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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Ursula Krechel ‘Landgericht’

It took me 20 minutes of Ursula Kretchel’s 2012 German book prize novel ‘Landgericht’, read in French as ‘Terminus Allemagne’, to feel my eyes moisten for the first time.

Krechel won the German book prize with this fiction investigating post war Germany. She came upon a war reparations file for a “victim of Fascism”,  the claim ultimately failed with the victim receiving nothing.

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From a few pieces of biographical information Krechel Imagines the life of this Richard Kornitzer, a German Jew who had had his nationality revoked, had sent his children away for safety to England and who then had later fled to Cuba. The book begins with him arriving back in Germany as the train pulls into Lindau, sent back by the Red Cross after relentless work by his wife to locate him, and then meeting his wife who he has not seen or heard of for ten years.

When he first tries to reintegrate society he goes through the German authorities but is told that they only treat German victims of fascism and as he is not German…….

He is then given a job via the French occupying force in his old profession as judge at the high court in Mainz taking on the unpopular job no one else wants handling the denazification process. We have to imagine that this involves millions of people and so nothing can really be done in detail, no one will testify against anyone as they all need the positive testimony of the people around them. He watches powerless as the previous Nazi’s reintegrate their jobs after a couple of months suspension. Examples include He the demonstrations in the courts during the ‘Auerbach case’ of these former Nazi’s continuing anti-Semitic activities (no one can imagine that the previous endemic situation was changed or wiped out over night).

When they finally get to visit their children, they find young adults who no longer speak a word of German.

A section of the book handles the escape from Germany, all of his wealth is confiscated yet he must still find money to bribe a crossing and then on arrival in Cuba these displaced people need then to bribe their way into Cuba and out of the camps, as well as a study of the industry grown around fleecing the displaced persons.

The book then looks at the impossibility to receive reparations, an example is given of an “Aryan” woman who had followed her husband working for a resistance movement (her husband died in a concentration camp) the judgement said “The plaintiff recognises that she was not personally exposed to National Socialist Violence and that she could have quite simply have separated from her husband, but that she nonetheless followed him into illegality, it was thus due to her free will and not caused by any National Socialist measure carried out against her.”*** Full details are also given of Kornitzer’s own catch 22 situation.

The last portion of this book handles the degradation in healthy of both of the Kornitzers due to the all of the previous events up to Kornitzer coming back to Germany from Cuba, but also due to his isolation and continual battle with bureaucracy to gain reparations over a 15 year period (and he is pushed to reply, the Nazis did not give them receipts when they seized his worldly goods)

This book covers the difficult subject of the impossible return. In order to properly understand the effect of time as a wearing medium some sections of this book are long and required perseverance from my part.

First published in Germany as Landgericht by Jung und Jung in 2012
Translated into French by Barbara Fontaine and published as Terminus Allemagne in 2014 by Carnets Nord
***My translation