A birthday present: Ernst Krenek’s short story The Three Overcoats of Anton K. in a German-English new edition
Germany and Austria can look proudly at an impressive number of wide-ranging museums, among them not only state galleries and others of a similar high caliber. Passau, the Bavarian border city, for example, boasts with a dachshund museum, while a number of towns have button and sausage museums – lovely. But a museum of the German-speaking exile, such as that envisioned by Thomas B. Schumann, the founder of the one-man publishing company edition memoria, has yet to materialize. The passionate publisher is indeed negotiating with the City of Bonn for such a house. And Schumann would also contribute his unique collection of relevant legacies, paintings, etc., as a basic stock. But this is all still up in the air, unfortunately.
Now Ernst Krenek has found a place in Schumann’s imaginary Museum of the German-speaking Exile, that is to say, in the edition memoria, and indeed with the short story "The Three Overcoats of Anton K.", his only prose text. Krenek did not, however, consider it an occasional work, for the story occupied him for almost three decades. He wrote it in the summer of 1938. In 1944, in American exile, he translated it into English. Some ten years later, he revised this version in order to publish it in an American magazine. In 1965 he then laid the final stone by having the original German version issued by the renowned publishing house of Langen und Müller.
Krenek’s lasting care is just as conspicuous as it is understandable. For in the short story, as well as with it, he came to terms with the most momentous upheaval of his life – events that could easily have thrown him off course. In early March 1938 he returned to Europe from a concert tour of the USA. A few days later, in Brussels, he learned that Austria had more or less willingly offered itself to the National Socialists and was now part of the German Empire. As a result, Krenek was confronted by a triple dilemma. On the one hand, his Austrian passport was no longer valid. On the other hand, in all questions concerning travel, he had to consult the German consulate, the representative of a country that had officially denounced him and his art. And, third, he saw himself compelled to apply by means of a rather elaborate process for a visa that would enable him and his wife to return to the USA and take up residence there.
During the following months, in which he traveled back and forth across Europe for professional reasons, Krenek found himself entangled in an unparalleled jungle of red tape. In order to cut through it, he had to unceasingly grin and bear it – here with the fist in the pocket, there with sarcastic humor. Time and again, entirely absurd requirements had to be fulfilled. When he wanted to travel from Holland to Sweden, he was required to produce an attestation that he could return to Germany at any time, something that would have been truly dangerous for him. In a similar situation, he was sent to a physician who asked him abstruse questions. Krenek thus got the impression that he and his fellow sufferers were merely the fuel that was to keep an enigmatic, self-sufficient machinery in motion.
In order to counter the feeling of helplessness, Krenek began to transform the distressing experiences into the short story of Anton K. His ambitious, thriller-like tale, whose hero was always a little bit like Ernst K., appears now, on the occasion of Krenek’s 120th birthday, for the first time in a bilingual edition. Supplementary illustrations, such as the composer’s passport, allow one to feel the atmosphere of the time.
Dr. Matthias Henke
Ernst Krenek, „Die drei Mäntel des Anton K.“ / „The Three Overcoats of Anton K.“,
edited by Matthias Henke
Hürth: edition memoria, 2020
The novel will appear at the end of August 2020.