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Erich Kästner
The Unknown Famous Author

Germans have the interesting custom of requiring someone who is celebrating a birthday to throw his or her own party! But they make an exception for famous dead people and throw a big party to commemorate birthdays that mark a milestone for deceased cultural icons. This they did for Erich Kästner on February 23, 1999—the German author's 100th birthday.

book cover
Kästner's Das doppelte Lottchen has been
the source of at least six movies, including
Disney's "The Parent Trap" (1961, 1998).

Erich Kästner (1899-1974) is still one of the best known and most popular authors in the German-speaking world, but he is not very well known elsewhere. Even in German Europe, Kästner (KEST-ner) is primarily known as the author of highly amusing works for children, although his body of work includes a great variety of more serious material, including dramas, essays, screenplays, novels, and poetry.

Although Germans like to think that Kästner is internationally popular, the fact that he is known at all in the English-speaking world is largely due to one person... Walt Disney. Two of Erich Kästner's humorous tales for children—Emil und die Detektive and Das doppelte Lottchen—attracted Disney's attention. In the 1960s the Disney studios turned these two books into the films "Emil and the Detectives" (1964) and "The Parent Trap" (1961, 1998) respectively.

Kästner's books have been the source for more than 20 film productions, the most recent being the German productions Emil und die Detektive (2001) and Pünktchen und Anton (1999). See our German Movie Guide for more - and the DVD releases.)

Although some of his books have been translated into English, in preparing this article, I was unable to find a single Kästner title in English that was readily available from an online bookstore. (A few translated Kästner works are available on special order.) Nor could I locate a single English-language biography of the German author made so "famous" by Walt Disney.

Als ich ein kleiner Junge war is
available on audio CD, cassette,
and in book form.

No doubt Disney, like other readers of Kästner, was drawn to the way he uses humor to reveal the truth about people and society. But Kästner's dry brand of humor also extends to his more "serious" works, and makes his writing more appealing to adults as well. One of Kästner's biographers claims: "Kästner wird oft nur mit einem Teil seines Werkes wahrgenommen. Er erwies sich aber als scharf analysierender, von trockenem Humor geprägter und zutiefst humaner Beobachter im kleinen Welttheater Deutschland." ("Kästner is often perceived by only part of his work. He proved, however, to be a sharply analytical and keenly human observer, with his characteristic dry humor, in the tiny world theater known as Germany.")

Based on several new Kästner biographies, it is fair to say that he is one of his country's least fully understood and most underrated authors. And, although he was honored with various German literary and humanitarian awards during his lifetime, he never received a Nobel Prize for Literature or any other significant international recognition, like a Günter Grass, a Heinrich Böll, or even a Siegfried Lenz.

N E X T > Kästner Sees His Books Burned - Page 1 | 2 | 3

Related Pages

Erich Kästner Books
Selected books by and about Kästner. From your Guide.

German Movie Guide
Includes films based on Erich Kästner works.

Erich Kästner on the Web
Links to the author and his works. From your Guide.

Authors in German
Writers and their works in German literature.

More Books
A selection of books for learning German, from your Guide.

German Newsletters
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