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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mr. Brecher's Fiasco

Martin Kessel

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To purchase Mr. Brecher's Fiasco

Title: Mr. Brecher's Fiasco
Author: Martin Kessel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1932 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 560 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Mr. Brecher's Fiasco - US
Mr. Brecher's Fiasco - UK
Mr. Brecher's Fiasco - Canada
Herrn Brechers Fiasko - Deutschland
  • German title: Herrn Brechers Fiasko
  • Translated by Brigitte Goldstein
  • With an afterword by the author
  • First published in 1932 (DVA), republished 1956 and 1978 (Suhrkamp Verlag) and 2001 (Schöffling & Co.)
  • Includes "Mein erster Roman", by Martin Kessel (first published in Jahresring 20 (1973/4)

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Our Assessment:

A : powerful writing, an accomplished and surprisingly timeless satire

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Berliner Zeitung . 21/4/2001 Detlef Grumbach
FAZ A 20/3/2001 Lothar Müller
NZZ A 21/4/2001 Andreas Nentwich
Süddeutsche Zeitung A 14/4/2001 Wilfried F. Schoeller
Der Tagesspiegel . 14/4/2001 Michael Bauer
Die Welt A 14/4/2001 Erhard Schütz

  Review Consensus:

  A major, marvelous novel

  From the Reviews:
  • "Das Geschehen ist auf merkwürdige Weise aus der Zeit gehoben, die Büroarbeit konkreten Inhalten, Zielen oder Bezügen entkleidet. In dieser Abstraktheit spiegelt es die Krisenerfahrung der Menschen am Ende der Weimarer Republik am genauesten wider." - Detlef Grumbach, Berliner Zeitung

  • "Mit großer Präzision und Kunst zeichnet Kessel, der ein großer Physiognomiker der Straßen war, die lebenskurven der Figuren in den Stadtraum ein. (...) Aber mit Max Brecher hat Kessel den illusionären, sich in der Zerstreuung betäubenden Angestellten Kracauers eine überraschend bissige, explosive Figur an die Seite gestellt: den Angestellten als Attentäter im Geiste." - Lothar Müller, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Herrn Brechers Fiasko ist kein utopischer Idealstaats-Roman. Er zeigt. Zeigt und zerlegt die Mechanik des falschen Lebens, die privaten Mystifikationen und ideologischen Überlagerungen des unergründlichen Menschenrätsels. Kein Zeichen der Zeit entgeht den Lichtblitzen des Kessel-Brecher'schen Scharfsinns." - Andreas Nentwich, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Der magische, vom Märchen und der Romantik aufgeladene Stil, seine bebende Energie, seine ausschweifende Wörterlust, geschult an Jean Paul und Laurence Sterne, zwei alten Göttern apart, entstehen aus der Bannkraft der Dinge, die Brecher und den Erzähler mit dem Magma des Alltags vollreden. Dieser Roman ist "ein imaginäres Gebilde" überstrahlt von der Oberstimme des melancholischen Vergnügens, die Menschen zu durchschauen, ohne dass dieses Artistentum jemandem hilft, von Sottisen, die von einem anderen Stern herleuchten." - Wilfried F. Schoeller, Süddeutsche Zeitung

  • "Kessels Zeitroman aus den frühen dreißiger Jahren ist merkwürdig zeitlos. Nichts, was nicht bis in unsere Tage hinein das Betriebsklima von Großraumbüros hinauf zur Chefetage prägen würde." - Michael Bauer, Der Tagesspiegel

  • "Satirisch und sentimental, geistreich und lebenssüchtig, trostbegehrlich und hoffnungsfrei. Alles, was man so kennt, kommt vor: Tempo und Kino, U-Bahn und Sechstagerennen. Aber es kommt vor wie Flecken auf der Tapete -- Abnutzungseffekte eines Alltags, dessen dauernder Sonntag die Büroarbeit ist." - Erhard Schütz, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Many authors are forgotten -- most so completely that there is essentially no trace of them beyond, perhaps, dusty unread volumes on dark library shelves. Essentially these authors no longer exist. It is a more common fate than generally supposed.
       German author Martin Kessel (1901-1990) has long bobbed near that surface separating recognition from oblivion, threatening several times to sink from sight. After a promising beginning to his literary career -- he was awarded the prestigious Kleist-Prize in 1926 for his poetry -- he seemed set to make his mark with the 1932 publication of his novel, Herrn Brechers Fiasko. But it was the wrong book at the wrong time, at odds with the Nazi vision that was quickly taking over the country.
       Kessel was not silenced, but the impact of the succeeding works was, like that of Herrn Brechers Fiasko, dulled. One thinks of the towering tree falling in the forest -- with no one, apparently, there to hear. Kessel's works seemed to make not a sound.
       He continued to write after the war, and in 1954 received the Georg Büchner Prize, one of the highest German literary honors. The first novel had its supporters: Suhrkamp Verlag published it again in 1956 to some critical acclaim. But the time wasn't right again and it faded out of print (only to be briefly, if futilely, resurrected in paperback by Suhrkamp in 1978).
       Kessel enjoyed some success, but ultimately died known only as a local author in Berlin. He doesn't figure in the literary surveys of the century. The significance of his work is hardly considered: unknown, unread, out of print, it is deemed simply too insignificant.

       Now, in 2001, the centenary of his birth, a third publisher has made a go of it with Herrn Brechers Fiasko. With considerable fanfare Schöffling & Co. have published the novel again. The initial success they have had -- a great deal of very positive critical reaction, widespread interest and acclaim -- suggests that Kessel might, finally, have his break-out book. (History, however, warns of reading too much into a possibly brief flurry of interest.)
       Part of the success naturally stems from the previous failure, and the sudden reappearance of an author no one recalls from the first time around. But there is more to it than that, a lot more. Namely: Herrn Brechers Fiasko. It is a worthy book. Indeed, it is a very worthy one.

       Martin Kessel wasn't born in Berlin, but he spent practically his entire adult life there, from 1923 onwards. It was an exciting, distinctive city, especially in the years between the wars. Many authors captured at least part of life there during those years; indeed, there were many "Berlin Romane", novels of the city. Alfred Döblin captured it best, most famously in his classic, Berlin Alexanderplatz, but Herrn Brechers Fiasko is also one of the most important examples of the genre, and one of the most impressive documents describing Berlin in those years.
       Herrn Brechers Fiasko is also a "Büroroman" -- an "office-novel", focussed on the workplace. The central figure, Max Brecher, works for a huge conglomerate, "die Universale-Vermittlungs-Aktien-Gesellschaft", generally known simply as: Uvag. The company is indistinguishable from many contemporary conglomerates -- not an industrial concern, but one that specializes in the service industry and the media, owning a wide array of businesses. It seems to do everything and nothing.
       Brecher and his colleagues work in what is now known as the advertising department -- called here, as it was back then, more accurately: the propaganda department. Beside Brecher other characters of note include his sometime-friend, Dr. Geist, with whom Brecher went to university, their department head, Sack, and the mighty boss, Ua-Ua. There are women in the office too: the limping Gudula Öften, rivals Mucki Schöps and Lisa Frieske. There are office politics and office romances. Some are devoted to their jobs, eager professionals for whom success at the workplace is fulfilling. Others find considerably less there.
       There is not a great deal of plot to the novel. Department head Sack meets an unfortunate end and Dr. Geist is promoted. Showing his true colours and allegiances (and some business sense), Geist fires Brecher, who has been growing more disillusioned and cynical, worn down by his propagandist duties. There are couplings, accidents, a suicide attempt, and more.
       But the heart of the novel lies in the details, the everyday scenes, the conversations, the office lives. Herrn Brechers Fiasko is a dense, rich text -- over 500 pages ! -- that revels in day to day minutiae, in the little scenes of Berlin and office life, capturing the mood of the times and the ill-matched personalities thrown together here. The office is like most any large office, trivial frictions escalating into all-out conflict, friendship and enmity always rubbing against each other in the too close quarters, ridiculous demands, pointless tasks, and bureaucracy dominating the workday. The characters try to find meaning in their lives, often by going through these pointless motions. Cynicism easily bubbles to the surface.
       Brecher sashays through the city and the office comfortably enough much of the time, but it does finally get to him. Where Dr. Geist triumphs by subordinating himself to the industrial machine -- becoming a cog -- Brecher remains too independent, unwilling to play the assigned role, unwilling to give up his independence of thought and will, unable not to look critically.
       Almost nothing is known of Brecher's life outside the office by his colleagues: "Seine Vergangenheit existiert nicht" ("His past doesn't exist"), Gudula Öften remarks. Her interpretation comes close to the mark: "In meinen Augen ist er ein Zusammenbruch, unser aller Zusammenbruch." ("In my eyes he is a collapse, all of our collapse."). But Brecher's fiasco is ultimately his own.
       Kessel's scenes are strikingly modern, and many of them (and many of the actions, complaints, and frustrations) could as easily come from a contemporary novel. Berlin in the background, however, gives him a second layer of material, and this too he uses to the fullest. It is a time of hope and hyperinflation, sexual liberation and repression, industrialization and unemployment, and constant political instability -- with the shadow of fascism looming ever larger. Berlin is as lively a town as one can imagine, with equal measures of provincialism and urbanity, overwhelmed small minded folk rubbing shoulders with citizens of the world, soulless, dehumanizing conglomerates like Uvag still peopled by very human figures, yet slowly destroying them.

       The writing is fast-paced, dense, and clever, dripping with satire. Kessel facilely plays with the different voices and characters, using language -- especially dialect, especially in conversation -- very effectively. His office scenes are masterful sketches. The pettiness, the numbing sameness, the often surprising discoveries and the many regrets are well conveyed.
       It is a heavy, artful novel, with a rapid-fire succession of scenes (more so than actual events). There is some meditation and introspection -- but there is too little time to focus, with a constant rush of other things to get to, other obligations, other observations. It is a huge and very even canvas, most every bit of similar interest (unlike most novels, with their build-ups and summations).
       In his essay, Mein erster Roman (My First Novel, included in this volume), Kessel acknowledges his two literary passions while writing the book: Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Gogol's Dead Souls. They were sources of strength ("die reinsten Kraftquellen") to him, and this is reflected in his own writing, which is similarly relentless (and places a similar emphasis on humour). Herrn Brechers Fiasko is often a gripping read -- and often a wearying one. Kessel sustains his powerful style for over 500 pages in his tour de force. Modern readers will likely find they are unaccustomed to such forceful presentation. But it is worth the effort.
       An unusual and challenging but very worthwhile (re)discovery.

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Mr. Brecher's Fiasco: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Martin Kessel (1901-1990) wrote several novels, as well as poetry and non-fiction. He was awarded the Kleist Prize in 1926, and the Georg Büchner Prize in 1954.

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© 2001-2009 the complete review

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