D.hese four volumes cannot simply be read. You have to embark on them as if for a sea voyage. It is a matter of crossing the ocean of time – a time long past, sunk for more than a hundred years, but still present in buildings, pictures and books. The destination of the trip is completely unimportant, the decisive factor is the voice that accompanies us on the way. It belongs to the greatest and most influential German theater critic, the founder of criticism as an art form: Alfred Kerr.
The story of how Kerr’s columns were rediscovered in the Königsberger Allgemeine Zeitung is column material in itself. At the beginning of the nineties, Günther Rühle, editor of the Kerr Complete Edition published by Argon und Fischer, found two texts from the Königsberger Allgemeine while searching for Kerr’s Berlin reports for the Breslauer Zeitung in the newspaper archive of the British Library. The “Letters from the Imperial Capital”, which Kerr had sent to Breslau between 1895 and 1900, appeared in book form in 1997 and became a bestseller after being presented in the “Literary Quartet”. In the same year, the British literary scholar Deborah Vietor-Engländer began researching the “chat letters”, as their author had called them, to the Königsberg readers as part of her work on a biography of Kerr.
When the first “chat letter” appeared, Bismarck was still alive
When she discovered the first of the “chat letters” for which the editors, as it was said in a footnote, had won “Mr. AK, a talented young writer from Berlin”, Vietor-Engländer knew that they had a major project ahead of them. The article was dated June 1897; the columns Rühle had found were from 1917 and 1919. It later emerged that Kerr had written for the Königsberger Allgemeine Zeitung until September 1922 – for a quarter of a century. Vietor-Englishmen found hundreds of other columns in the archives of Olsztyn, formerly Allenstein, and Toruń (Thorn). Some of the texts were missing, and some volumes of the Königsberger Allgemeine were incomplete. In 2016, to general applause, Vietor-Englander’s Kerr biography was published. Now the “chat letters” she published are finally available. As I said, there are four volumes. They contain 733 texts on almost three thousand pages.
Three thousand pages! This is the weight class of the “search for lost time”, and the reading also has a touch of Proust, not in style, but in gesture. When the first of the weekly “chat letters” appears – it is about a fraud trial – Bismarck is still alive (which Kerr quotes in the first paragraph), Germany has colonies in Africa and in the South Seas (this is what the second “chat letter” is about) , and almost all of Europe is ruled by emperors, tsars and kings. When Kerr’s last column is printed, the Ruhr occupation is just around the corner, inflation is galloping, Lenin’s Bolsheviks rule in Moscow, and a right-wing sectarian named Adolf Hitler is preparing his putsch against the Weimar Republic in Munich.