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Reviewed by:
  • Lucky Hans and Other Merz Fairy Tales
  • Karin Kukkonen (bio)
Lucky Hans and Other Merz Fairy Tales. By Kurt Schwitters. Translated by Jack Zipes. Illustrated by Irvine Peacock. Oddly Modern Fairy Tales 1. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. xiii + 235pp.

When thinking about Germany and fairy tales, one inevitably thinks of the Grimms. The Grimms, as numerous accounts from the sociohistorical approach to fairy-tale studies have shown (see John Ellis's One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales [1985], Maria Tatar's The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales [1987], or Ruth B. Bottigheimer's Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales [1989]), edited and reshaped traditional oral fairy tales into literary fairy tales that were compliant with the bourgeois ideology of nineteenth-century Germany. Jack Zipes has no small share in this reevaluation of the Grimms' collection as sanitized and ideology-shaped tales through his own studies, such as Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (1991) or The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World (1989). Through his work as an editor and translator, however, Zipes has also [End Page 343] been introducing a different set of German fairy tales to English-language readers. In Fairy Tales and Fables from Weimar Days (originally published in 1989), he collects fairy tales from the time of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), when Germany had successfully rebelled against its kaiser, embraced the democratic experiment, and enjoyed a period of artistic license and liberty. These highly political fairy tales by authors such as Béla Balázs, Joachim Ringelnatz, or Oskar Maria Graf question the traditional fairy-tale roles of kings and fools and employ the fantastic nature of the genre to toy with utopian social prospects. With his latest editorial work on the fairy tales of Kurt Schwitters, Zipes takes us back once more to Germany's "roaring twenties" and its intellectuals' engagement with the fairy tale.

For his collection Lucky Hans and Other Merz Fairy Tales, Jack Zipes selected and translated fairy tales from among short prose pieces by artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948). Zipes's detailed and readable introduction to the volume, titled "Kurt Schwitters, Politics, and the Merz Fairy Tale," informs readers about the life and times of Schwitters, his Merz project, his relationship to the art scene of his time, and his exile from Nazi Germany. Schwitters was a multimedia artist avant la lettre: he created paintings, performed recitals, designed houses, and wrote prose and poetry (most famously the satirical love poem "To Anna Bloom"). For one of his collage paintings, Schwitters cut the syllable merz out of a newspaper page. "Merz" soon became the name of his artistic program, which involved showing up bourgeois conventions through nonsense prose and poetry. As Zipes points out, even though Schwitters had a keen awareness of political issues, at the same time he was radically critical of any political commitments, be they bourgeois or socialist.

This attitude of criticism and playfulness—the "Merz attitude," if you will—shines though all the fairy tales in the collection. The tale "The Scarecrow" features the letter X as its main protagonist, which is equipped with a tux of letters and dots and "such a lovely lace scarf" (73) made of serifs. The X's typographical adventures show readers, in a most delightful and imaginative fashion, how much more a letter can be than the simple, conventional carrier of a sound. The title hero of the collection, Lucky Hans, dons a rabbit's skin and makes a lot of money from selling it to a rich man. By tricking the rich man into giving the skin back to the rabbit, he makes even more money. Hans is lucky, because he makes a lot of money out of nothing with the support of a typical animal helper. Read against the fact that merz is a syllable taken out of Kommerzbank—that is, commercial bank—this Merz fairy tale can be seen as a hilarious parable of the capitalist system.

Yet even though Lucky Hans's tale has a happy ending, being lucky and getting your way by...


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pp. 343-345
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