Posts Tagged ‘The Selfish Giant’

Grand Tour #8 – Germany. The Flying Classroom / Erich Kästner

April 19, 2017

I’ve got past form with Erich Kästner. I was so engrossed in Emil and the Detectives one evening in 2006 that I left my phone on a train and never saw it again. It would be on a train, I suppose. Anyway, with all of German literature to choose from I could have opted for one of the acknowledged classics – Werther, say, though that’s hardly original – but in the end I decided to return to dear Erich.

The Flying Classroom (Das fliegende Klassenzimmer) is a book ripe for rediscovery, published in a new translation by the legendary Anthea Bell just a few years ago with the original Walter Trier illustrations preserved. It’s a pleasure just to hold the handsome Pushkin Press edition in your hand. The translation was funded in part by the Goethe-Institut, which I remember being a useful source of Thomas Mann stuff during my A levels. Long may it prosper.

The book opens with adult Erich being nagged by his mother to write the Christmas story he’s been banging on about, only it’s the height of summer and he can’t get in the right mood, so he goes to the Zugspitze, the only place in Europe with snow. Part of his motivation for writing this story is that he has just read a book in which the children were constantly happy. Childhood is not like that, he writes, and part of the process of growing up is learning to weather the punches that life throws at you, even as a child, so that you grow emotionally as well as physically. From one of the introductory chapters:

Only when the brave have become intelligent and the intelligent have become brave will we really be sure of something that we often, but mistakenly, feel is an established fact: the progress of mankind.

The Flying Classroom was published in 1933, the same year Hitler was elected Chancellor, and Kästner saw the way the wind was blowing. The knowledge of what came shortly after its publication, the burning of Kästner’s own books by the Nazis, makes reading this one a particularly poignant experience, though the story itself is poignant enough.

I get the impression there isn’t much of a tradition of the school story in German literature. The only one that comes instantly to mind is Robert Musil’s nasty novel of sadistic bullying The Confusions of Young Törless. How I love that book; but it’s not what Kästner seems to be going for here (except in the scene where two boys from a rival school abduct Rudy Kreuzkamm and tie him to a chair in the cellar with a washing line). The school story is a predominantly British genre, and whatever Kästner’s model may have been (Kipling? Wodehouse?), he outdoes the established masters here.

The action takes place on the last few schooldays before Christmas, and centres ostensibly around preparations for a school play, The Flying Classroom, written by Johnny and performed by him and four friends. You’re bombarded by names at the start of the book, but it’s worth slowing down and getting to know each of the boys individually: there’s Johnny, the creative one; righteous Martin, the leader; smart Sebastian, the joker; diminutive and weedy Uli; and hulking Matthias, Uli’s protector, who dreams of being a boxer and is rarely seen without a piece of cake in his hand.

At the start it appears that Johnny will be the central character, but every boy has his own story, the most engaging being those of Uli, who puts himself at risk in an effort to prove his bravery, and Martin, who is devastated at receiving a letter from his mother telling him she cannot afford the train fare of 8 marks for his journey home, and so he must stay at school for Christmas in the company of a small number of other boarders. The resolution of this plotline brought tears to my eyes, which is an effect books almost never have on me.

One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human. One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is not to try and tell them.

Mrs Lintott, of course, in The History Boys. I always knew that teachers were human, because I’d been brought up by two of them. If you’re a child with a parent teaching at your school, the assumption is that you live in perpetual fear of their embarrassing you in front of your peers. With me it was different, my father a universally popular man, me wanting occasionally to shout at children expressing admiration for him, ‘He’s not nice and funny at home, he’s a tyrant! A TYRANT!’ (The reality was probably somewhere between the two.) Let’s return to Mrs Lintott. When I quote Alan Bennett it’s usually to make a point, and the point here is that in Kästner’s world the lesson that one’s teacher is a human, when learned, deepens rather than undermines the relationship.

The boys’ teacher Dr Bökh (nicknamed Justus for his decency – ‘I’d go to the gallows for that man if I had to!’ swears Matthias), instead of disciplining them for delinquency, tells a candid story of his own childhood, and a friendship that he regrets having lost. This brings about a revolution in the attitude of the prefect Theodor, who treats the other boys more kindly. In another episode, the children deride their headmaster for his one repeated joke, but view him newly with sympathy and pity when, embarrassed, he attempts to tell a new one. Dr Bökh’s lost friend, it turns out, is an acquaintance of the boys, Dr Uthofft (known to them as No-Smoking because he lives in a no-smoking carriage from a decommissioned train), and the boys are able to effect a moving reunion, having intuited the importance of this friendship to the two men. There’s something of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ in this demonstration of the potential of children to redeem adult suffering, and it is one of a number of moments that lift the book from mere greatness to magicality.

No-Smoking linked arms with Justus … ‘I’ll ask you at this moment, which I hope is a memorable one, not to forget your own youth! That may sound an unnecessary reminder now, while you are still children. But it isn’t unnecessary, believe us! We have grown older and yet we have stayed young. We two know what it’s all about!’

Dr Bökh and Dr Uthofft looked at one another.

And the boys privately decided, in their hearts, never to forget that exchange of glances.

I fear that out of context this reads as sentimental. Kästner is not a sentimentalist. He writes early on of communing by the slopes of the Zugspitze with a butterfly called Gottfried and a calf called Eduard. So far, so whimsical, you might think, but at the end he relates that Gottfried has died and Eduard has most likely been made into schnitzel. Everything has a season. The Flying Classroom isn’t sentimental, though it’s often gemütlich, in the best way. Reading it ought to be a Christmas tradition, like watching Fanny and Alexander or having a fistfight with your aunt.

It’s not sentimental, and it’s not soft. It’s robust and riotous and archly, absurdly funny. Sebastian scoffs at the sixth-formers taking dancing classes with girls. ‘They ought to read what Arthur Schopenhauer has to say about women,’ he rails. Professor Kreuzkamm, on learning of his son Rudy’s kidnapping, openly reprimands Rudy’s parents before the class. There are typographic jokes and puns, and always those warm, endearing illustrations. It’s a sad and joyous book, and I loved it.


A personal history of Wilde

February 19, 2015

Oscar Wilde

The first I knew of Oscar Wilde was ‘The Selfish Giant’. When we were ten or eleven my friend Daniel and I were headhunted to write some incidental music for a school puppet play of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, which we then performed live at school and even took on tour to a local primary school. To be brutally honest I didn’t think the play was up to much (the only performance that has stayed in the mind is that of the drama teacher’s unexpected son, who played some kind of flamboyant old crone — the Snow Queen herself? no, I think she was called Mrs something), but I was proud of the music. I had a list of 20-odd cues written down, and intended to record them on tape for posterity (already an obsession of mine) but didn’t get around to it. I don’t remember a note of it now. It was about this time that I made a photocopy at school of ‘The Selfish Giant’, inspired to write some music for it, perhaps to accompany a real-time reading (aloud or silent) of the story. I thought I could capture its poignancy. Anyway, I never did it. Too much like hard work.

I’ve been thinking about Wilde quite a bit recently, particularly The Importance of Being Earnest. Stephen Fry tells a story of his own discovery of Wilde: he caught the 1952 Anthony Asquith film of Earnest on television, was captivated by it, started addressing people at every opportunity as ‘the visible personification of absolute perfection’, and devoured Wilde’s published works. It was the same for me. I’d have been fourteen or so when I first saw the film, and I marvelled that something more than a century old could be so funny. I borrowed a Penguin edition of De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol from the library and did flick through it, but I decided the letter was too dense and the poem too long. More of the apathy that has plagued my whole life. Think of what I might have achieved. By the time Schubert got to my age he was dead.

The way I got to know the play properly was by listening to a BBC radio version that starred Geraldine McEwan as Lady Bracknell (when I read it now I still hear certain lines in her voice), Simon Russell Beale as Jack and Robert Bathurst as Algernon. I recorded it off the radio and listened to it ad nauseam. There is a scene in Alison Bechdel’s brilliant Fun Home, which I read earlier this month, where Bechdel feeds lines to her mother, who is rehearsing for a production of Earnest. I found I knew the dialogue off by heart. I can’t recite the play from beginning to end, but watching it I generally know what the characters are going to say the moment before they say it. Actually, I can do one bit:

Apprised, sir, of my daughter’s sudden flight by her trusty maid, whose confidence I purchased by means of a small coin, I followed her at once by a luggage train. Her unhappy father is, I am glad to say, under the impression that she is attending a more than usually lengthy lecture by the University Extension Scheme on the Influence of a permanent income on Thought.

I’ve seen it staged a few times, once with Patricia Routledge at the Theatre Royal in Bath, once a Cambridge student production with a male student in drag as Lady Bracknell. I think this is a fairly well established tradition, reaching its logical extreme in Gerald Barry’s recent operatic adaptation, where the role is sung by a basso profondo.

Listening to the McEwan/Bathurst radio version tuned my ears to comic nuance. I saw a production of the play done by students of the University of Westchester, let’s call it, several years ago at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Its gimmick was that the action had been updated to the 1980s, which I presume was a way of getting out of spending money on fin-de-siècle clothing. There was one gratuitously sexual dialogue-free vignette in a club, which I imagine embarrassed the performers as much as it did the audience, and a couple of lazy tokenistic amendments to the script (Lady Bracknell ranting about ‘the worst excesses of the last Labour government,’ Cecily moaning about having to study her ‘horrid, horrid Thatcherite manifesto’; no one laughed).

The performances were pretty OK as far as I recall, though the chap playing Jack said ‘irrevockable’ at the end, which made me shudder slightly, but there is one exchange that I remember especially:

Lady Bracknell. Good afternoon, dear Algernon, I hope you are behaving very well.

Algernon. I’m feeling very well, Aunt Augusta.

The way Bathurst delivers that line is delightful: ‘I’m feeling very well.’ He glosses over the changed verb and emphasises the ‘very’, to divert his aunt’s attention from the fact that he has specifically not answered her question. This is a man used to wrapping people round his little finger and getting his way. The student Algy opted for ‘I’m feeling very well.’ This reading draws attention to the verb, which is something Wilde’s writing really doesn’t demand, and makes Algy seem cringing and obsequious, which he isn’t, even in the presence of his aunt. It’s hard to do comedy if you haven’t got the ear for it.