When I first started reading Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier Takes Berlin (translated by Sophie Duvernoy), I thought I was reading the author’s attempt to cash in on or mimic Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin. Tergit’s style—especially when describing life along the Kurfürstendamm—is as frenetic and Impressionistic as Döblin. Also, Käsebier Takes Berlin was published about two years after Berlin Alexanderplatz. Thankfully, the differences started quickly appeared. The cast of Käsebier Takes Berlin is larger and are mostly of a higher social class in than in Döblin’s epic. The scope is also different, given its larger cast and shorter timeline. I think, on balance, I liked Käsebier Takes Berlin a bit more, mostly because I started to really despise the main character of Berlin Alexanderplatz and partly because of its shorter time line.
Käsebier Takes Berlin opens in the offices of the Berliner Rundschau, a newspaper under pressure to raise its circulation in face of a host of problems. The journalists have literary pretensions. Most of them are behind the times in terms of what readers want and how they want to read about it. Their printer is more than willing to cut lines to save space, even if it means that the articles have no endings or don’t make sense. Things start to look up (a bit) for the Rundschau when one of them tips off a well-known poet about a rising cabaret star called Käsebier (which means cheese and bier). We only briefly get Käsebier’s perspective as he suddenly finds himself the talk of the town. The rest of the novel is mostly about people trying to make a buck (or a reichsmark) on Käsebier or on other similarly shaky ventures.
After the fast and furious introduction to life among the rich and want-to-be rich people of western Berlin, post-Inflation but pre-Third Reich, the book focuses a bit more. On the one hand, there are the journalists, who mostly hang around in cafés lamenting the growing philistinism around them. One character, who turns Käsebier into a money spinner for a few months, is the frequent target of their ire. On the other, we see a banker working with an unscrupulous developer to create an apartment/shopping/theater complex on the Kurfürstendamm. This banker thinks he’s built an ironclad, low-risk deal with the developer and ignores all warnings against the whole business.
The two main plots both target Weimar society in a surprisingly modern way. My contemporaries are very familiar with fads, memes, one-hit wonders, and how fast all of these lose their cool. Things were no different in Tergit’s Berlin. What’s different is that there were fewer protections for people caught up in schemes based on those fads. At least in the United States, we have laws that protect people’s savings in banks. If a banker, heedless of all risk and arrogant in all his abilities, were to him himself to the bank’s accounts, it wouldn’t ruin the customers. Depending on how much that banker stole, he might or might not end up in prison. Sadly, there’s nothing to protect the entertainment of the moment once people have moved on to the next best thing.
For however much I liked the book or how well Duvernoy translated the highly idiomatic and à la mode , I suspect that readers will probably pass it over—especially if they’ve read Berlin Alexanderplatz. That said, if readers want a glimpse of life in Berlin before the Nazis took over (if they are fans of Babylon Berlin, for example), I would recommend this book over Berlin Alexanderplatz. This book is an easier introduction to the era, without a hugely problematic main character like Berlin Alexanderplatz and with a much shorter page count. It’s even quite fun in places, with its satirical eye on people who are more than willing to sacrifice quality in their attempts to make some cash.
My experience with books republished by NYRB Classics project has been very hit or miss. This is mostly my own fault, I suspect, because the books that I’ve chosen to read have turned out to be very much of their times. They didn’t have that ineffable timelessness of theme and tone that makes some books popular over the years. Sometimes it’s a little too easy for me to see why these books didn’t make a lasting impression. Readers who are more versed in older writing styles might have better luck with the NYRB’s classics.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.