Review: Käsebier Takes Berlin

This novel, written in the 1930's, is about the media, celebrity and fake news, and therefore remarkably topical today


Käsebier Takes Berlin by Gabriele Tergit, Trans: Sophie Duvernoy (Pushkin Press, £9.99)

Gabriele Tergit, born Elise Hirschmann in Berlin in 1894 into a family of wealthy Jewish industrialists, became a journalist, writing under her pen name. In the early 1930s, she was at the height of her career, writing for the prestigious liberal newspaper, the Berliner Tageblatt and Carl von Ossietzky’s anti-fascist, left-wing weekly, Die Weltbühne. Gabriele Tergit wrote her first novel, Käsebier Takes Berlin, in 1931. 

It is about the media, celebrity and fake news and therefore remarkably topical today. A journalist writes a story about an unknown singer, Georg Käsebier (Cheese-Beer). The story gets picked up by other papers and he becomes an overnight sensation. In no time, he is everywhere. He is signed up by a record company, by film companies, publishers; you can even buy Käsebier shoes and dolls, and property developers plan to build a Käsebier Theatre in the centre of Berlin. But fashion moves quickly in the febrile world of 1930s Berlin. Reputations can fall as quickly as they rise.   

Tergit’s novel (with an excellent introduction by the translator, Sophie Duvernoy) is not really about Käsebier himself. He is curiously marginal. It is about a fascinating cast of characters: journalists, property developers, speculators. Anyone who has seen Sky’s Berlin Babylon, set in Berlin at the same time as Käsebier, will have a sense of Tergit’s novel and the world in which it is set. Above all, though, it is about how fragile German society was at the beginning of the 1930s. One minute, people are investing in property, everything feels solid, and the next moment, everything falls apart.  
What is surprising is how little there is about the rise of Nazism in a novel published just before Hitler came to power. There are just a handful of mentions of the rise of the right and antisemitism, and a few haunting references to Jews. This is not a criticism; it is the novel’s most fascinating insight. History can change suddenly, almost without anyone noticing. Perhaps this, too, makes it feel so relevant today.   

On the fourth of March, 1933, just a few days after the Reichstag Fire, the Nazis came to Tergit’s apartment. The next day, she left for Czechoslovakia, where she was joined by her husband and son. They moved on to Palestine and then London, where she lived for the rest of her life. 

She wrote two more novels; only one was published, but she was rediscovered in the 1970s. She died not long afterwards in London in 1982. She belongs to that group of German refugee writers and journalists that included Alfred Kerr, Karl Otten and Robert Neumann, who flourished in Weimar Germany, but never found a new voice in exile. Käsebier, now revived by Pushkin Press, is a perfect introduction to Gabriele Tergit’s work.

David Herman is a senior JC reviewer 

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