Thursday, April 11, 2013

Castle Gripsholm by Kurt Tucholsky

Castle Gripsholm/Schloss Gripsholm originally appeared in 1931 the only full novel by Kurt Tucholsky it was translated by Michael Hofmann and published by Chatto and Windus in 1985 fifty years after Tucholsky's death which is thought to have been by suicide by an overdose of sleeping tablets. It's a novel that spills across borders, the two protagonists travel from Berlin to Copenhagen, briefly stopping at the gallery of the fantastically named artist Polysander von Kuckers zu Tiesenhausen, with it's walls full of his pictures of naked young men floating in the sky. The pair, Lydia, commonly referred to as the Princess, and Kurt who Lydia at times also calls Peter and Poppa, then travel onto Sweden, as well as travelling through various countries we're reminded of the differing languages and dialects the pair encounter, they often speak, (we get the impression that Lydia is the more fluent), in Platt German, (North German), which Hoffman notes in his introduction at the difficulty of conveying this into English. The novel carries the subtitle - A Summer Story, the pair are holidaying and the narrative is full of the simple joys and enjoyment as the couple begin to loosen the bonds of their Berlin lives and jobs. Looking for a cottage they are eventually directed to Mariefred on the shores of Lake Maelar, the site of Castle Gripsholm which is popular amongst tourists, they rent rooms in an annex of the building. The beginning of the novel is filled with the pair exchanging observations of each other and their surroundings, although they are ostensibly a modern metropolitan pair, there's a certain sense of innocence in their pursuit in relaxation, their narratives show a genuine exploratory and open approach to the events and surroundings they encounter.
As chapter two begins we are first introduced to testimonial narratives from children at a children's home near to the castle, in fragmentary descriptions the home's owner Frau Adriani comes into vision, a strict disciplinarian who the children live in fear of, the term 'the limb of satan' is used multiple times. At the centre of a fair proportion of the novel is anticipating the how and when of the moment that the two narratives will begin to encounter each other. Lydia and Kurt begin to hear rumours about the place from the caretaker of the castle Frau Andersson. A diversion from these two narratives is when Lydia and Kurt receive a visit from Kurt's old friend Karlchen, they swim together and share talk of other times. The interactions between the three and throughout the novel shows Tucholsky's ornate ability in describing the minutiae of feelings and intelligence of his characters is never overplayed and gives them a genuine appeal, in a simple observation of Kurt's towards Karlchen he notes - 'He carried on as if nothing had happened, and nothing had happened' sees through any assumed sophistication. Lydia and Kurt encounter Frau Adriani and making contact with Ada a young girl who manages to briefly run away from the home manage to temporarily defeat Adriani and rescue one of the poor children. Whilst this unravels there is another distraction in another visitor - Billie, a female friend and the narrative explores the three's relationship with each other, Kurt caught between the two. 
Castle Gripsholm is a strange but beautiful book to read, the bright moments are truly bright and the darker ones are unsettling, Frau Adriani is a slightly terrifying creation, the narratives and scenes in the home balanced against those of Kurt and Lydia's holiday idle make for a contrasting juxtaposition. Set before the second world war it's conveys an impression of the age, transiently caught between the two wars, in an allegorical sense it depicts a transitory innocence, a temporary reaffirmation of the good times, the pair are optimistic full of life, but at the same turn the novel has the darker shades in contrast, but if there is an allegorical message it's not too explicit, a fascinating and important novel that deserves a reprint. 
Kurt Tucholsky at Wikipedia

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