SEPTEMBER 4, 2019
GABRIELE TERGIT’S Käsebier Takes Berlin — first published in 1932 and now appearing for the first time in English — is a novel loaded with names. There’s Miehlke and Gohlisch and Öchsli, Käte Herzfeld and Miss Kohler, Kaliski and Mitte. Oppenheimer, Frächter, Waldschmidt, and there’s Käsebier, whose name translates to “Cheese-Beer.” In another novel, a cabaret singer named “Cheese-Beer” might just be a punch line. Here, the name is a mantra. Käsebier spreads like a virus until “Käsebier’s songs [drift] from the gramophone stores,” and “Käsebier lights [glow] against the darkening sky, scrolling ads: ‘Käsebier shoes are the best.’” Passages like this one are funny, and they become even funnier if you substitute Cheese-Beer. (Try it: “Cheese-Beer shoes are the best.”) You don’t need to know German to get the joke, thanks to the book’s flap copy and the translator Sophie Duvernoy’s introduction. The joke is amusing, but not especially deep. My reaction to the joke — comprehending, but not laughing aloud — seems to me representative of how many American readers will react to much of the novel.
Gabriele Tergit, born Elise Hirschmann, worked as a journalist at the center-left Berliner Tageblatt from the 1920s until the early 1930s, when the Nazis forced her into permanent exile. A free-thinking intellectual, and a Jew, Tergit must have been doubly undesirable, extra threatening. Käsebier Takes Berlin, her first novel, was published to acclaim shortly before she left Germany. Although she went on to write other books, none received the same attention. In the 1970s, when Tergit was in her old age and largely forgotten, Käsebier was rediscovered in Germany. The novel has since taken its place among the landmark works of 1920s Germany, also known as the Weimar era. Many of these books, like Käsebier, shine a light on the exuberant decade that collapsed into fascism. In a time when right-wing nationalism is on the rise around the world, stories from this era in Germany are especially resonant.
The plot of Käsebier itself charts a rise and collapse. One slow day at the Berliner Rundschau, the journalist Emil Gohlisch pens a profile of a neighborhood cabaret singer. Inexplicably, and abruptly, Käsebier’s act takes off. Before long, the singer is the subject of numerous articles and books, and the fashionable upper classes pack the seats at his shows. As he rises, others rise with him: the writers who discovered him; a woman who makes cloth dolls in his likeness; a group of businessmen who build him a theater. Oddly, despite his importance to the plot, Käsebier isn’t quite a main character. He’s portrayed as a well-meaning simpleton and stays mostly offstage. At the center of the novel are the writers and journalists who created Käsebier, as well as the fickle masses who ultimately bring him down.
Who are the main characters? It isn’t easy to say. There’s Miermann, the editor of the Berliner Rundschau; Gohlisch and Miss Kohler, his employees; Meyer-Paris, a foreign correspondent; Otto Lambeck, a poet; Muschler and Mitte, a banker and real estate magnate, respectively; Käte Herzfeld, a socialite; Oberndorffer, an architect — I could keep going. If this cast sounds overcrowded, it is most certainly by design. Tergit seems intent on evoking the chaos of urban experience. As Duvernoy points out in her excellent introduction, Käsebier is not blatantly experimental. The novel sits at the crossroads between realism and modernism. While the novel does move through a conventional plot, the perspective jumps from one character to the next. This method is particularly effective in large group scenes, like the party hosted by Margot Weissman:
Mrs. Muschler joined them and said, “I recently snapped up an ancient stone bowl, truly first-rate. It’s done in white and blue. I simply don’t understand dear Margot with her Tang horses.”
“Yes,” Oppenheimer said. “I wouldn’t put up whole regiments of them. She does have some beautiful pieces, though.”
Otto Peter was eavesdropping on a conversation between two older women.
“Women are born to suffer,” said one. “First our men leave us, then our sons.”
“Yes, and we stay behind, all alone.”
It’s the juxtaposition here that adds heat: the shallow gossip placed beside real emotion. Most of the novel’s leaps in perspective, like this one, are based on proximity. As one Berliner hands off the baton to the next, Käsebier begins to feel like a long-lost cousin of Richard Linklater’s Slacker: a meandering panorama of life in a particular city at a particular time, long on dialogue and local color, short on momentum and plot.
The large cast of characters expands the scope of the novel, but it also blurs the book’s focus. Tergit’s characters sometimes feel not so different from the consumer products that litter the text: the dolls and umbrellas, the chairs, the tables, the decorative statues. Mitte, for example, the real estate magnate, feels more like a prop than a person, a villain constructed to make a political point. Tergit’s strongest political points are subtler, baked into the book’s unusual style. In the second paragraph of the novel, a commercial street near the newspaper is described in a list; later on, a similar list describes newspaper headlines:
On the right, the Tietz department store: Sale, Sale, Sale! Stiller’s Shoes: “Now Even Cheaper!” Umbrellas! They’re all there: Wigdor and Sachs and Resi. […] There’s the best store for artificial flowers. Boutonnières for suits in the spring, corsages for balls in the winter. […] Pastry shops, perfumes, suitcases and woolens.
Administrative reform. Higher education. Statistics on Berlin. The warmest day in February. Massive fire in Charlottenburg. Streetcar collision with tractor. Where to put it? Where to put it? One is as important as the other. The new elections can’t go, and every other paper has the German embassy and Cavell film too. So cut thirty lines on “Higher Education”! Cut “Social debates in the Reichstag” to sixty lines! Stick “Unrest at Yesterday’s Boxing Matches” on page four!
The news has been debased, transformed into a product. Because this point appears gradually — not stated directly — it feels natural and convincing.
Most of Tergit’s characters fare better than the cartoonish Mitte. At times, we feel real sympathy for the editor Miermann, for Miss Kohler, and for Käsebier. Toward the end of the novel, when Miermann’s editorship is in jeopardy, he wanders the city, hugs a tree, and begs it to help him: “He was not ashamed in front of the tree, this tree was good it sheltered him, it did not expose him to scorn, it did not demand any posturing, irony, or industriousness. ‘You dear,’ he said, and patted the tree.”
It’s a weird and beautiful moment, a welcome respite from scorn and irony for the reader, as well as for Miermann. There’s real tenderness here. It’s hard not to wish that Tergit had more often slowed down, loosened her grip on these characters, and allowed them to wander.
The novel’s energy emerges from its distinctive style. Tergit’s prose is sharp and confident, full of brilliant associative leaps. Duvernoy’s translation is impressive, especially in long stretches of dialogue, many of which have the well-honed feel of the wittiest film noir repartee. In her introduction, Duvernoy explains her decision to depict with a light touch the novel’s “Berlinerisch” dialect. This seems a smart choice, not only for the reason she cites — that to employ New York or London slang would confuse the book’s focus on life in Berlin — but also because Tergit’s prose is stripped down, journalistic. Period slang would almost certainly have distanced the contemporary reader.
To read Käsebier Takes Berlin today, more than 80 years after its original publication, is to experience occasional shocks of recognition. Many have noted the similarities between Weimar-era Germany and the Trump-era United States, and in Käsebier, these parallels sometimes come to the fore. As Duvernoy notes in her introduction, the rise of Käsebier is, in effect, the result of a story gone viral. In one passage, we come across the phrase “fake news.” In another, Miermann expresses something similar to the news fatigue so many Americans feel: “I’m always supposed to get worked up: against sales taxes, for sales taxes, against excise taxes, for excise taxes. I’m not going to get worked up again until five o’clock tomorrow unless a beautiful girl walks into the room!”
This last line — the mention of a “beautiful girl” — calls to mind another unnerving parallel: Käsebier’s rise seems not dissimilar to that of our president, Donald Trump. The singer fills a vacuum, and his unlikely success has much to do with his cultural moment. The difference, of course, is that Käsebier is comparatively harmless, a cheesy singer granted a year in the spotlight.
In the end, the most disturbing parallels, as well as the most intriguing takeaways, have to do with the press. At first glance, the newspapers in Käsebier have little in common with our own. They’re making money, for one, and they’re part of a thriving journalistic ecosystem. According to Duvernoy’s introduction, Berlin was home to an astonishing 40 daily newspapers in 1930. Now, in the age of consolidation, a major city is lucky to have a handful. Back then, there was money to be made; now, there’s not enough money to go around. But what Käsebier Takes Berlin makes clear is that, despite these differences, we’ve ended up in a similar situation to that of Germany in the 1920s: we have newspapers that aim to please the crowd at all costs. Tergit’s novel offers a valuable warning. This won’t turn out well.