If you like Blyton: The Flying Classroom by Erich Kästner, reviewed by Chris


Much as I love Enid Blyton’s stories, and often as I re-read them, my very favourite children’s book is The Flying Classroom by Erich Kästner. It is a Christmas story, which I re-read every Christmas Eve and even now – in my late fifties – its ending brings a lump to my throat, just as it did when I first read it as a child.

A contemporary of Enid Blyton, Erich Kästner (1899-1974) was a German author, probably best known for Emil and the Detectives. He had an interesting life which I won’t summarise here, but of note is that his books were amongst those burned by the Nazis and, although he lived in Germany throughout the war, he was constantly under suspicion for opposing the Nazi regime.

However, although published in 1933, just months before the Nazis came to power and Kästner’s books were burned, there is really no direct political comment in The Flying Classroom, apart from a reference to the unfairness of unemployment and, more tellingly, a pointed remark from a teacher that “when wrong is done, it is the fault of those who do not prevent it as well as those who do it”.

Such serious things aside, this is a boarding school story about the rivalry between the pupils of that school and a day school in the same German town, Kirchberg. That rivalry leads to a mass snowball fight, and a one-to-one boxing contest between the ‘champions’ of each school (see cover of 1933 German edition). Whilst this is going on, the boarding school boys are preparing a Christmas play, entitled ‘The Flying Classroom’ which gives the book its name.

These things provide most of the action of the book, including a slightly gruesome scene in which some boarding school boys are tied up and repeatedly slapped by their day school opponents. At the same time, there is much subtle humour in the story, as well as an understanding of the loneliness and fears of young people, perhaps especially in boarding schools.

But the real themes are deeper, and include those of courage, honour, loyalty and, above all else, friendship. This friendship is, in the first instance, between the boys, including the deep bond between artistic scholarship boy Martin Thaler and poetry-writing Johnny Trotz, cruelly abandoned by his parents. More surprising is the friendship between the boisterous, ever-hungry boxer, Matthias Selbmann, and shy Uli von Simmern, who doubts his own courage to the extent of seeking to prove it by jumping off the school roof with only an umbrella as a parachute. But equally affecting is friendless Sebastian Frank, the Schopenhauer-quoting intellectual loner, who conceals his own lack of courage but at a price to his self-respect.

Beyond this, much of the book is about the friendship between the boys and their house master, Dr Johann Bökh, who they nickname ‘Justus’ for his fairness, and between the boys and the mysterious man they call ‘the Non-Smoker’. The latter is so called not because he does not smoke (“indeed he smoked a good deal”) but because he lives in an abandoned ‘non-smoking’ railway carriage near to the school. He makes a living by playing piano “until very late in smoky beer house” for pittance wages and a hot dinner.

These two adults both teach the boys important lessons about, at the most generic level, right and wrong. Gradually we realise that they had been friends together at the same school, a generation before, and that the Non-Smoker had taken a brutal punishment upon himself so as to allow Justus to visit his dying mother. Later, they shared lodgings at university but lost touch when the Non-Smoker’s wife died, and he disappeared after the funeral. Even before they know about this, the boys understand that the Non-Smoker has experienced some terrible suffering, and that he relates to them through memories of his own childhood, before it happened.

These two aspects come together in the most moving parts of the book. Firstly, the boys effect a re-introduction between Justus and ‘the Non-Smoker’. He turns out to be a doctor called Robert Uthofft, who, it’s implied, had a breakdown when he was unable to save his wife’s life. Following their reunion, Justus gets him appointed as the school doctor. Secondly, Justus pays for Martin Thaler to travel home to spend Christmas with his parents, because they are too poor to do so. It is the letter that Martin’s mother writes to Justus, to thank him “for the Christmas present of flesh and blood which you have sent us”, that always brings lump to my throat.

If all this sounds rather serious, be assured that the book is for the most part a very light read and, apart from anything else, is full of delightful background detail such as the baker’s shop where Matthias buys the rolls to sustain him, the Marrow Bone Inn where the Non-Smoker plays his honky-tonk piano, or the train station where “the sixth-form boys strolled up and down the platforms and chatted like men of the world with their girl-friends from the dancing-class.”

There are also wonderful cameo characters, such as the self-important prefect ‘Handsome Theodor’ and the pompous, but as we also see rather pathetic, headmaster Dr Grünkern. Especially eccentric is the German teacher Herr Kreuzkamm, who not only criticises the parents of Rudi Kreuzkamm for their lack of care for their son, but tells Rudi to give his father Herr Kreuzkamm’s compliments. Of course, Herr Kreuzkamm is Rudi’s father!

Then there are pranks with itching powder and ghost costumes, the drama of the Christmas show, and, vital for a Christmas story, lots of snow.  Also in the mix are some wonderful line drawings by Walter Trier, which bring the story to life despite their apparent simplicity. Another nice touch is having a preface and an end note, depicting the author before and after writing the main story but treating him as a character in his own book, who knows the other characters.

I wouldn’t really make any direct comparison between The Flying Classroom and Blyton’s books. It is very different to any of her school stories, the most obvious point of comparison. For that matter it is very different to the Jennings’ boarding school stories which I’ve discussed previously on this blog. But I first read it at the same time as I did those others and I still get pleasure from it, so I hope that this review may encourage fellow Blyton-lovers to read or, perhaps, to remember this charming book.

The c.1967 Puffin edition I had as a child when I first read it. The illustration rather strangely combines an image of Martin Thaler’s parents going to post their thank you letter to Justus, and a prank when Uli von Simmern is hoisted in a waste paper basket.

 

The 1961 re-issue (left) of the English edition originally published by Jonathan Cape in 1934 (right). The 1961 re-issue is the version I own. The illustration is of Justus telling the boys (after the snow ball fight) about his childhood friendship with, as it later turns out, the Non-Smoker. The boys with their backs towards us appear to be (left to right) Johnny Trotz, Sebastian Frank, Uli von Simmern, Matthias Selbmann and Martin Thaler.

The original 1933 German edition, published by Stuttgart Perthes (left) and a 1952 German edition, publisher unknown (right). The first depicts the fight between the ‘champions’ of the two schools, the second shows the prank played on Uli von Simmern.

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4 Responses to If you like Blyton: The Flying Classroom by Erich Kästner, reviewed by Chris

  1. Suzy Howlett says:

    Thanks for introducing me to The Flying Classroom, Fiona. I am writing a new novel, and one of my elderly characters would have loved this story, so I am going to have her discuss it with a friend.

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  2. chrissie777 says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article on Erich Kaestner, Chris.
    I loved “Emil and the three Twins” even more than “Emil and the Detectives”, because it was located at the Baltic Sea which appealed to me much more than a story taking place in Berlin.
    Unfortunately I’ve never read “The Flying Classroom”, but probably watched the old 1950’s movie once on German TV when I was much younger.
    I know there is a remake with Joachim “Blacky” Fuchsberger.
    I enjoyed reading “Das doppelte Lottchen”, “Puenktchen und Anton” and also loved the movie versions of each book.

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  3. chrissie777 says:

    PS: I felt similar about another contemporary of Enid Blyton. His name was Norman Dale and Georg-Westermann-Verlag published a few of his children’s books when I was ca. 10 and 11 years old in the mid 1960’s.
    His best book however was never translated into German, it’s called “Skeleton Island” and very hard to find.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this review! I recently bought a copy in German so I am definitely looking forward to reading it now!

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