Elena's Reviews > Rheinsberg: A Storybook for Lovers

Rheinsberg by Kurt Tucholsky
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it was amazing
Read 2 times. Last read July 12, 2014.

Rheinsberg: The Fragile Charm of a Lost World
The original German book from 1912 is almost exactly the size and shape of a modern iphone. It fits neatly in a man’s pocket or a woman’s purse. Less than a hundred pages, you can read it easily between dinner and bedtime. The young Kurt Tucholsky’s first book, it was an instant hit, selling tens of thousands of copies from the start. Special editions with leather and Japanese silk bindings became collectors’ items. It has been reissued many times in Germany. Now it is available in a fine English translation by Cindy Opitz, a mere 102 years later. I mean, why rush? The new English edition, somewhat larger in format with a bright decorative cover, comes with lots of vintage photographs of the Rheinsberg area, and a few extra writings by the author, Ogden Nash-like lyrics and a short magical realism piece, as a bonus. Also a brief historical note to put things in context. You can still read the entire new Berlinica edition, even at a leisurely pace, in one sitting. But it is a book with both literary and artifactual value, something to take out over and over in quiet moments. Preferably by the fire with a glass of port. The perfect gift for a loved one, -- well, a loved one with taste.
The prose, in both the original German and in the English translation, is rather unassuming. Why was it such a success in 1912 and why do readers still love it today? The plot line, such as it is, is based on a real weekend outing by the young author and his girlfriend Elsa Weil. Renamed Wolfgang and Claire, they banter and squabble incessantly as they leave congested Berlin by train for a quiet three-day retreat in the park-like countryside around the small castle town of Rheinsberg. We are alerted gently that they are not married, not even engaged. Claire is amused that her parents think she’s visiting a girlfriend. Wolfie assures her that he’ll be her chaperone. They argue about how to identify a tree, acacia, no it’s a magnolia. And a bird, a woodpecker, no it’s a barn owl. Her grammar is atrocious, but she’s smart, studied medicine. He forgets things, but is good company, takes her to tour the castle and go boating on the lake. Their relationship is a bit like the comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen. She’s ditzy but entertaining, he gets it. Occasionally Claire’s hair comes down, the lights go out and the story resumes later.
In 1912 love affairs were common enough, but talking about it wasn’t. In England at this time, honest novels were shot through with tension and anxiety, think D. H. Lawrence. So Tucholsky’s light touch, celebrating a young couple’s fling without a lot of fuss and angst, was refreshing, somehow liberating. There is just enough of an edge to keep it from descending into sentimental kitsch. No wonder it was a treasured gift. The well-worn 1912 edition I found in the library has a handwritten note in old German handwriting “von deinem Hasen,” from your rabbit….A century later, when honest novels are weighted down with all too much information, Tucholsky’s style is again something to appreciate.
The gentle sensibility that marks Tucholsky’s "Rheinsberg" was short-lived, and soon brutalized by World War I and its terrifying aftermath. Tucholsky’s books were burned in 1933. He died in exile, possibly suicide, in Sweden a few years later, physically safe, but mentally destroyed. Elsa Weil, a successful medical doctor, was sent to Auschwitz and perished. The world that had nurtured their special talents was lost.
Knowing this, it is impossible to enjoy "Rheinsberg" quite the way it was read before the catastrophes of the twentieth century. But with this new translation, it is possible for a wider audience to recover at least a sense of the fragile charm of that earlier era. This is a book that could be read with pleasure more than once. Fortunately, it is quite short.
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Reading Progress

June 12, 2014 – Started Reading (Paperback Edition)
June 12, 2014 – Shelved (Paperback Edition)
July 5, 2014 – Shelved
Started Reading
July 12, 2014 – Finished Reading
July 12, 2014 – Finished Reading (Paperback Edition)

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Jasmine (new) - added it

Jasmine Wonderful review and thank you so much for your tip. I added it to my to-read list. I hope I will find such a lovely edition in German too!

message 2: by Kalliope (last edited Jul 14, 2014 01:41PM) (new)

Kalliope Agree with Jasmine. This is a wonderful review. I am delighted because I knew nothing about this.

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