As the story of an artistic family in a materialistic time, Die Schaukel reminded me of The Family Fang, though of course Kolb’s work predates Kevin Wilson’s novel by more than three quarters of a century. The Lautenschlags are a Franco-German family who moved from Paris to Munich not long after the Franco-Prussian War led to the unification of the German Empire. Herr Lautenschlag is a garden designer, while Madame Lautenschlag is a pianist, composer and slightly scatterbrained society hostess. They have four children: Hespera and Gervaise, both of whom are among the prettiest girls in Munich. Kolb writes that people never forgot the first time meeting either of them, that not only did heads turn when they walked down the street, some people returned to the same spot on the street on subsequent days just hoping to see them again. There is a son, Otto, who seems on the verge of passing his university qualification exams on this, his third try. And there is another daughter, incongruously named Mathias.
The Lautenschlags appear to live in precarious financial straits, and neither parent is any good at managing money. The slightly Bohemian parents are likely to worry about the costs of daily bread, and then spend a large sum on everyone except Herr Lautenschlag attending the opera one evening on a whim. A little more than halfway through the book, however, the third-person omniscient narrator informs readers that Herr Lautenschlag is much better paid for his efforts than anyone things, he just doesn’t bother to manage his money at all.
For contrast, Kolb introduces the von Zwinger family, neighbors and acquaintances of the Lautenschlags. The von Zwingers are nobility where the Lautenschlags are commoners; Prussians who have moved to Munich versus old Bavarian roots (despite the French diversion that brought Herr and Madame together); Protestants rather than Catholic; decisive rather than impetuous; philistine rather than artistic; and, for most of the characters, boring rather than interesting. The von Zwingers also have the knack of managing money. Their affection for the Lautenschlags is never particularly explained, although since it is a largely autobiographical work, Kolb does not see the need for explanations. It is Herr Professor Doctor von Zwinger who arranges for Madame Lautenschlag’s aging and senile mother to be cared for in France for her final years. On the other hand, the Lautenschlags provide an outlet for the von Zwinger daughters, particularly Candida the youngest. They find relief in the free-flowing atmosphere that is such a contrast to their stultifying home.
Die Schaukel, The Swing is by now a doubly historical novel: written long ago (though not quite yet out of living memory) about a period even further back. I see traces of the Great Depression in the book’s emphasis on money, and particularly the way it speaks of money as a nearly animate spirit in itself. For people who lived through Germany’s hyperinflation in the early 1920s, and who were living through the Depression as Die Schaukel was published in 1934, money must have seemed particularly strange and mercurial, likely to misbehave or vanish entirely, for reasons not at all apparent to average citizens.
Although she is writing about German leadership in the late 1800s, Kolb reveals the views that led her into exile after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933: “Only the Professor [von Zwinger] belonged to the type of German who was happy with authority, who considered Berlin as the seat of statesmanlike wisdom, statesmanlike foresight and statesmanlike timing, and who showed the person in office there a trust that could only be shaken by their fall. And so the upright but clueless man wove with them on the loom of the unending suffering that they were preparing. From his point of view, the little populace, which was living so well, could do no better than to blindly leave things to the wise leadership in Berlin.” (p. 60) Kolb is very much on the side of Germany’s dreamers, its climbers of mountains and players of lawn games.
She writes views about Jewish people that are essentialist enough, if positive, that the editors of the series added a footnote mentioning when and where the book was published: in 1934, in exile. Some of Kolb’s characters attribute all of Germany’s woes to Luther, a view that was probably common enough in Catholic Munich at the time.
Mostly, though, Die Schaukel is a study of a family in a setting that was vanishing around them, as the narrator explicitly notes several times, looking forward to the catastrophe of the Great War and possibly sensing worse to come. Lautenschlags and their peers lament the appearance of borders, the demands of Europe’s increasing industrialization and nationalization — even as Hespera is pleased by her employers’ electric lights, and all of the characters enjoy the speed and convenience of railroad transportation. Though their story is set a generation and more before Die Rumplhanni, Lautenschlags’ world is clearly more modern, even as it is mostly a world of salons, engagements, and small intrigues.