Dresden was a wonderful city, full of art and history, yet with none of the atmosphere of a museum which happened to house, along with its treasures, six hundred and fifty thousand Dresdeners. Past and present lived in perfect unity, or rather duality, and blended and harmonized with the landscape – the Elbe, the bridges, the slopes of the surrounding hills, the woods, the mountains which fringed the horizon – to form a perfect trinity. From Meissen Cathedral to the Castle Park of Groszsedlitz, history, art and nature intermingled in town and valley in an incomparable accord which seemed as though bewitched by its own perfect harmony.
When I was a little boy my father took me for a walk in the Waldschlösschen one fine summer evening because there was a Punch and Judy show there which was my particular delight. Suddenly he stopped and said, ‘There used to be an inn here with a very strange name. It was called The Inn of the Silent Music.’ I looked at him astonished. The Inn of the Silent Music – that was certainly a strange name. It sounded so odd and so cheerfully crazy that I never forgot it. At the time I thought: either there’s music in an inn or it’s silent. But there’s no such thing as silent music.
Whenever I stood on the same spot in later years and looked down over the city to the Wielisch and the Babisnauer Poplar, and up the Elbe to the fortress of Königstein, I realized more clearly each time what that innkeeper, who was long since dead and whose inn had vanished into nothingness, had meant. A certain philosopher – I knew that even then – had called the architecture of Dresden, its cathedrals and palaces, ‘frozen music’. That Saxon philosopher was really a poet at heart. And an innkeeper, gazing on the silver river and the golden city of Dresden, had christened his inn The Inn of the Silent Music. So it would seem that my Saxon innkeeper had been a poet at heart too.
If it is correct to say that I can not only judge of what is horrible and ugly but also of what is beautiful, I attribute this gift to my good fortune in having grown up in Dresden. I did not have to learn first out of books what is beautiful, neither at school nor at the University. I could breathe in beauty as foresters’ children breathe in woodland air. The Catholic Hofkirche, Georg Bähr’s Frauenkirche, the Zwinger, Pillnitz Castle, the Japanese Palace, the Jüdenhof and the Dinglingerhaus, the Rampische Strasse with its baroque façades, the Renaissance windows of the Schloss Strasse, the Cosel Palace, the Palace in the Grosser Garten with the Little Houses of the Cavaliers and, looking down from the Loschwitzhöhe, the vista of the city in silhouette, with its noble and venerable towers . . . But really there is not much sense in reciting the glories that were Dresden like the multiplication table.
I could not describe even a chair so accurately that Kunze the carpenter could reproduce it in his workshop from my description. How then could I hope to describe Schloss Moritzburg with its four round towers reflected in the water, or that sculptured vase by the Italian Corradini near the Palace Pond, almost opposite the Café Pollender; or the Kronentor of the Zwinger? I can see that I shall have to ask the artist to please make a special set of drawings for this chapter so that you may get at least some faint idea of how beautiful my native city was.
Perhaps I shall even ask him, if he has time, to draw one of the little Cavaliers’ Houses which flank the Palace in the Grosser Garten. ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to spend your whole life in one of those little houses?’ I used to think when I was a boy. ‘Perhaps you will be famous one day and the Mayor will come with his golden chain around his neck and present you with one of them in the name of the city.’ And I should have moved into it with all my books. I should have taken my breakfast in the Palace Café in the morning, and fed the swans. Then I should have gone for a walk through the old and then taken a little nap by the open window. After that I should have gone to the Zoo, which was only round the corner. Or to the great flower show. Or to the Museum of Hygiene. Or to the horse-races at Rieck. And at night I should have slept soundly, again by the open window, the only living soul in the great old park.
When would I have done any work? you may ask. How can people be so rude and inquisitive? The gnomes, the descendants of the Polish and Saxon court dwarfs, would have seen to that, of course. They are very small but very capable people. With the briefest instructions they would have typed my poems and stories on tiny fairy typewriters while I galloped along the wide, dark brown riding-tracks as far as the Picardie on my favourite steed, the dapple-grey Almansor, and Almansor and I would have had coffee and cake there. But dwarfs who type poems and horses who eat cake don’t belong here!
Extract from Chapter 4: Suitcases, Corsets and Curls
Slightly Foxed Edition No. 40: Erich Kästner, When I Was a Little Boy
© Atrium Verlag, Zürich 1957
Illustrations by Horst Lemke
English version © 1959 by Jonathan Cape Limited