Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Going to the dogs: literary satire after the crash

Thanks to the great Caustic Cover Critic's recommendation, I've just enjoyed what has become one of my favourite reads ever: Going to the Dogs (1931), by Erich Kästner. Subtitled 'The Story of a Moralist', this adult novel by the author of Emil and the Detectives tells the story of 32-year-old copywriter Jakob Fabian who's struggling to make his way in Berlin following the crash of 1929.

Stories set in the time of the Weimar Republic are perennially popular, but this is a real humdinger, featuring unsatisfied wives - including a nymphomaniac brothel keeper - and a cabaret of the insane. There's pathos, too, in Fabian's relationships with his mother, his aspiring-actress girlfriend Cornelia, and his talented and generous best friend Labude.

I was reminded of Belgian author Willem Elsschot's Cheese, published by Granta, in which the author's perennial everyman Frans Laarmans fills his home with 22 tonnes of Edam he's unable to sell on. Roughly contemporaneous, the two books depict a world tipping over into desperation, while their authors never lose faith in the warmth of the human heart.

It also brought to mind William Gerhardie's wonderful satires, such as Doom (Prion), which predates these works by only a few years. Last year the novelist William Boyd invoked Gerhardie as a sort of morality tale: initially fêted, Gerhardie wrote no books for the last four decades of his life and is now little known. 'He's an awful warning of how easy it is to stop writing,' Boyd told Metro.

And then there's the marvellous Albert Cossery, who, like Kästner, has been championed by New York Review Books. Though he died aged 94 (in 2008), Cossery produced less than one, slim, book for each decade of his life. Cynical they may be, but that doesn't make them any less true; alongside the other works mentioned here, they're truly appropriate for our times.

PS I note Cossery's Laziness in the Fertile Valley (1948) - with a foreword by Henry Miller - is due to be published in November by New Directions, who already publish his A Splendid Conspiracy (1975) and The Colors of Infamy (1999). Can someone remind me nearer the time, please? Thanks.

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