May 1, 2013

Favorite kids' books: "Das fliegende Klassenzimmer" (Erich Kästner)

Boarding-school fiction, German-style.

Author: Erich Kästner
Title: Das fliegende Klassenzimmer ("The Flying Classroom")
First published: 1933
Illustrator: Walter Trier
Frequency of illustrations: 10 full-page pictures (b/w)
Pages (German edition): 176
Chapters: 15
Best age: 8 years plus
Editions: USA (Puffin / Penguin- out of print but still on Amazon); UK (Puffin / Penguin - out of print but also on Amazon); Germany (Dressler Verlag)


In the run-up to Christmas, five freshman-level friends at a boys' boarding school prepare for their self-scripted eponymous play about a school where lessons are taught "as they might really be in the future," i.e. on a plane flying around the world. Parallel to their rehearsals the boys get caught up in a long-standing fight against another school; reunite their favorite teacher with his long-lost childhood friend; and get into minor squabbles with the overbearing seniors. Each boy also deals with his own separate smaller and larger worries, including parental abandonment, perceptions of cowardice, and financial concerns.

Comments and thoughts

It was hard for me to settle on a specific Erich Kästner book to feature here first. I ultimately chose Das fliegende Klassenzimmer because it's deep and moving in a very un-kitsch way. All his books have philosophical elements to them, but here his "children's problems are serious too and deserve to be considered with merit" philosophy shines through the most.

At the same time, adults' concerns and issues are also part of the story, such as an old teacher whose tired jokes are mocked by the junior-level class (though since most of these kids are good at heart, they come to rue this terribly). The boys' problems and the ways they deal with them are realistic - I appreciate that though one of the seniors suddenly shows a softer side, his classmates mock him mercilessly for this change rather than also being more forgiving towards the underclassmen and teachers. I was actually surprised that the book was published back in 1933 since though it obviously takes place "in the past" (I can't imagine a modern story treating a massive brawl between students so matter-of-factly), the story is fairly timeless.

The framing story is slightly absurdist: in the last chapter, Kästner meets one of the boys from the story two years after the events, who is pleasantly surprised that the author wrote a story about it all. As a child, the degree to which disbelief should be suspended confused me. I remember wondering why in the world Kästner would want his readers to think that the story was real while at the same time making it clear that it patently wasn't. I also wondered if it could confuse some readers (when I was in sixth grade, we went on a school field trip to see a performance of Ravel's Bolero; the piece was introduced by a Maurice Ravel impersonator and about half the kids though he was the real deal...despite the fact that it said on the program we were all given that the piece was first performed in 1928). Reading it again, I think it's quite "meta" in the "we're all characters in a book and though it's fictional doesn't mean it's any less real" sense, and gives satisfying closure to the book.

I was also interested to read more about Kästner's relationship to the Third Reich. While I knew that he was banned from writing and saw his books burned in 1933 to combat "decadence and moral collapse" he didn't just continue to live in Berlin - he also continued to publish (albeit under pseudonyms). I find the whole notion of "Innere Emigration" (internal emigration, i.e. artists not leaving Germany during the Third Reich despite their moral opposition to the regime) a cop-out, so this severely tarnished my opionion of Kästner. And makes it even odder that his books are allegedly quite popular in Israel. On a more gossipy note, Kästner had an illegitimate son whom he acknowledged very reluctantly. [All this information is admittedly taken from his German and English Wikipedia entries.] Curiously, Kästner's illustrator Walter Trier was Jewish, but was able to emigrate first to the UK and then Canada. Back in the 90s, my mother and I saw some prints of his at a museum in or around Toronto - but I didn't know until now that he didn't leave Germany by choice.

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