Erich Kästner: Going to the Dogs. The Story of a Moralist – Fabian. Die Geschichte eines Moralisten (1931)

Going to the Dogs

Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist is set in Berlin after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and before the Nazi takeover, years of relentlessly rising unemployment when major banks and companies were in collapse. The moralist in question is Jakob Fabian, “aged thirty-two, profession variable, at present advertising copywriter, 17 Schaperstrasse, weak heart, brown hair,” a young man with an excellent education but, at least in the current economy, no prospects-permanently condemned, so far as anyone can see, to a low-paid job without security in the short or the long run. What’s to be done? Fabian and friends make the best of it-they go to work every day even though they may be laid off at any time, and in the evenings they head out to the cabarets.

Erich Kästner is famous for his children’s books like Emil and the Detectives but he was also a highly regarded author for grown ups and one of the first whose books were burnt by the Nazis. His harsh portrayal of Berlin between the wars Going to the Dogs. The Story of a Moralist or Fabian. Die Geschichte eines Moralisten is still widely read and considered a classic of German 20th Century literature and has been made into two movies. It’s a pessimistic and satirical but clear-sighted depiction of a society in collapse and the “waiting room”- feeling that was so typical then. Another world war seemed impending, Germany was heading towards disaster; the Nazi party which had already been rearing its ugly head for a while, showed that it had come to stay and would eventually take over Germany. It’s a world of depravity and unemployment. People have two possibilities; either they go under or they make the most of it. Making the most of it, means that morals are loose to the extreme. In this book people jump into beds and change partners as easily as the Hippies during the 60s, only this is a very different society and the implications are different. These are not free young people jumping into bed with each other but mostly married men and women who do it behind the back of their partners. Women who sell their bodies because there is no other way to make money; men who try to fight their depression with promiscuity and alcohol.

The novel is told from the point of view of Fabian an unemployed academic. He and his best friend Labude try to stay true to their ideals despite their own misery. Labude is waiting for news about his habilitation while Fabian has just lost his job. Fabian and Labude try to survive somehow. During the day Fabian is looking for work; at night they hit the cabarets, dance clubs, sex clubs and brothels. At the beginning of the novel, they drift but are still having fun. After a while things turn darker and what started like an amusing tale turns into a terrible tragedy.

I expected this to be a good book but I didn’t expect it to be so funny and witty. The end is sad but the beginng is hilarious.  Fabian is a very attractive man, sarcastic but fundamentally good, compassionate and highly educated. Women throw themselves at him. All sorts of women from every possible background. Young unemployed academics, wives of rich industrialists, little housewives whose husband are travelling salesmen, prostitutes and addicts.

Fabian doesn’t judge but the way the story is told clearly indicates that it’s satirical.

Kästner also manages to show how these transitions came to be. A whole generation grew up with a fear of the father induced by black pedagogy. These young men were then sent to the trenches and those, like Fabian, who came back alive and unharmed had lost all of their beliefs. Fabian is happy he’s not one of those hidden away in a hospital because his face was destroyed but inside he’s destroyed as well.

I have always been fascinated by this time period and this place. Berlin between the wars. While certainly overdrawn in places, Kästner manages an uncannily realistic portrait. We, with our knowledge of everything that came later, don’t even find it all that satirical. I was amazed that a book that was published in 1931 was this clear-sighted. There is not doubt about Germany’s future development, no doubt that there are parties fighting for supremacy and no doubt who will win. This is a society that is dancing on its own grave. Laughing, singing but crying as well. Sexuality and money are the major currencies. Everyone tries to snatch a bit of both and many go too far for that. It made me realise what fertile ground Hitler found.

If you’re looking for a second opinion – here’s a review by Guy (His Futile Preaoccupations)

38 thoughts on “Erich Kästner: Going to the Dogs. The Story of a Moralist – Fabian. Die Geschichte eines Moralisten (1931)

  1. That’s funny, I never made the link with Emil & the Detectives.

    I have this thanks to the generosity of Guy, who passed on his edition. Looking forward to it. It’s a rich and fascinating period as we look for clues and follow the inevitable trajectory. Isherwood’s Berlin books are the touchstones here, but I’ll be happy to expand my view with Kastner.

    • He was quite versatile and wrote a lot. His children’s books are all classics.
      Thanks for mentioning Isherwood, I’ve wanted to read him for ages.
      It’s an amazing time period.
      You will see, the book is quite entertaining. I hope the translated it well. Did Guy review it then?

      • There are 2 directions for me: to read more Isherwood, and to read more books set in Berlin. Max reviewed Berlin Alexanderplatz, of course, but that’s a different type of animal.

      • It happens! I’ve often had the experience recently of holding a book in a store, thinking “That looks good,” then a seed of doubt sprouting that I already own it. Turned out a couple of times I DID own it, had forgotten I’d bought it, while it languished somewhere on the 230+ TBR pile.

        • I haven’t bought anything twice so far but I seem to forget the one or the other review. On the other hand my parents own Kästner’s collected works, so I’ve know this book since I’m a child just never got around to reading it. Which just means that if I had discovered it on Guy’s site I might have remembered. Maybe.

  2. I ve had this on my radar for a while since I heard he wrote some adult works on a radio show here in uk about Emil ,I love to compare this berlin to the one in Alexandraplatz and the one Isherwood wrote about as well ,all the best stu

    • It’s a must-read. It’s just so amazing to see that there really were people who saw things with so much lucidity. It’s funny as well and I liked some of his descriptions, very short, just a sprinkle here and there but original.

  3. I had not heard of this, but I read Emil and the Detectives when I was little and will definitely look this one up. It’s been such a revelation reading some of these works by “clear-eyed” Germans from this period – Isherwood, Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight, (for which I think I also have you to thank) or Fritz Reck-Malleczewen’s Diary of a Man in Despair.

    • His work for adults is overshadowed by his books for children although they are just as good.
      Books like this just shows how the excuse that so many used “we didn’t see it, “we didn’t know” is very often just that – an excuse. Keun is excellent as well. More emotional than this. This has a humurous side I didn’t expect.

  4. Döblin after Dos Passos makes a lot of sense.

    I remember Guy’s review of this, which tempted me. Reading yours it really is something I want to read. As you say, such a fascinating period, a society aware of its own downfall. Joseph Roth’s essays on Berlin (there’s a review at mine) are fascinating too for a non-fiction insight into the place, the last one deals with the rise of the Nazis, but most are much smaller pieces describing everyday life.

    I have some Isherwood too, but may try to get this before them. Not sure. It’s definitely on the list anyway, however you cut it.

    • I’v always meant to read Joyce, Dos Passos and Döblin together but stopped after Joyce. I really like Dos Passos. His descriptions are so amazing. Now I need to finish and then move on.
      Have you read Irmagrd Keun who Scott mentions as well. She was Roth’s partner. Both were very clear-sighted people as well. I’ve read some of Roths fiction but never his non-fiction.
      What I liked in Kästner’s book was the tone. I hope they got that right in the translation. It’s very unique. Satirical but not mordant.

  5. I agree that this was such a fascinating time and place. I find it intriguing that as the book was published in 1931 that Kästner could see the writing on the wall. I do find that lots of really bad things in history were anticipated by perceptive minds.

    • I don’t know enough about him but after having read this I’m a bit surprised he didn’t leave Germany like most of the others who saw that things were going very badly.

  6. Nice review, Caroline. This looks like a very interesting book because it depicts a fascinating period in Germany’s history and was also written at the time the story took place and so the thoughts are very contemporary. It is interesting to know that it is hilarious and sad at the same time. I am making a ‘TBR’ list for this year’s GLM and I will add this book to that list. Thanks for this insightful review.

  7. I just read The Mirador, in which Elisabeth Gille writes an imagined memoir of the life of her mother, Irene Nemirovsky. Part 1 is a fairly leisurely reminiscence of early life (albeit an early life in which the Russian Revolution is the key event). Part 2, though, is written in summer 1942 when Nemirovsky is in internal exile, and awaiting imminent doom. The “did we see it / did we know?” questions are very much live.

    Gille writes (as she admits) from a start-point of anger about her mother’s naïveté and inability (or refusal) to see the worst consequences of the unfolding situation. But she allows that even someone who grew up with pogroms as part of the background of life can’t have realised what was unfolding in the 1940s. Nemirovsky’s fatal error was to assume that her success and personality had assimilated her into French society, and hence safety.

    It’s very impressive how she negotiates around the traps of hindsight.

    • This sounds excellent. Thanks for mentioning it. I’ll have to look into it.
      Nemirovsky’s fate is so unique. You can’t say she didn’t see something coming, hence the conversion but she couldn’t imagine that wouldn’t save her.
      It’s a memir I would like to read, that’s for sure.

  8. Great review, Caroline. I too am fascinated by this time period and often wondered about the conditions that made it possible for someone like Hitler to succeed. Adding it to the TBR pile now.

    • Thanks, Carole. I hope you will like it. I thought he showed so well how they must have felt. Losing every bit of security, drowning their sorrows in alcohol, trying to forget with sex . . .

  9. This sounds like a must read for me. I’m curious about how accurate the time period is portrayed considering it was published before the complete Nazi takeover. did more people see what was to come?

    • I suppose quite a few saw what was coming. He did but he didn’t react. He stayed in Germany while many other left. That’s actually strange. Still, I think he showed the “waiting room” atmosphere so well. They were expecting bad things. Maybe after a while they got numbed? I hope you will like it if you read it. I’d be curious to know what you think of it.

      • It was probably impossible to predict all of the stuff that was about to happen. I know Hitler wrote his book and outlined a lot of it, but how could people imagine the trains, death camps, medical experiments and so many other atrocities.

        • I agree. I remember when the Twin Towers were attacked. A friend told me on the phone but before I saw the pictures on TV, I couldn’t belive it. rationally, yes, but not emotionally. I think this happens to a lot of people. Some things are too bad, too horrible, one simply shuts down and cannot imagine it.
          A concenration camp is even worse. It’s so hard to believe that people could be this atrociously cruel to one another.

  10. I’d like to read this one. What you describe about Berlin corresponds to what Márai mentions too, especially the total sexual liberty, which surprised me.
    coincidence, I bought Goodbye to Berlin by Isherwood today.

    • That’s a coincidence. Yes the sexual liberty is very surprising. It’s as if on a deeper level they knew what was going to happen (I mean the war) and didn’t care anymore.

  11. I thought I have said something here when I read it yesterday.
    I am a bit lost while reading this. If Fabian has no work, how could he afford going to clubs and everything? And what depression got to do with women/men cheating behind their spouse’s back?

    • He loses his job at the beginning and has still some money from the last salaries.
      It’s just that everyone sunk so low, taking drugs, drinking, and they were so depressed, they didn’t care about each other anymore. And many made money prostituting themselves. It’s a bit of a vicious circle.

  12. I don’t think I have ever heard of this author, though I have heard of the Emil books (have never read them, however). I will have to look for it–I also find that interwar period so fascinating, though I have read very little German literature from the period. I want to read Berlin Alexanderplatz sometime–this sounds really good, too.

    • It’s an ideal warm up for Berlin Alexanderplatz, which is probably far more challenging. I still want to finish Dos Passos (I put it aside which was fatal in that case – not easy to get back into it).
      I’m sure you’d enjoy this. It’s so different. Those must have been wild times. It made me chuckle quite a bit.

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