Review: Going to the Dogs. The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner

“I’m waiting for the victory of decency, then I could make myself available.”
~Erich Kästner, Going to the Dogs. The Story of a Moralist (Informally translated)

Plot summary

“Originally published in German in 1931 and in an expurgated English translation in 1932, this novel is the tale of Jacob Fabian, a Berlin advertising copywriter doomed in the context of economic, ethical, and political collapse by his characteristic mixture of detachment and decency.

Freiluftkino Friedrichshagen, opened in 1931. Photo: herr.g (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Freiluftkino Friedrichshagen, opened in 1931. Photo: herr.g (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Fabian is a middle-of-the-road liberal, an Enlightenment rationalist, a believer that the public condition reflects prevailing private moralities, and a skeptic toward all ideological nostrums. Richly detailed and vividly plotted, Fabian remains an unparalleled personalization of the collapse of the Weimar Republic.” More on Goodreads 

“Everything that takes gigantic forms can impress, also stupidity.”
~Erich Kästner, Going to the Dogs. The Story of a Moralist (Informally translated)

On Erich Kästner

“Erich Kästner (1899-1974) was a German author, poet, screenwriter and satirist, known for his humorous, socially astute poetry and children’s literature.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Innocence of humanity
  • On the barricade between conflicting fractions of society
  • Timeless satire for individuals

Going to the Dogs is set in Berlin in the aftermath of the 1929 financial crash and before the Nazi takeover, when rising unemployment and financial challenges where the key concepts. The main protagonist, a moralist, is a thirty-two-year old Jacob Fabian who does miscellaneous jobs, currently as an advertising copywriter. He is a fortunate “young man with an excellent education but permanently condemned to a low-paid job without security in the short or the long run“. (Goodreads)

Fabian’s story is a timeless recollection where making ends meet comes across societal frustration. It could be a story of our time, although the political setting is somewhat different but still in a sense similar to contemporary dilemmas. Young people on the brink of economic uncertainty numbing themselves with endorphine-filled enjoyments, like watching reality TV shows, porn or engaging themselves in extreme sports – only in the case of Kästner’s world of 1931, the characters frequent sex clubs and make pointy observations of satiric content on their surrounding.

However, what the young generation mostly expects in the novel is to run into a fruitful connection that could make all wishes come true. Isn’t this precisely the challenge of our times – networking? It seems that it has come down to one single thing in our present time, networking, and its impact on one’s success or failure in the employment market. Kästner’s characters face the constant threat of being laid off, also a current possibility for many who are not yet unemployed.

Due to his mild and moderate political inclination in a highly politicized environment, Fabian is frustrated – the Enlightenment principles and liberalism have failed and people on the left and right are warring over who gets to the finishing line first. The tactics are dirty and nasty and blood gets spilled. So, between the lines, not very different from our days. But then again, irony always wins: humans are not very rational, they only believe they are 🙂 But I guess we as contemporary citizens of the world should not worry too much. Digitalization will come to the rescue if things get out of hand. Or, wait a minute…

Going to the Dogs is also a tale of a schizophrenic society still holding on to the past but at the same time being spat in the face by the future. Technology is overtaking work previously complied by human workforce. The novel is a worthy warning for a society where reason and kindness have been replaced by insane solutions and sadistic ways to treat one another.

Die Seele wird vom Pflastertreten krumm. Photo: Acid Pix (CC BY 2.0)
Die Seele wird vom Pflastertreten krumm. Photo: Acid Pix (CC BY 2.0)

I think Kästner’s portrayal of the German setting of the early 1930’s plays a satirical trick on us. All humans seem to do is to struggle with the very same challenges over and over again. Robotization and the challenge to remain employed are timeless problems, but the options seem vague.

There is a sad nostalgia for all systems gone and buried. The mental image of the city structure manifested in buildings and street signs of the Weimar era is gone with the bombings of World War II. The same mental mapping for the later era of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) is equally gone, although in the latter case the bombing was more metaphorical.

The Weimar era is a mixture of chaos and basically plausible ingredients. While at times there were moments of the roaring twenties before the financial crash of 1929, the 1920’s were a decade of political turmoil and filled with a feeling of deception in the aftermath of World War I. Many a good authors described events and the atmosphere during the era. The hindsight is naturally at its cleverest: the era should have been worth saving to hinder worse things to come. The problem was that there seem to have been only a handful of supporters of the Weimar governance and democracy. Many wished the old system of Kaiserreich, the monarchical empire, to return while others desired a new system of governance – i.e. Nationalsozialismus – which, as we well know, eventually came out of the battle as the winner.

Tucholsky Buchhandlung, with Portrait of Kurt Tucholsky in Eastern Berlin. Photo: Adam Jones (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Tucholsky Buchhandlung, with Portrait of Kurt Tucholsky in Eastern Berlin. Photo: Adam Jones (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The hindsight also sees that early steps of democracy are hard, slow and often lead elsewhere, as happened in the case of democracy in Germany. Another excellent observer of the times was Kurt Tucholsky, a German-Jewish journalist, satirist and writer from Berlin. His picture book Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles (1929, photos assembled by John Heartfield) is a spot-on satire of the frustration in 1920’s Germany. In the end, Tucholsky had enough of Germany and he emigrated to Sweden where he published Schloß Gripsholm in 1931, the same year Going to the Dogs came out. The ending of his life story is sad: weakened by a chronic illness, Tucholsky died on a potential overdose in 1935 in Gothenburg. On the surface, Schloß Gripsholm is a story on summer idyll in the Swedish countryside but on the subsurface, it is an allegory prefiguring the rise of National Socialism.

“The world isn’t purposeful. It isn’t ruled by reason. The world wants to play. Fashion queens have always aroused more interest than future generations and their fate.” ~Kurt Tucholsky, Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles

“I suppose I need not tell you that our world in Germany has ceased to exist, so I’ll just shut up for the moment. No one holds up a red card to an ocean.” ~Kurt Tucholsky, Politische Briefe

Kästner’s other books and Dürrenmatt

It’s been a very long time since I had the pleasure to acquaint myself with Fabian. Die Geschichte eines Moralisten. I’d like to recommend Kästner’s children books as well. They are equally perfect for adults, similarly to Tove Jansson’s books that speak to an ageless audience. A strong key concept is the moral dimension of human affairs. Kästner’s story Die Konferenz der Tiere (The Conference of Animals, 1949) is an account on the dangers of humans and the fear for the future of the children. Thus the children come together to save humanity from wars, revolutions and famine.

An equally heartfelt story is Kästner’s Die Schule der Diktatoren (The School of the Dictators, 1956), a grotesque comedy, based on Kästner’s experiences during the Nazi era in Germany. In the story anonymous string pullers – embodied by e.g. the Minister of War, Prime Minister, and the city commander – establish a coercive reign with interchangeable dictator puppets. The play originally premiered in Munich in 1957.

One reviewer on Goodreads pointed out that if he had not been aware of the author of Die Schule der Diktatoren, he would have guessed the author to be Friedrich Dürrenmatt instead of Erich Kästner. This is a relevant observation that bears much truth. There is a certain similarity between the atmospheres in both authors’ works of fiction. I’m actually contemplating why I did not include the Swiss author Dürrenmatt on My Top 30 Books list, since he was a onetime favorite of mine. I’m going to have to compensate this error in some way or another.

To ease the pain I’m currently having, let me give a short bonus recommendation on the play The Physicists: A Comedy in Two Acts (Die Physiker, 1962) by Dürrenmatt (1921-1990).

“A story is not finished, until it has taken the worst turn.”
~Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Physicists

According to the Goodreads description of the play, “The Physicists is a provocative and darkly comic satire about life in modern times, (…). The world’s greatest physicist, Johann Wilhelm Möbius, is in a madhouse, haunted by recurring visions of King Solomon. He is kept company by two other equally deluded scientists: one who thinks he is Einstein, another who believes he is Newton. It soon becomes evident, however, that these three are not as harmlessly lunatic as they appear. Are they, in fact, really mad? Or are they playing some murderous game, with the world as the stake? For Möbius has uncovered the mystery of the universe—and therefore the key to its destruction—and Einstein and Newton are vying for this secret that would enable them to rule the earth.

All I have to say is do enjoy! Thank you and goodbye for now, until we meet again 🙂

More information
– Erich Kästner Museum Dresden, site retrieved on 24 November 2016 (Facebook site)
– Erich Kästner: Über das Verbrennen von Büchern (2012). On 10 May 1933, works of several German authors were burned on the Berliner Opernplatz under the supervision of Joseph Goebbels. Only one of the authors of the burning books was present, Erich Kästner. He actually witnessed the burning of his books on two occasions, and describes his feelings and his shock at seeing literature being raped and desecrated. In 1965, his works were burnt by the Bund Entschiedener Christen in Düsseldorf. See further for the incident in Düsseldorf at Ferdinand Ranft’s article Ein Licht ins dunkle deutsche Land published in DIE ZEIT on 15 October 1965, retrieved on 3 November 2016
– On the topic of burning books, one cannot skip Ray Bradbury’s famous account of a more than macabre dystopian future in Fahrenheit 451
– Review on the play Schule der Diktatoren in DIE ZEIT Archive on 7 March 1957, retrieved on 3 November 2016

Other novels and stories by Kästner
  • Herz auf Taille (1928)
  • Emil and the Detectives (Emil und die Detektive, 1929), filmed in 1931
  • Pünktchen und Anton (1930)
  • The 35th of May, or Conrad’s Ride to the South Seas (Der 35. Mai oder Konrad reitet in die Südsee, 1931)
  • The Flying Classroom (Das fliegende Klassenzimmer, 1933), filmed in 1954
  • Drei Männer im Schnee (1934)
  • Die verschwundene Miniatur (1935)
  • Doktor Erich Kästners Lyrische Hausapotheke (1936)
  • Der kleine Grenzverkehr oder Georg und die Zwischenfälle (1938)
  • Die Konferenz der Tiere (1949), animated cartoon from 1969
  • Das doppelte Lottchen (1949)
  • Die Schildbürger (1954)
  • Die Schule der Diktatoren (1956)
  • Als ich ein kleiner Junge war (1957)
  • Notabene 45. Ein Tagebuch (1961)
  • Der kleine Mann (1963)
  • Der kleine Mann und die kleine Miss (1969)
  • Münchhausen (1971)

“He was fond of that early stage of intoxication which leads a man to believe that he can feel the earth revolving. The trees and houses still stand quietly in their places, the street-lamps have not yet acquired a twin, but the earth revolves; you feel it at last! But today even that displeased him. He walked on beside his intoxication and pretended they did not know each other. What a queer globe it was, whether it revolved or not! He could not help thinking of a drawing by Daumier, entitled “Progress”. Daumier had drawn a number of snails crawling after each other; that was the pace of human development. But the snails were crawling in a circle. And that was the worst of it.”
~Erich Kästner, Going to the Dogs. The Story of a Moralist


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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