It’s a tragicomic story, and Weidermann’s witty, ingeniously-structured narrative does it full justice... Weidermann’s narrative has many viewpoints and voices... Weidermann’s account of those hectic few months in Munich is written with sparkling elan and translated by Ruth Martin with such ingenuity it reads as if it were an original text. Author and translator alike are inventive in their use of colloquialisms and rhetorical flourishes... Vivid, full of sardonic humour, moral nuance and personal drama, this book takes the reader into the heart of the revolutionary crowd, and shows how exhilarating and terrifying it is to be there.
Volker Weidermann powerfully evokes the energy, confusion, farce and tragedy of the dreamers’ revolution with some fabulous eyewitness accounts from people who could really write. Rilke, the “gentle poet of the star”, at times caught up in the drama, but often stepping to one side, makes a wonderful observer, as does “the rough, revolutionary people’s poet”, Oskar Maria Graf. It is harder, though, to empathise with Mann, with his anti-Semitism, self-importance and dogged self-interest.
Volker Weidermann’s blend of engrossing, urgent reportage and gentle, dissociative musing will be familiar to readers of his previous work, the bestselling Summer Before the Dark, which portrayed, with melancholy and menace, the final summer of frantic friendship between writers Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig in 1936 in the Belgian seaside resort of Ostend, their options decreasing, their lives soon to be destroyed by exile. Dreamers moves along similar lines: it is both a prequel to and a foreshadowing of the previous work. Weidermann, using a larger cast of characters in a narrative crammed with activity, concentrates on the artists and intellectuals who participated in the revolution and its chaotic aftermath.
Weidermann is a journalist rather than an academic, and so this is a compact and colourful account, with the breathless pace of war reporting rather than the ponderous, long-winded prose one usually associates with German history books by German historians. Many of the proponents wrote extensively and eloquently about their experiences, and Weidermann draws heavily on these first-hand accounts to great effect. By favouring impressionistic reportage over background detail, his narrative is sometimes a bit confusing, but it gives the reader a vivid sense of what it actually felt like to live through this exhilarating and terrifying time...
He is a subtle storyteller, and one of his great skills is the way in which he pins down celebrated people at specific moments and then demonstrates how their reactions shaped their subsequent lives. He brings to life long forgotten and seemingly insignificant and quirky episodes in history, and in so doing shows how unpredictably and randomly it unfolds, and how it is full of unlikely heroes who occupy the stage for a few moments, only to leave it for ever.
Weidermann chooses the present tense to guide us through the weeks from innocent popular rejoicing to blood-soaked endgame. This is supposed to make everything seem more immediate and lively. It may work for some readers, but others may find it relentless. Luckily, personal tastes hardly matter when a story has such great pace, action and character.
As in all the best stories, the characters are unforgettable.