Fabian, as its author Erich Kästner insisted, is the story of a moralist even though he clearly lives in immoral times. The book depicts Berlin in the moral decay and chaos that epitomised the dying days of the Weimar Republic just before Hitler and the Nazis take power. This is a Berlin, teetering on the political, economic and social abyss. It’s a time where there is no job or economic security, a senseless world; a world where people can die as the result of a bad practical joke or lose their life in what at first seems an act of selfless heroism but is in fact selfless stupidity.
It is a city which has bars where homosexual boys dance and ply their trade with elegant actors and smart Englishmen; cheap hotels where underage girls top up their pocket money by prostituting themselves to older men; only causing a scandal when one of the elderly men realises that the naked young girl before him is in fact his own daughter. This is a city where women are sexual predators, where wives happily cheat on husbands and sometimes, as in the case of Irene Moll, with the benefit of their husband’s acquiescence. “As for the residents it had seemed for some time like a lunatic asylum. There is crime in the east, rackets in the city centre, squalor in the north, bawdiness in the west, and everywhere one went a sense of doom.”
It’s also a crazy world. At one point Fabian and his friend Labude visit Cabaret der Anonyme where half crazy people perform on stage to be shouted at and laughed at by a public only too happy to see that there are indeed some people even crazier than they are. (X-Factor anyone?). In this world, received morality has well and truly been turned on its head. Fabian predicts the sensible ones won’t come to power and even less so the just. Laubde’s response is to ask whether they shouldn’t try anyway. Fabian’s conclusion is that there are only two possibilities – either you are unhappy with your lot and you go round killing each other or there is the purely theoretical possibility that you are happy with everything and you end up killing yourself out of boredom. The end result is the same. Fabian claims that his method of dealing with all the madness and chaos that surrounds him is to regard everyone as nutters with the exception of old people and children.
The novel also depicts a time of economic hardship and unemployment. Kästner’s description of Fabian trying to sign on only to face the insurmountable barrier which is German bureaucracy is amusingly told but has a disheartening ring of truth to it. 5 hours and various offices later Fabian ends up where he started only to find out from a helpful porter that technically he’s not officially considered to be unemployed yet.
It’s also a time of political unrest where communists and Nazis have shoot outs on the street; and where workers protest whilst mounted police await them behind barriers ready to attack. The political chaos of the period is neatly depicted when Fabian and Labude chance upon a shot communist and his Nazi adversary, who has also been shot although this time rather unceremoniously in the buttocks. The shooting is the result of a heated argument in a bar. It’s a slightly comical scene but underlying the humour Kästner is prescient about the menacing, political undertones, when he has the Nazi say to Fabian who is finding the situation all rather amusing: “As you like, the day will come when you won’t be laughing”.
The friends take the wounded men to hospital and it is clear that such political violence is a common day occurrence. Nine similar cases have already been admitted that evening. The doctor remarks that these political shootings remind him of dance hall fights, as they comprise mostly people from the suburbs who know each other. He cynically concludes that it might just be a way of reducing the unemployment numbers.
Later on in the novel, Fabian passes the “Rathenau Oak” in the Königsallee. To German readers this reference would have had particular significance, marking as it did, the spot where the Jewish-German politician, Rathenau, had been assassinated by right-wing fanatics for daring to be both Jewish and Germany’s Foreign Minister.
Fabian clearly has a good heart and continues to have one despite the ever worsening economic situation he finds himself in. Although unemployed, he has no qualms about sharing what money he has with his girlfriend, Cornelia or with his mother. He also offers the homeless old man he comes across somewhere to stay and even offers to pay for the ashtray that a little girl has been caught trying to steal for her father in order to prevent the girl from being arrested.
Fabian is but one of a lost generation of men who have already lost half their schoolmates whilst fighting in the Great War. The book clearly depicts a world where people are living on a day to day basis, as Fabian sees it, in a similar way to how they did before marching to the front. Therefore what’s the point of trying to live a decent life when, as Fabian puts it: “And again we are in a waiting room, and once more it’s called Europe! And once more, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We live provisionally, there’s no end to the crisis.” How can you live what would have traditionally been considered a respectable life given the economic and social chaos that people were faced with? “Which one of us who is now 30 years old can marry? This one is unemployed; the other one will lose his job tomorrow. The third has never had one.” Fabian refers to people like himself as “Landstreicher ohne Land” (tramps without a country) with no fixed job, no fixed income, no fixed aim in life and not even a regular girlfriend. Up against it as they are, a whole generation of men are not in a position to find someone and settle down with for fear of bringing their loved ones down with them.
While visiting the lesbian sculptor, Ruth Reiter’s studio, Fabian reiterates to Cornelia, who ironically he later falls in love with, that men nowadays only have time to have fun and have no time to fall in love, and that as a result family life is on its way out. Reiter concurs that this is no time for angels when women are just used and then dumped by male lovers. When Cornelia asks what will become of her now she has started sleeping with the film producer, Makart, in order to get on in the movie business, Fabian replies: “An unhappy woman who’s doing well. Are you surprised? Isn’t that why you came to Berlin? Here you don’t get something for nothing. If you want something, you have to give up what you have.”
It would seem that in the Berlin of the 30s love and sex are cheaply bought. Irene Moll is a prime example. After her husband flees to France one step ahead of the police who are after him for fraud, Irene opens up a male brothel furnished thanks to an old acquaintance (as she points out the acquaintanceship is new, the acquaintance himself is old). The only payment required to him is the installation of a couple of peepholes. The “hotel” is inhabited by young men in their 20s who are visited by rich women clearly not in the first flush of youth. The women have their needs fulfilled, the young men get paid handsomely for their work, the acquaintance gets his kicks and Moll earns a good living from it all. In addition, a local policeman has managed to double his monthly wage thanks to all the bribes Moll pays him to turn a blind eye to all the shenanigans.
In the Berlin Fabian inhabits the individual seems helpless waiting any minute to be buffered and struck down by fate. At work Fabian comes up with a brilliant idea to promote a competition for the advertising company he works for. Nevertheless he is sacked from his job while his less talented but cheaper colleague remains to take the credit. Fabian finally finds true love with Cornelia but likewise their love is doomed. Cornelia leaves him for the older film producer, Makart, a fat brute of a man. In other words, Cornelia prostitutes herself in order to make it as film star. In turmoil over Cornelia, Fabian admits to himself that he longs to be of service and be responsible but that there is no one for him to serve. “The moment work had meaning because he had found Cornelia, he lost his job. And because he lost his job, he lost Cornelia.”
However despite the times, simple acts of love still occur such as when Fabian and his mother both surreptitiously give each other a 20 DM note. As Fabian notes when he finds the banknote from his mother: “mathematically the result was zero. Then both had the same amount as before. But good deeds don’t cancel each other out. The moral equation is different from the mathematical one.”
Fabian is at heart a moralist because “He wants mankind to improve.” Fabian realises that it’s pointless just to accumulate more things unless we also become richer human beings. He concludes that human beings don’t become better individuals simply because things are going better for them economically. He also refuses to be a sell out and turns down the possibility of marketing for a right-wing newspaper despite being without a job in a time of mass unemployment. “Earning money was still not the main thing for him.”
By the end of the novel, Fabian returns to his hometown. He wants to have a normal life. “I want to work. I want to have something to do. I finally want to have a goal in mind. And if I can’t find one, I’ll make one up. It can’t carry on like this.” His mum notes that in her day it was all so different: “Then earning money was a goal as was marriage and having children.”
Fabian is a great introduction to modern German literature. It’s fast paced, written with a great deal of humour and in the then fashionable style of Neue Sachlichkeit (hard to translate but I suppose the nearest English equivalent would be new matter-of-factness). Neue Sachlichkeit was an artistic movement popular in Germany in the 1920s-30s whose style was used to satirize contemporary German society. Kästner, who also wrote one of Germany’s most well-known children’s books, Emil and the Detectives, was one of the few leading German authors to remain in Germany once Hitler took power. This was despite him being one of the 24 authors whose books were infamously burned by the Nazis in the spring of 1933. In fact, he was also the only one of the 24 to be present at the actual book burning at Opernplatz (now Bebelplatz)!
If you want an idea of what Berlin must have been like in the dying days of the Weimer Republic then Fabian gives you a wonderful insight into this crazy, hedonistic period of that great city’s history. It’s also an immensely enjoyable read and crushingly disproves the adage that Germans don’t have a sense of humour!
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