Saturday 21 September 2019

From Mann to Mog

Browsing in my latest charity shop purchase – 1913: The Year Before the Storm by Florian Illies ('The International Bestseller', translated from the German) – I came across a name that rang a surprising bell.
 1913 is, as the name more than suggests, one of those books that paints a picture of a single year – in this case month by month, in a series of little vignettes: it begins, strikingly, with the 12-year-old Louis Armstrong being arrested in the first seconds of the new year for firing a stolen revolver. Later in January we find Thomas Mann reluctantly attending the first night of his play Fiorenza, which he fears will be a debacle, not least because he knows that 'Germany's greatest critic and vainest popinjay' will be in the audience, sharpening his pen and waiting to get his revenge on the rival who stole his love object, Katia Pringsheim, now Mrs Thomas Mann. The name of the critic and popinjay is Alfred Kerr – and that name was familiar to me because he is the same Alfred Kerr whose daughter Judith, the writer and illustrator who died earlier this year, wrote about him in her semi-autobiographical Out of the Hitler Time trilogy (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, etc).
 What is surprising is that Judith Kerr's father was established as 'Germany's greatest critic' as early as 1913 – but he was then already in his mid-40s (born 1867). He was over 50 when he married for the first time, a much younger wife whom he lost in the influenza epidemic of 1918. He married Judith's mother, the distinguished musician Julia Weissman, in 1920, and in 1933 he wisely fled Germany to escape imminent arrest by the Nazis. Eventually the whole family ended up in England, where Alfred and Julia's son Michael rose to became a prominent English lawyer, and their daughter Judith became, well, Judith Kerr, author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog books, and an English national treasure. The time span from Alfred Kerr's birth to Judith Kerr's death was a remarkable 152 years.

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