Kurt Tucholsky’s Epitaph – Part 1

Kurt Tucholsky (1890 – 1935) was a German writer who, from what I can tell, embodied the brazen age of the Weimar Republic. He was largely satirical and quick to denounce the rise of the Nazis (for this some suspect his suicide was more an auctoricide). And for me, as a 17 year old student studying the language of Goethe, he was someone that I could talk about in my A-level oral presentations who made me look good. And, of course, represents the principles of being a writer that I hold even to this day.

The book that I focused on in the exam is ‘Schloss Gripsholm’ (which is German for Gripsholm Slott, which itself is Swedish for ‘The Seat of The Griffins’). Tucholsky wrote this book in 1931 and called it a ‘summer story’ about his trip there with his girlfriend, friend and friend’s girlfriend, who was his girlfriend’s friend too. His editor had asked him to write a love story instead of all the serious political stuff he was doing, but Tucholsky was not convinced that people were actually in love anymore. But, of course, he needed the money and so he consented.

(If you don’t have time to read it in the original, then I might recommend the film, which is a wonderful piece of West German propaganda).

However, crucially at the age I discovered this writer and this book, I did not actually read it (like so many books that sit on my bookshelf, I confess). This has ultimately been a stroke of serendipity: because I did not read the book at the time, I was then encouraged to pick it up this summer (for reasons I won’t go into here and after reading Henry James’ Ambassadors). And it was upon opening it and reading the first few pages, that I remembered that the castle was in fact in Sweden, just outside of Stockholm, and that I would be flying there within a week.

The reason for my going there was to visit my girlfriend and her family over there – it’s summer time, which means that I leave Paris and go wandering, though the usual distance and duration have been somewhat hindered by a global pandemic. I had indulged my partner while she was in England with a trip to see York Minster and, I jested in vain, the Jorvik Viking Centre. For some reason, she really wanted to go there but I don’t know if you can understand what that meant for a man from Lancashire which has an all too vivid collective memory of events from 600 hundred years ago…

In return, I myself was indulged with this very trip to Castle Gripsholm which is roughly an hour out of Stockholm, to the west, in a quaint lakeside town called Mariefred. It is an historically important castle in Sweden’s history, home to an impressive portrait gallery and technically still an official resident of the King and Queen of Sweden. However, it was neither for history, nor for paintings of dead people, that I wanted to go there. I wanted to go there because of that book that I didn’t read when I was 17.

This got me very excited indeed, because I do enjoy a good literary pilgrimage (two previous examples include having a breakdown in Sirmio for Catullus and escaping a stag party in Dublin for Joyce, but again these are stories for another time). So, as soon I touched down in Arlanda we got in the car (after meeting the mother and the sister) and then drove to the spot, which was more touristic than described in the book, but I learnt my lesson from Sirmio about Paris syndrome

We wandered around the entire castle, marvelling at the beauty and I was pleased because my girlfriend’s mother and sister were very happy to be there so I feel I gained some points. Anyway, we were going through the castle, looking at the hundreds, maybe thousands, of paintings that are on the walls and I was becoming increasingly desperate by the end of it, because I was looking for my beloved Tucholsky. Alas, he was not there. So, on my way out, I made an attempt to speak to one of the staff about him and, too emotionally overcome to form a proper question, I simply took out my copy of the book and pointed at it (yes, I brought it with me and was even photographed with it outside the castle). The gatekeeper’s eyes opened with long-anticipated joy and cried out ‘so, you have come to reclaim the legend of Tucholsky!’

Well, not quite really. In fact, he told me that Tucholsky didn’t stay in the castle and a lot of the book is made-up. He did, however, tell me that Tucholsky is buried in the church of Mariefred. I looked to my girlfriend’s mother, who possessed the car, and with pleading eyes, I asked if it would be possible to drive there (five minutes) and have a look. She assented!

So, at the graveyard, worrying the family who were wondering if I was going to check all 500 graves to find the right one, I eventually gave in and looked it up on the internet, but still had to use some amateur detective skills to locate it. This done, I was stood there in front of the final resting place of a writer I claimed as my role model 12 years prior in my German Edexcel oral exam. And, lo and behold, the pilgrimage gave me something back – it gave me the sibylline message “Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis”.

I blinked. I took a picture. I looked up words in an online dictionary.

“Everything fleeting is only allegory”.

What the devil does that mean?

To be continued

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