Michael Köhlmeier ‘Two Gentlemen on the Beach’

Michael Köhlmeier artfully mixes fact and fiction in this comparative life of Churchill and Chaplin, tying them together by their dark secret, depression.image

Two Gentlemen on the Beach is my last post for the fifth German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

Chaplin and Churchill meet at a party given in California and Churchill immediately recognises the depressed state of Chaplin and proposes to him that they walk a little along the beach where they discover a strong empathy toward each other and discover amongst other things that

“they shared Nietzche’s opinion that the very idea of suicide was a strong comforter which helped them over many a difficult night”.***

Chaplin explains during this walk that

“I suddenly saw myself as a man moving forward as best as I could over the last twenty eight years launching thousands of projects just not to hang myself from the first tree or jump from the nearest bridge or even buy a revolver”***

Churchill in turn explains that when Samuel Johnson described his own illness which he called the Black Dog, Churchill recognised himself in the description. There and then they agree that wherever they are or whenever they are called they will hurry to the other to save him from the Black Dog. So begins the book.

Köhlmeier uses the correspondence between the narrators father and William Knott a “« very private Private Secretary to a very prime Prime Minister » ” as his source of material for the book. The narrators father had met Chaplin as a child when Chaplin had visited his town’s school for clowns and later wondered if the man accompanying him for the visit was not Churchill who had been in Germany on a family holiday at the time.

The story takes us through key events for each of the protagonists at the time leading to meetings in L.A., New York, London and Biarritz, events such as the first talking movie and Churchill’s being run over in New York. The story naturally funnels towards the war years with an initial discovery

“Chaplin relates that an English statesman had told him that at the beginning of the 1930’s, a friend of Hitler’s had told him that Hitler had been tempted to commit suicide when he was six years old. Chaplin then answered his friend – I quote : “Winston, unfortunately we can’t choose the members of our club.””***

Both Churchill and Chaplin had to struggle to be able to fight against Hitler with their respective arms,

“Charlie playing two roles, that was the idea of genius behind the film –Charlie as the ridiculous dictator and, at the same time, as the Jewish barber, that was the blow dealt to the monster. One man hit back as hard, but not with the weapons of a clown: Winston Churchill.”***

Finally we learn the true role of William Knott, but I will leave that to you!

First published in German as Zwei  Herren an Strand by Hanser Verlag in 2014
Translated into French by Stéphanie Lux as Deux Messieurs sur la Plage and published by Actes Sud in 2015
Translated into English by Ruth Martin as Two Gentlemen on the Beach and to be published by Haus Publishing in 2016
*** my translation

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