Isn’t it strange how we are able to look back at those brief decades between World War I and World War II and be romantic about it all? Like Woody Allen’s rosy Midnight in Paris, we remember the glamour, the creativity, the writing and the painting, the decadence and the hedonism at the time, particularly in cities like Paris and Berlin. It was the time of Coco Chanel and Ernest Hemingway, of Otto Dix and the cabaret.
Read about new and notable fiction in February.
From this distance, it is easy to miss the devastation that inspired that time, as well as the upheaval and tumult that kept everyone out on the streets and in the cabarets. Missing from Allen’s Paris is the 34 completely separate governments that led France from the end of World War I to the German invasion a mere 22 years later.
And that hedonistic savagery of Weimar Berlin came from an economic disaster, a currency so quickly devaluing that what bought you a new suit one day wouldn’t buy you a cup of tea the next. If you had any money left at the end of the day, might as well blow it on sex and booze, it’s going to be worthless paper in the morning.
In Natascha Würzbach’s memoir The Green Sofa, everything in post World War I Germany is a delight. Würzbach’s mother is a dancer at the theater, and her father is a scholar and philosopher. She has a stuffed dog she carries with her, missing one eye, but she loves it anyway. Her grandmother fills her room with toys, and lets her sit in her dressing room as she powders and makes herself up for hours in the morning. Life is a confection.
Except, of course, Würzbach is a child, and remembering these early days with a child’s point of view. Everything that may be happening outside the walls of her house might as well not be happening at all. But as the years tick by, slowly Würzbach’s awareness expands. First, it’s the realization that her grandmother’s lavish lifestyle and parties are being funded by the pawning off of generations worth of heirlooms. She prefers to hold court with the artists and writers of the day, and so what’s a few 100-year-old candlesticks in comparison? And then her father loses his job, as his politics—coming from the Germany of Nietzsche and Schiller and Goethe, not the current Nazi fad—clashes with authority. But then even the world outside her family begins to intrude, as Germany begins its campaign of destruction, self- and otherwise.
The Green Sofa is a charmer. The prose is effortless, and the narrator delicately handles those horrible years when innocence rapidly switches to premature wisdom. She mourns for what was lost, not in that cartoony nostalgic mode of Midnight in Paris, but with a steady gaze at the real circumstances.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.