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Authors: Odon Von Horvath

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BOOK: The Eternal Philistine
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Hungarian by birth, Ödön von Horváth lived and wrote in Berlin during the tense and tumultuous years between the First and Second World Wars.
The Eternal Philistine
was his first novel, a form he returned to later in his life after a successful career as a playwright.

“I have attempted,” Horváth once wrote of his work, “to be as disrespectful as possible towards stupidity and lies.”

That is the noble mission of comedy, perhaps the noblest mission of all, and one at which Horváth was very, very good. He was so good at it, in fact, that today, nobody’s ever heard of him. Brecht, on the other hand, dealt with many of the same subjects and themes in a dreadfully serious manner, and look at him: almost a century later, and I don’t even have to use his first name.

So what can we do to help, you ask? How can we make sure that
The Eternal Philistine
at last acquires the audience and recognition it so rightly deserves?

One of the easiest ways, as I demonstrated earlier, is to quote Nikolai Gogol. Gogol was Russian, and everyone in the West respects Russian writers, even if they’re crap. Trust me, with friends like yours, you cannot go wrong quoting Gogol. Nikolai, incidentally, was also hilariously funny (before he came down with an incurable case of Lord-itis), but somehow he managed to be taken seriously. Are there lessons to be learned from his example? There are, and these are them:

1) Be Russian.

2) Die crazy.

Just to be safe, I will also, somewhere in this introduction, try to work in a mention of Voltaire (who is practically God by now), and of Kafka (who actually is God), both of whom were also funny writers your friends probably claim to read but probably don’t.

Jesus Christ, I really hate your friends.

I’ll shoot for Samuel Beckett as well, but I’m not promising anything.

The best thing you can do, however, while I’m busy name-dropping, is to not tell anyone that this book is “funny.” There’s no reason to frighten them away. What can you tell them, then, to make them read it? To make them respect it? To keep this work alive?

It’s called “spin.”


Dark comedy is, according to Wikipedia, a subgenre
of comedy whose themes “include murder, suicide, depression, abuse, mutilation, war, barbarism, drug abuse, terminal illness, domestic violence, sexual violence, pedophilia, insanity, nightmare, disease, racism, disability (both physical and mental), chauvinism, corruption, and crime.”

Unless I’m forgetting something, that’s pretty much all the funny things in the world, so I’m not sure what the point of the label is (cannibalism isn’t there, but I’d file that under mutilation, which everyone knows is funny). It may well be a pointless distinction, but it serves our purposes well, because for some reason, the literary gatekeepers who determined that funny isn’t serious determined, at the same smoke-filled, clandestine meeting, that dark is.

Funny is fatuous.

Dark is deep.

Funny is frivolous.

Dark is meaningful.

While Funny is in the kitchen with a fake arrow through its head, Dark is in the basement with its weirdo Goth friends, smoking cigarettes and making jokes about killing itself. Or cannibalism.

The Eternal Philistine
, you can confidently tell your friends, is dark. It’s about as dark as it gets. It’s
dark. It’s
The Eternal Philistine
is an inversion of the traditional “journey” novel, wherein the protagonist, due to some “inciting incident,” forced into a strange new world, whereupon he learns many lessons, whereupon he returns to the original world a better, changed person. While the basic story elements may be consistent, every writer approaches these elements in their own particular way; in Voltaire’s
, for example, the inciting incident occurs
when the eponymous hero is discovered kissing his truly beloved. In
The Eternal Philistine
, it occurs when the hero, a used-car salesman named Kobler, is caught by his employers taking prostitutes for, uh, “test-drives.”

Horváth: 1. Voltaire: 0.

The story takes place in Munich, in the dark years following World War I. The German economy is depressed, and so are the people. The citizenry is struggling with the question of whether, through rapprochement, to join the greater Pan-Europe, or whether to go it alone (I think you know how that story ends). Nobody in this novel is particularly moral, or bright, or kind, or wise, least of all Kobler himself. After losing his job, defrauding a customer and impertinently ripping off the car’s real owner, Kobler decides, on the suggestion of his bitter xenophobic landlady, to go the World’s Fair in Barcelona. His goal, incidentally, is not to gain a greater understanding of other cultures:

[… She] had convinced him that a considerably larger assortment of Egyptian women could be found at an exhibition of the entire world than in the most luxurious of luxury hotels.

Kobler’s got a thing for the Egyptian ladies, you see.

The thing he has for them is their money.

“ ‘I’ll combine business with utility,’ he said to himself.”

The journey goes poorly. Everyone is angry, stupid, greedy, and selfish, while Kobler can’t seem to get his mind off Egyptians. Or prostitutes. Prostitutes are never far from anyone’s mind in this novel (one character decides to become one); a deep political discussion between Kobler and
his traveling companion Mr. Schmitz on the contentious issue of retaking lost German colonies ends with an impassioned question from Schmitz:

“… [if we didn’t retake them] what would be left of our occidental culture?”

“I’m not sure,” answered Kobler, shooting a bored glance at his watch. “When are we going to the brothel district?” he asked anxiously.

At last, Kobler finds some prostitutes at a stopover in Marseille, but they are diseased and disappointing.

“Everybody’s diseased around here,” [said Schmitz.]

“I’ve never caught anything,” said Kobler, which was a lie.

“I’ve never caught anything either,” said Schmitz, which was also a lie.

Later, at the fair, Kobler finally meets his dreamed-of Egyptian, who isn’t actually Egyptian, but at least she’s rich. She’s also beautiful. And available. And a Nazi:

“Yes, the Jews are making the workers really nasty,” [her] voice sounded once again. “No, I can’t stand the Jews. I find them too nauseatingly carnal—they’ve got their hands in everything!

This anti-Semitic strain doesn’t concern our hero too much; she is, after all, rich. Schmitz takes offense at Kobler’s hypocrisy, but Kobler is unfazed:

“And by the way, Herr Schmitz,” he went on, “I shall now ask you to kindly leave me in peace while I work my way up the social ladder. I’ve already got a plan worked out. I’m going to debauch that lady in Barcelona, then I’ll accompany her back to Duisburg, where I’ll debauch her again, and then I’ll marry into daddy’s company. And Pan-Europe doesn’t give a crap whether or not that lady in there is for or against her!”

“That’s the same damn excuse everybody makes!” said Schmitz, and then walked off.

The journey tale is an old and revered one; we readers hurry along with our hero as quickly as we can, anxious to see if our hero will survive, if he will return home, and what the greater purpose of his journey was in the first place. What has he learned? we wonder. What wisdom has he gained? In
, for example, the lesson of the journey seems to be that while the world is ugly, we can do well if we just “tend to our gardens.” The lesson of the journey in
The Eternal Philistine
is best summed up by Mr. Reithofer, the only semidecent character in the whole story:

“If all the shitheads went and helped each other out, then every shithead would be better off.”

Horváth: 2. Voltaire: 0.

“Is it funny?” your friends will ask.

“It’s not
,” you will reply. “It’s dark.”

Then quote Gogol:

“The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes.”

I have not, by the way, forgotten about Kafka.


If a book, sadly, must be funny, it’s preferable, meritoriously-speaking, for it to be funny about political matters, which suggests that the author is not merely funny but also knowledgeable, passionate, and concerned with the major issues of the day. Why anyone would want to be knowledgeable, passionate and concerned with the major issues of the day is somewhat beyond me; Tolstoy’s work survives despite the passages about the political climate of his time, not because of them. Kafka (there he is) wrote passionate, deeply felt, funny (shh) tales about his deepest inner self—his sense of failure, his feelings of impotence, of longing, of loneliness, of frustration. Fortunately for his literary legacy, he wrote them allegorically, which allowed people to see them not as reflections of a personal nature—and certainly not as “funny”—but rather as Sociopolitical Commentary: on bureaucracy, or corporations, or political systems. “Kafkaesque” should, if there has to be such a regrettable term, refer to the searing pains of dysfunctional families, of brutal fathers, emotionally manipulative mothers, to the spiritual tortures of ambivalence, self-loathing, and guilt. Instead, it has something to do with the IRS. Or the DMV. Or the Post Office.

“Forty-two cents to mail a letter! This is Kafkaesque!”

I swear to God I have heard that, and not just once.

Fortunately for Horváth, his lacerating humor was aimed at many targets: at stupidity, at hatred, at misogyny, and, yes, at politics and the social system he witnessed around him. If we focus on that—and
that—perhaps we can restore his reputation and keep him in print.

Ödön’s target list was a long one; class distinctions figure
prominently on it. He is a friend of the powerless and exploited, and shows the bourgeois—the Eternal Philistines of the title—for who they are. Here he his, describing the low-level office job of Anna, who considers becoming a prostitute, who loves Kobler, who loves wealthy Egyptians:

“[…] that night, by way of exception, she had to work until nine o’clock. On average, she would have to do this, by way of exception, four times a week. Of course she was not paid for working overtime because after all, if she wanted to be jobless, she had the right to quit on the first of every month.”

(“I’m by no means asking you to prostitute yourself,” says the man demanding Anna become a prostitute later in the novel, “but I’m begging you, for your own sake, to please be more practical!” She comes to agree.)

When Kobler and his crew at last reach the glorious World’s Fair, the holy idea of progress to which the fair is so committed is, in one short paragraph, utterly deflated:

It got dark quickly. Gazing through the well-nigh exotic shrubs, the three of them watched from a distance the glorious trick fountains in front of the National Palace. Now these were indeed advances of the modern era. Outside the front gates of the World’s Fair stood the folks who could not afford to pay the admission fee, and so had to watch these advances from afar. Only the police kept dispersing them because they were obstructing traffic.

It is this eye for hypocrisy, irony, and truth that characterizes
this novel. It appears on every page, relentlessly. Later, when Herr Reithofer takes Anna to a movie—that flickering Philistinian temple to this very day—Horváth describes the film thus:

Sadly he did not get to see any livestock at the movie theatre, just a social drama. That is, the tragedy of a beautiful young woman. She was a millionairess, the daughter of a millionaire and the spouse of a millionaire. Both millionaires fulfilled her every desire, but this millionairess was still very unhappy. You watched as she unhappily got dressed for hours on end, received manicures and pedicures; how she would unhappily travel first-class to India, stroll along the Riviera, have lunch in Baden-Baden, fall asleep in California and wake up in Paris; how she would sit unhappily in opera boxes, dance at carnival, and scorn champagne in an exceedingly unhappy manner. And she kept getting more and more unhappy because she did not want to give herself to the elegant, young son of a millionaire who adored her in a discreetly sensuous way. So there was nothing left for her to do but to take to the water, which she then did in the Ligurian Sea. They recovered her unhappy body in Genoa. All of her maids, lackeys, and chauffeurs were very unhappy.

It was a very tragic film and had just one funny episode. That is, the millionairess had a lady’s maid. And one time this lady’s maid secretly put on her mistress’s “grand” evening gown and went out on the town with one of the chauffeurs in a “grand” fashion. Only the chauffeur did not exactly know how
the “grand” world held a knife and fork, and so both of them were exposed as attendants and then shown out of the posh restaurant. One of the guests even gave the chauffeur a good slap in the face, and the unhappy millionairess fired her lady’s maid on the spot. The lady’s maid bawled and the chauffeur’s face was not exactly clever either. It was very funny.

Horváth described his purpose in writing as “to be able to portray once again the gigantic struggle between the individual and society, this eternal battle with no peaceful outcome—during which the individual can at best enjoy a few moments of the illusion of ceasefire.” His truth, and the fury that followed, was provoked by a genuine care and concern for the individual. Observing a photograph of a happy family, Herr Reithofer thinks:

 … that it might be nice sometimes to be able to call such a family his own. He, too, would sit in the middle and have a beard and children because without children people would die out, and there’s really something sad about dying out, even if you don’t have any legal claim to German unemployment benefits as an Austrian citizen.

“Is it funny?” your friends will ask.

“It’s not
,” you’ll reply. “It’s social commentary.”

BOOK: The Eternal Philistine
7.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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