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:

I
“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:

II
“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. . .

III
“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.



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