Saturday, January 9, 2021

One Life and Three Biographies

 Today, on January 9, 131 years ago, Kurt Tucholsky was born, the famed German Jewish journalist, satirist, poet, novelist, and playwright. The staunch pacifist was a witness to the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. Here is his — not entirely serious — biography, from the book Berlin! Berlin! Dispatches from the Weimar Republic.

Three Biographies

Peter Panter, Die Weltbühne, June 1, 1926

“You’re the unborn Peter Panter?” asked the Good Lord, stroking his white beard, which was flecked with gray here and there. I was a bright blob floating in my test tube; I hopped up and down in affirmation. “You have three options,” the Heavenly Father said, squashing a bedbug in infinite benevolence as it scurried across his wrist. “Three options. Please consider each one and tell me which you choose. We’re particularly interested in not favoring either party in the current dispute between Determinists and Indeterminists. You figure out up here what you’d like to be someday; down there you won’t be able to do anything about it. If you please. . .” The Old Man held a large box lid up to the tube, on which I read:

“Peter Panter (1st Draft). Born on April 15, 1889, son of poor but well sanitized parents, in Stettin on Lasztownia Island. Father: Given to quarterly episodes of binge drinking, with five quarters each year. Mother: Subscribes to the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger. Studies veterinary medicine in Hannover and becomes a municipally licensed exterminator in Halle in 1912. Two wives: Annemarie Prellwitz, classy, in flannel, with her hair in buns (1919–1924); Ottilie Mann, meticulous, proper, tremendously fertile, in balloon cloth (1925–1937). Four sons; then acquires a German Persian rug. 1931: Cleans Hermann Bahr’s beard; Bahr survives, and P. converts to Catholicism. Summoned to Vienna in June, 1948, to eradicate the bedbugs accumulating at the Neues Wiener Journal’s cultural desk. When the operation naturally fails, exterminator P. becomes depressed. In this state of mind, attends a Keyserling lecture on April 20, 1954. Dies: April 21. Panter departs from life, with the consolation of the Catholic Church, immediately after voraciously devouring a bowl of matzo balls. Burial weather: partly cloudy with a light southeasterly wind. Headstone (designed by Paul Westheim): 100.30 marks; marble price: 100 marks. Forever cherished in our thoughts: eight months.”
“Well?” asked the Almighty God.
“Hmm. . .” I said. And read on:

“Peter Panter (2nd Draft). Born May 8, 1891, eldest son of senior civil servant Panter and his wife Gertrud, née Hauser. The premature child is so hard of hearing in his left ear as a young boy that he already seems destined for a career in justice. Joins the fraternity corps, in which a certain Niedner is an alum—” God Almighty made the sign of the swastika. I continued to read: “—and soon adopts the properly boorish behavior expected in such circles. 1918: War assessor, just in time for the Kaiser’s birthday. Swears eternal loyalty to him. 1919: Junior assistant to the state commissioner of public policy; State Commissioner Weismann, in accordance with traditional Prussian frugality, does not sit in an armchair but remains on a wooden bench day and night. District Court Councilor P. achieves great things for the Republic and its president. Swears him eternal loyalty. Participates in the Kapp Putsch in 1920, advises Kapp in judicial matters and swears eternal loyalty to him. Panter’s frequent swearing calls attention to the talented jurist, and he is transferred to the post of chief legal counsel to the Reichswehr. Meanwhile, Rathenau is murdered, and the Republic imposes a constitutional court on itself, in which decisions are made without due process. Transfers there as judge; sprains his arm signing jail sentences for Communists in 1924. No funeral is held, as a German judge is irremovable and can still fulfill the duties of his office even after death.”
“How could anyone sink so low?” the Good Lord asked. I, meanwhile, had crept to the bottom of the test tube. I wagged my little tail, and God Almighty correctly guessed “No,” made the sign of the Star of David, and held up number. . .

“Peter Panter (3rd Draft). Born January 9, 1890, in Berlin, with gigantic nostrils. His Aunt Berta looked in his cradle and said so immediately. Succeeds with minimal effort in becoming a decent man, then falls into the clutches of publisher S.J., who employs him in a variety of tasks; at the beginning of their acquaintance, P. writes articles and poems, and after just fifteen years, he’s allowed to put stamps on letters on his own and execute other important clerical tasks. January 19, 1913: Contracts with the publisher for a monthly honorarium. December 8, 1936: Notice of first installment. Assumes the pseudonyms Max Jungnickel, Mark Twain, Waldemar Bonsels, and Fritz von Unruh. Can never convince anyone that there’s more than one author behind these names. Painted in oil by Professor Liebermann; gives him a Paul Klee original in return, though Liebermann doesn’t eat it up. S.J. bequeaths Panter his son; P. knocks large holes in the expensive heirloom’s head in the very first week and doesn’t handle him very gently in other ways either. Dies on July 4, 1976, while attempting to tear the publisher back out of his grave.”
“Well?” the Good Lord asked.
“Hmm,” I said again, “Can’t we combine all three biographies? Maybe I could be the son of a senior civil servant, and exterminator at the Weltbühne. . .”
“Hurry up!” Father God said sternly, “I don’t have much time. I’m presiding over three field services at ten o’clock: Poles versus the Germans, Germans versus the Poles, and the Italians versus everyone else. I must go be with my peoples. So choose.”
And so I chose.

Monday, December 21, 2020

A Lonely Death in Sweden 85 Years Ago

Kurt Tucholsky, born in Berlin into a Jewish family, was one of the most famous writers, journalists, and satirists of the Weimar Republic. 85 years ago today, he took his own life in Swedish exile where he had fled to in 1932 already.

He knew what was coming.

Without an audience, or influence, too depressed to write, and out of money, he overdosed on sleeping pills. His then-girlfriend Gertrude Meyer — or rather, one of his two girlfriends — found him. He was rushed to the hospital where he died the next day. He left three letters to his girlfriends and to his second wife, Mary Gerold, whom he made his sole heir. It was Mary who resurrected his work after 1945.

Tucholsky was a tragic, contradictory figure; very gifted, a brilliant writer, liked by his friends, hated by the ones he trashed mercilessly, funny and entertaining, well-read and well-traveled. But he had trouble staying in a longer relationship. Both of his marriages —  and quite a few courtships before, during, and after them — ended in divorce. He loved France where he lived for years, but France would not take him in after the Nazis came to power.

He did not pledge alliance to any party. He flirted with Communism, but was never willing to toe the party line. He wore fine suits and liked to dine well. He spent most his life criticizing the Social Democrats. He belittled the Conservatives and he despised the Nazis. Naturally, he was among the first ten authors whose books were burned in 1933 at the Opernplatz in Berlin, together with Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.


Here is a story from the book Hereafter, where Tucholsky muses about the afterlife.

“I Did Not Pass away without a Trace. Except—”

What time …?”—but his hand was already flopping back down. “Oh,” he said. I smiled. When I noticed the expression in his eyes, I straightened my laugh lines again.
“No time,” he whispered. “Still getting used to the fact that there’s no time anymore. Yes, the good old apriorist … ”
I diverged. “Down there, did you picture time geometrically too?” I asked.
“No, how … ?” he said.
“Like you were living forward in space,” I replied. “Like you could slide back and forth in space-time, forward and backward, playing with everything in space: when someone appears back there, he’s small; when he comes toward us, he gets bigger, and then his form diminishes, disappears—you know?”
“Not really,” he said.
“No?” I asked. “It’s like this:
“The little house I used to live in is standing still. Now it starts moving. At night, when we can’t sleep, we can hear what it’s doing. It’s traveling through time. It’s moving forward so fast that the water of time froths up high in front, off its bow; the house splits time, which flows to the right and left of it, whooshing by all around, and we’re lying in our little bedrooms, carried along, helpless, powerless, ever onward. Now and then a hand slides off the bed, dangling limply, and moving—backward? There is no backward. Sometimes the sleeper flinches in the face of what’s yet to come—but it’s all riding along with him. Premonitions don’t help. When you wake up early in the morning, the house has already stopped somewhere else.”
“Yeah, I did feel something like that,” he said. “No one’s very happy about it though.”
“No,” I said. “No one’s very happy about it. In the end, you’re left with the vague sensation of a host of impressions; it would be fun if you could hit fast-forward and the whole life you’re doomed to live came thundering down all at once. But you couldn’t do that.”
“Did you long to … to come here?” he asked.
“Often,” I said. “I was hungry every livelong day. Hungry for money, then hungry for women, then, when that subsided, hungry for stillness. So hungry for tranquility. And more: hungry for completion. Not having to—not having to travel through time.”
“You pass away without a trace,” he said.
“No,” I said, “you don’t pass away without a trace. No, I’m not talking about monuments—that’s ridiculous. And I know what you’re about to say: immortal works. Please … No, something else. I left something there—yes, I did leave something there.”
“What?” he asked, somewhat ironically.
“I left something for the things,” I said. “Since that day when I saw the ancient piano player in Paris, who my father had seen twenty years earlier in Cologne. He was still playing the same pieces, that wandering virtuoso—the very same ones. And I felt like my dead father was speaking through him. And I told the things something as well. I sent my regards through many things that have endured longer than you and I. I attached a greeting here and a wreath there, a curse here and a defensive silence there … and as I did, I noticed that the things were already full of similar greetings from those who had passed away. Almost every one of them had held onto matter, left traces behind; when you roamed by, pleas, supplications, curses, and blessings rained down from those things that people say are dead. I did not pass away without a trace. Except—”
“Except what?” he asked.
“Except people are illiterate,” I said, “They can’t read it.”
He looked at me and touched the place where his wristwatch used to be. “Come on,” he said, “Let’s go have that afternoon coffee.”

Die Weltbühne, January 19, 1926

Author: Kurt Tucholsky
Translator: Cindy Opitz
Preface: William Grimes
Hardcover, 96 pages, 25 Photos
Genre: Short Stories
Dimensions: 5'' x 8''
ISBN: 978-1-935902-89-8
Suggested Retail $14.95 / 12,00 €



Make a personalized gift at Zazzle.