Updated: Nov 8, 2020
»Eine Mutter, das ist eine Medizin, die kann man nicht in der Apotheke holen!« (Kästner 145) [‘A mother is a medicine that is unavailable from pharmacies.’]
Mothers are magical. Especially in Erich Kästner’s work. Though they are not without faults – some are even outright horrid as Pünktchen’s mother is in Pünktchen und Anton (1931) (Engl. title: Anna Louise and Anton) –, they are generally kind and loving and ready to sacrifice their own happiness for their (male) children at a moment’s notice. In Das Doppelte Lottchen (1949) – published in English as Lottie and Lisa and probably familiar from one of the several Parent Trap Disney adaptations – the mother, Luiselotte Körner, is more than magical: she is fallible and versatile. A mother who marches to a different tune. A mother who has to make up for a mistake she has consciously made, a mistake she is at least ‘half’ responsible for:
»Ich habe zwei Töchter«, sagt die Besucherin leise. »Die zweite lebt bei meinem geschiedenen Mann in Wien. […]« […] »Und die beiden haben bis dahin nichts voneinander gewusst?« Die junge Frau schüttelt den Kopf. »Nein. Mein Mann und ich haben’s damals so vereinbart, weil wir es für das Beste hielten.« (129-30) [‘I have two daughters,’ the visitor said in a small voice. ‘The second one lives with my ex-husband in Vienna. […]’ […] ‘And the two of them hadn’t known about each other before then?’ The young woman shakes her head. ‘No. My husband and I agreed on this at the time, because we thought it was for the best.’]
The twins have been “entzweigeteilt wie […] Muttis Vornamen” (41) [‘severed in two just like […] mother’s first name] (41), brought up in two different cities in two different countries, the parents letting the girls believe that the respective other parent was dead (45). This decision of separating the children, of course, is what drives the comedic plot forward – without it, there would be no story. And while the fault for the failure of the marriage is mostly attributed to the artistic nature and lifestyle of the father, the composer and conductor Ludwig Palfy, Luiselotte has a share in the responsibility for the separation of her daughters (65-67). She has put her own needs before those of her children, and she knows it, speaking in a “small voice”, doing what she “thought” was “best” – and, perhaps, it was “best” at that point in time. Because – similar to her daughters – Luiselotte, too, changes throughout the novel:
Das Kind hatte sich verändert. Und nun begann sich also auch die junge Frau zu verändern. (101) [The child had changed. And thus the young woman now also began to change.]
The “child,” of course, has not actually “changed” – or, rather, it has been exchanged for another –, but this new, wild and feisty little girl makes the “young woman” aware of the sacrifice she has been making of her daughter’s childhood. With Luise, she rediscovers the enjoyable things in life beyond hard work and a strong sense of duty. The actual Lotte, in contrast, is always well-behaved and knows how to look after herself as well as the housekeeping. Wise beyond her years, she manages her mother’s and later her father’s homelife and it is she who eventually reunites the family.
Not by cunning, but by failure.
She is a female version of Kästner’s beloved ‘Musterknabe’ [model boy] who finds herself unable to keep her father from remarrying and, in consequence, falls ill. This illness is where Luiselotte comes in, the mother, the “medicine” that makes all well again. In a sense, she – in cooperation with her artistic husband – has been the cause of this illness as well. But, as she has brought up Lotte, so to speak, in her own image – as Ludwig did with Luise – the healing process sets in much earlier. As Luise triggers a change in her mother, Lotte also changes the people around her, most of all her father and the housekeeper Resi. As the children are so similar to the respective parent who has brought them up, they gradually bring them back into the life of their ex-partners. The special circumstances of their doubleness allow them to almost magically recreate the young family that was – a project which must fail by precedent. Because the crucial ingredient is still missing: the change that both parents make throughout the novel in readjusting to their children’s characters and needs (and thus, to a degree, to those of their ex-partners) and – most importantly – in finally factoring them (and each other) in:
»Wenn wir einmal von uns beiden gänzlich absehen«, sagt gerade Herr Palfy nebenan und schaut unentwegt auf den Fußboden, »so wäre es zweifellos das Beste, die Kinder würden nicht wieder getrennt.« »Bestimmt«, meint die junge Frau. »Wir hätten sie nie auseinanderreißen sollen.«(154) [‘Putting the both of us aside entirely for the moment,’ Mr. Palfy is just saying next door while staring steadfastly at the floor, ‘it would undoubtedly be for the best if the children weren’t separated again.’ ‘Definitely,’ says the young woman. ‘We should have never torn them apart in the first place.’]
Luiselotte Körner is a magic mum, because she allows both the acute illness of her child and the breech in her family to heal. It’s all about second chances. She has learned from the past, has grown, and knows what she is getting herself and her daughters into – or out of – for good or ill. Her decision, once again, is consciously and actively made:
»Vater und Mutter wollen sie haben, unsere Kinder! Ist das unbescheiden?«, fragt die junge Frau forschend. »Nein! Aber es gibt auch bescheidene Wünsche, die nicht erfüllbar sind!« […] »Warum nicht erfüllbar?«(155-56) [‘Our children, they want to have a father and a mother. Is that presumptuous?’ the young woman asks scrutinisingly. ‘It isn’t! But there are also humble wishes that cannot be granted.’ […] ‘Why can’t they be?’]
Luise and Lotte’s mother turns out to be more than magical: she is human. And, what is more, she is ready to give her double-daughtered life a second chance. It’s not a rerun, though, it’s a new beginning.
Kästner, Erich. Das doppelte Lottchen. 1949. 2nd edition, Atrium Verlag, 2019.