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Jun 2004 Journal

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Neglected masterpiece by a refugee writer (book review)

Käsebier Erobert den Kurfürstendamm
Gabriele Tergit
Das Neue Berlin, 2004, 271pp.

Journalism and journalists have been a favoured theme of German novelists since Gustav Freytag's Die Journalisten, which featured the Jewish hack Schmock. With the modernisation of the German mass media after 1918, journalists bulked large in literary works created during the vibrant artistic life of the Weimar Republic: the provincial nobody Tredup in Hans Fallada's Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben, the visit to the editorial offices in Erich Kästner's Fabian, the use of newspaper headlines for dramatic purposes in plays like Ernst Toller's Hoppla, wir leben!

Gabriele Tergit's Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm, published by Rowohlt in 1931, ranks with the best of these works. It uses the media-manipulated rise and fall of the mediocre comic Käsebier to provide a panoramic survey of the cultural, commercial and social elites of Berlin society, at the hectic highpoint of its dizzying dance on the edge of the abyss - into which it duly fell, with the financial crisis that engulfs Tergit's entrepreneurs, journalists, bankers and beau monde at the end of the novel. The collapse of the fevered speculative bubble engineered by bankers, builders and pressmen latching on to the Käsebier phenomenon and the ensuing rush of bankruptcies take place against the background of the crisis of the political system of the Republic, with the Nazis achieving their political breakthrough in the elections of September 1930.

Tergit's novel employs the bold experimental techniques pioneered by Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz to capture the modern metropolitan experience, combining them with the flippant, cynical humour of Fabian, where Kästner leads his hero, Candide-like, from one aspect of modern big-city life to another. Tergit's style has a gripping immediacy and a liveliness that matches the pulsating rhythms of Berlin life in the late 1920s. The story of the staff of her Berliner Rundschau, under the revered editor Miermann, is amusing, fascinating and finally, with the destruction of the paper by the manoeuvres of opportunists, moving. The novel is, in short, a pleasure to read.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Jens Brüning, who has edited this new edition of the novel, for his devoted efforts over many years to bring Gabriele Tergit back into the public eye. It was a particular pleasure to hear him read from the novel at Club 43 in March, a nostalgic experience for those members of the Club who can still remember Tergit herself speaking at its meetings.

Gabriele Tergit was the nom-de-plume of Elise Hirschmann, born in 1894 into a Berlin Jewish family. After studying, she became a journalist, known especially for her court reports in the prestigious Berliner Tageblatt. She married the architect H.J. Reifenberg (later responsible for Belsize Square Synagogue), but just when Käsebier promised to bring her literary success, she, her husband and young son had to flee Germany in March 1933. After a spell in Palestine, they came to London in 1938, where Tergit wrote for a number of newspapers and established herself as something like the doyenne of refugee writers. For almost 25 years she was secretary of the PEN Centre of German Writers Abroad, the 'Deutscher Exil-PEN'.

Gabriele Tergit took British nationality and remained in Britain until her death in 1982. She wrote frequently for AJR Information, and some readers will remember the enchanting Büchlein vom Bett (1954) and Kaiserkron und Päonien rot. Kleine Kulturgeschichte der Blumen (1958), as well as the longer novel Effingers, which tells the story of a German-Jewish family. But she never enjoyed the fame that her early novel had promised her and that the Nazis stole from her. Hopefully this new edition of Käsebier will at last secure the novel its rightful place in the sparkling pantheon of Weimar literature.
Anthony Grenville

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