Sunday, 5 June 2016

Book of the Month: The Eternal Philistine (Odon Von Horvath)

The Eternal Philistine, the 1930 debut novel of the long since forgotten Hungarian author Odon Von Horvath, is in three sections. The first section is about a car salesman on the make called Kobler; the second section is about an unemployed seamstress called Anna (who makes brief appearance in the first section), who, in the depressing years of the Weimer Republic Germany, turns to prostitution; and the third and final section is about one Herr Reithofer, an impoverished Austrian living in Germany who passes on a good job lead to Anna.

In the first section is the longest (and also the funniest) we meet Alfons Kobler. A failed car salesman, Kobler wants to be rich, and his mind is singularly devoted to relieving people of their money by various machinations. As the novel opens Kobler had sold off his dud of a car to the fat, enthusiastic (and very gullible) Portschinger, for six hundred marks. Kobler has never earned so much money at once. Egged on by his bitter and xenophobic landlady, Kobler embarks on a picaresque journey from Munich, his home town, to Barcelona, where a world fair is going to be hosted. Kobler is hoping to meet a rich Egyptian ‘lady’, who, he is further hopeful, will keep him in luxury after he has debauched During his train journey from Munich to Barcelona that requires frequent changing of trains and going through different countries, including Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, Kobler meets a series of characters, who, amongst them share the unappealing characteristics of dyspepsia, xenophobia, unscrupulousness, and holding sweeping, inaccurate and one-sided opinions. These men—they are all men—like Kobler, are philistines. And they are madder than a stadium full of boxes of frogs. Like the man who immediately identified Kobler (correctly) as a German (Horvath’s humour is at its satirical best, here) by the thickness of his skull. ‘You see,’ the man informs Kobler, ‘Germans all have thick skulls, but only in the true sense of the word.’ The train conductor of the carriage speaks to Kobler about a very nice accommodating German family he has met, adding that the family was of course not ‘pure German’ but ‘Russian German’. Another companion, a pompous alcoholic named Schmitz who has a special talent for eloquently quoting Goethe and who obviously fancies himself as a ‘Renaissance Man’ with a keen eye for architecture, advises Kobler to watch the splendidly traditional Spanish bull-fight. The omnipresent narrator’s description of the bull-fight depicts it as a grotesque murder-lust.

In the brief second section we meet Anna Pollinger. Anna is a young woman who has no parents (she is not shading any tears for them, as her father left the family when she was very young and she never got along with her mother who ‘had become very embittered about the lousy world’). Anna lives with her aunt, and, in the post-First World War Germany, having lost lost several jobs through no fault of her own, she loses yet another job. While Anna is not unduly perturbed by this, her aunt reacts to the news as though the Armageddon has arrived and seizes the opportunity to rant about the post-war period in Germany. Then a paying guest by the name of Herr Kastenr, who boasts of having connections in the film industry on the basis that he once played an extra in a film that was never released (and from the cast of which he was thrown out after he was caught taking naked photographs of an underage extra) offers Anna the role of a model with an artist friend of his named Achner. Achner, who is an etcher, of course, etches nude models, and is enthused to learn from Kastenr (who has rushed to him as soon as he heard that Anna had lost her job) that Kastenr could provide him with a dirty blonde model of medium built’ who could also take a joke.’ As Anna is undressing behind the screen, an acquaintance of Achner, called Harry Priegler, turns up in Achner’s atelier. Harry, a rich pig’s farmer, has no appreciation of arts, but abundant appreciation of young blondes. The etching is interrupted, and the next day Anna is in Harry Priegler’s car. When Harry pulls the car into a bypass in a park Anna knows what is coming, and she is ready for it. When Harry makes his intentions of making free with her loins makes clear, Anna informs him coolly that it does not work like that. Negotiations ensue and Anna receives her payment. In the post-war Germany, where unemployment has reached record high Anna Pollinger has turned practical, and has embarked on a new career .

In the third and the briefest section of the novel we meet Anna again; she has been kicked out by her aunt once the aunt came to know Anna’s new occupation. Anna meets an unemployed Austrian named Herr Reithofer. The impoverished Reithofer is also very naïve and mistakes Anna for the romantic love of his life. Anna, by now hardened in her attitude, makes him spend money he can’t afford taking her to a movie, and, when she realises that Reithofer really does not have any money sends him marching off. Later, Reithfoer meets an elderly man in a café who tells him about a possible job in Ulm on the Danube in the tailor shop of a rich pre-war Councillor of Commerce, except that the job is for a young woman. Reithfoer traces Anna and passes on the information about this employment opportunity which would be a ‘life-aver for her.’ As this short novel ends Anna is learning that the world is not full of evil and there are instances, admittedly small, which indicate ‘the possibility of human culture and civilisation.’

The Eternal Philistine is a satirical look at the middle classes in the Germany between the two World Wars. In its spirit the novel is not dissimilar to some of the novels of Hans Fallada (A Small Circus, Fallada’s satirical take on the politics in a provincial German town in the 1920s, has been reviewed on this blog earlier) and Stefan Zweig. Kobler, the protagonist of the first section of the novel is, as the title suggests, is a philistine. He has no time for architecture or literature, and he admits with bracing directness that he does not have much time for revolutions because the revolutionary leaders are by and large not good businessmen. When Kobler arrives in Italy on his way to Barcelona, he discovers that Fascism has arrived in Italy before him. Kobler has no trouble identifying with Fascism and, cheerfully and unhesitatingly introduces himself as a German Fascist. Many of his companions, despite their pretensions and airs are also philistines and bigots. While the reader may laugh at the philistinism of Kobler and his fellow-travellers, the reader feels little sympathy for them. By contrast, for Anna Pollinger who makes a practical and unsentimental decision to turn to prostitution (and once she makes the transition, goes about her business in a matter-of-fact, almost ruthless, manner), the reader feels a smidgen of sympathy. Anna has become a philistine by circumstances whereas Kobler is a philistine by choice, by nature if you will. The novel ends on a somewhat optimistic, if tentative, note, with a slimmer of hope being offered to Anna by her unexpected benefactor.

The Eternal Philistine is a sublimely comic novel, jam-packed with quiet energy. Horvath is at his best when he is a droll and wry observer of the human pretensions and inconsistencies, for example, the ‘cultivated gentleman’ Kobler meets on the train, after waxing eloquent about his preferences for eating  (salmon canapes) and holidaying (Southern Italy) shouts an order for ‘steak with tartar’. Horvath brilliantly lampoons Mussolini’s penchant for Italianization of all German names (one of the many unfortunate consequences of the First World War), and that too in a literal sense. However, ‘should a name lack a literally translatable sense, Mussolini would merely stick an ‘o’ at the end of it.’

I loved Eternal Philistine despite its drawbacks (in the main the three sections of the novel don’t gel together as a story, although they are thematically connected; also the unexpected upbeat ending of the novel which, until then is full of dark humour and pessimistic observations, is a tad unconvincing). It is quirky, Rabelaisian, suggestive, and very funny.

Odon (the author preferred the Hungarian version of his first name, Edmund), a son of a Hungarian diplomat, moved to Berlin in the 1920s where he lived for the next decade. He left Germany for Austria with Hitler’s ascent to power. Horvath left Austria for France in 1938 after the Anschluss. Within months of moving to Paris Horvath was dead, following a freak accident. Caught in a thunderstorm on the Champs-Elysees, while returning from a play, Horvath took shelter under a tree, and was killed when the branch broke and fell on him. He was thirty-six.

An equal credit of the enjoyment of The Eternal Philistine must go to the brilliant translation by Benjamin Dorvel. Melville House Publishing deserves kudos for bringing out this entertaining novel for the English language readers.