “You are a butterball; and we always thought you were wiry.” The more I thought about it, the more courageous it seemed for someone like that to take on the might of German autocratic tradition. His life was memorably summed up by Erich Kaestner as the drama of “a fat little Berliner trying to stop a catastrophe with a typewriter”. Or, as Tucho himself put it: “Being fat isn’t just a physical state, it’s a whole Weltanschauung.”