A star is born, Weimar-style, in this German novel originally published in 1931.
Käsebier—his name combining the German words for beer and cheese—is a, well, cheesy sort of lounge singer in beery little clubs along the Kurfürstendamm. He sings a few lieder, makes a few marks that are worth less and less in the spiraling inflation of Berlin at the dawn of the Depression era. All that changes when a columnist writes an approving piece in a local paper, which sets wheels in motion: Soon other papers are noticing him, with one left-wing journal hailing Käsebier as a “fundamentally German talent…a sort of combined court minstrel and popular poet, an extraordinary union of natural musicality and popular humor,” while a right-wing tabloid thunders, “Repugnant foreign Jews, plagued with hundreds of oversophisticated strands of thought, abuse the German language to praise a socialist who is debasing our people’s greatest treasure, the folk song, and misusing it for its own vain ambitions.” Tergit (1894-1982), herself a German Jew and journalist specializing in courtroom cases, turns an unsparingly satirical eye on the press and culture of the Weimar era, and especially on the machinery that surrounds popular culture, from adoring writers and cynical publishers to the mucky-muck capitalists who combine to erect a would-be empire around Käsebier—at first trifles like rubber dolls, shoes, and cigarettes (“Käsebier melior for 5 pennies, Käsebier bonus for 3, Käsebier optimus 8 pennies”) but then an opera house surrounded by a fashionable housing and shopping complex. It’s not long before the fad passes and fortunes fail, and in the end the blameless Käsebier finds himself singing for his supper out near the Polish frontier even as Berliners are starting to work words like "Sieg” into everyday speech and to realize that, as one character shrewdly observes, “if the election results in a minority for the grand coalition, our only option will be dictatorship.”
Tergit’s novel deserves a place alongside Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé, and other key works of the period.