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)