Jan 10 2013

Going to the Dogs by Erich Kästner

Ryan Healey

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It might take a few hermeneutic gymnastics to spot hipsters moodily haunting Western literature, in soliloquy and idleness. But "hipster" is a pliant enough term that you can apply it to a number of disaffected young literary characters, straddling social strata in either good or bad faith. Consider the aristocrat's ennui that seeps from Hamlet downward, to Wordsworth, Flaubert, all the golden Russians, Salinger, Franzen. These types usually arise in youth and fortune, squander both, and go belly-up when middle-age or financial realities reassert themselves. Weimar Republic hipsters have recently become my favorite variant after reading Going to the Dogs—their nihilism most justified between Crash and Krieg. Such Weimar hipsters labored at degrees in unemployment (a sample thesis title: "Heinrich von Kleist—Did He Stammer?") as if trying to satisfy hyperinflation's best new industry, and sought what feel like deserved hours in cabarets and Brecht plays.

Erich Kästner is probably best known for the twin achievements of writing the novel that was later adapted into The Parent Trap (twice—most recently with Lindsay Lohan), and getting justly scolded in Walter Benjamin's "Left-wing Melancholy" for writing poetry too far removed from the means of production. In other, cheaper words: for being a hipster himself, a poet with the rent surreptitiously paid. NYRB Classics is calling attention to one of Kästner's other achievements by reissuing Going to the Dogs (1932), one of the key novels of the Weimar era. The novel's historical details remain remarkably potent: a swelling class of highly educated, indebted "ex-students" has been condemned to either menial jobs without security, or what we might now call funemployment. Income inequality is high and fascists fight radicals downtown, where they both try "to reduce the unemployment figures by potting each other off." (Stuff like this makes me imagine someone at NYRB Classics raking through mimeographed charts of GDP and CPI to see where 2012's macroeconomics align in history like moons in staggered orbit.)

Jakob Fabian, "aged thirty-two, profession variable, at present advertising copywriter, 17 Schaperstrasse, weak heart, brown hair," is the token flâneur in this very crowded, dirty Berlin. Fabian and friends are young Werthers of a budding corporate capitalism, where they trade couplets at their copywriting jobs and read Descartes and Schopenhauer in boarding houses. Purgatory in politics and careerism paralyzes everything: "I can do a great deal and don't wish to do anything. Why should I get on? What for and what against? Let us assume for the moment that I really have some function. Where is the system in which I can exercise it?"

All is more or less stagnantly well until Fabian loses his job and descends into unemployment, not without a sense of irony: "I've retired. From the first of next month I shall appear in the Treasury deficit as an unexpected item of additional expenditure." He's pitched to join a male brothel and considers writing advertisements that won't be "used merely to increase the consumption of soap and chewing-gum, but to be widely applied in the service of ideals." Poverty itself is not so troubling, but rather "the thought that poverty can be of such importance." And then, the greatest tragedy for the urban hipster strikes Fabian: the return to mom, swallowed with quiet nostalgia for it.

Going to the Dogs is dark and portentous for recessionary youth still uncured of irony. Though centered on Fabian's banal, itinerant trajectory, hard history frays the novel's fringes until the hipsters start to kill themselves off and/or enlist in the army. You wonder if Kästner deliberately muted what actually drove events—paramilitaries clashing and putsching, the populist road to Gleichschaltung, mounting reparation debt that converts banknotes into wallpaper—in favor of a narrative-level solipsism designed as satire of young people who are systemically crestfallen yet somehow still removed from all this real life. But then you question the efficacy of doing even that. It all comes out dangerously confused about what came first: chicken or egg, hyperinflation or left-wing melancholy, dirty Berlin or Kästner, wide system failure or its cogs. For our own empty-suit Obama stasis, Going to the Dogs helpfully demonstrates the futility in ascribing guilt when systems wholly mirror us, muddling whether to blame Citibank and Bush, or ourselves. The larger historical lesson of an ad hominem satire about an emerging Reich is that there's no individual ambiguity when it comes to progressive praxis, and to wrack ourselves over past hipster sins only installs another block against resolving them now.

Ryan Healey is a writer and translator with stuff published/forthcoming in Harper's, n+1, Los Angeles Review of Books, Maisonneuve, The New Inquiry, and Tin House.

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