Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Death In (Not Venice But) Rome

death in rome by Wolfgang Koeppen

Death in Rome is the most devastating novel about the Germans that I have ever read,” writes translator Michael Hofmann in his introduction, a case he makes compelling even before one considers the tale itself.

In the aftermath of World War II, German writers were forced to pick up the pieces of their world, while somehow coming to terms with the murder and destruction that they (and their parents and grandparents) had wrought. As the losers and “villains” of the war, villains of a stripe not seen before, their task was markedly different than that of, say, the French intellectuals and writers in Paris, whom I touched upon in my last post on Simone de Beauvoir. Some German writers, writers such as Arno Schmidt and Günter Eich, found it too much or not useful to confront the past directly, choosing instead to explore German racism, violence, and guilt through means more symbolic and abstract.

Then too there was the need, the desire, to forget, to start afresh. After a brief (some would say unconscionably brief) period of moral scrutiny the country was ready to move on, an instinct, a compulsion, that soon gave rise to the post-war “German Miracle”  or Wirtschaftswunder, a surge in economic growth and cultural regeneration, a “phoenix act,” for which many German writers (not to mention politicians) were happy to write the script. As Hofmann remarks, the status quo ante 1933 was not restored after the war. “Instead, the story was one of discontinuity. It was as though the literature had been bombed as the cities had been.” Indeed many of the new generation of writers, like those of the controversial Gruppe 47, chose to make a clean break from the country’s literary (if not historical) past, as represented by Thomas Mann, to turn their backs on the war, the results and verdict of which seemed clear enough. As Aaron Dennis Horton writes, “This group of writers believed their work represented a new beginning for German literature, just as 1945, the so-called ‘zero hour,’ allegedly signified the start of a new era in German history, separate from the Nazi past.” Writing what came to be known as Trümmerliteratur or "rubble literature," they were determined to start with a clean slate, their focus the here and now, the future rising fast before their eyes. This is not to say that these writers denied or attempted to ignore German culpability in the war, only that they were often torn in their aims. Most notable among them were Alfred Andersch, Heinrich Böll, Siegfried Lenz, and Günter Grass, all of whom fought under Hitler but were ardently anti-Nazi. With two Nobel laureates among them, they are undoubtedly the best-known German writers in the world. 

Then there were the lonely, lesser-known writers like Wolfgang Koeppen whose relentless condemnation of the new Germany, with its collective amnesia and devotion to Mammon, now rings like a bell. Shaped by the works of Proust, Kafka, Faulkner, Woolf, and Mann, he came of age as a writer in the 1930s then fled. “He went abroad. He wasn’t a Nazi.  He returned.” Unfortunately the cultural landscape had changed, so that his novels of the 1950s, “works of memory and continuance and criticism,” were met with widespread reproach and contempt, savaged by “the modish and dirigible German public” for their often brutal candor at a time when Germans were just beginning to like themselves again.

Of those novels, Death in Rome is an especially trenchant look at the sickness and psychology of post-war Germans. Focusing on the reunion of a large German family in Rome in the early 1950s, a story of fathers and sons, husbands and wives, cousins and cousins, the real Geist of the story is the megalomaniacal, “unreconstructed and unkillable SS man” Gottlieb Judejahn, who—on the run and uncover of false identity papers—storms about the ruins of Rome, addled by dreams of Valhalla and the certain redemption of Grossdeutschland.   

The title’s echoing of Mann’s Death in Venice is particularly apt. Written (as was Death in Venice) with a combination of what Mann called “myth plus psychology,” Death In Rome is densely layered with allusions to Scandinavian mythology (so dear to the Nazis) and to the near-mythical German history in Rome, from Alaric the Goth to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne to ‘Der Führer,’ Adolf Hitler. That Mann’s novella—shot through with contagion and death—was also a study in moral responsibility must surely have appealed to Koeppen as well. 

Of the author, finally, Hofmann writes, “There is something implacable, almost vindictive—like one of his Furies—about his pursuit of the Germans post-war, post-Holocaust, post-division, turning away from their crimes towards rehabilitation and their EC, once again exporting their goods and their culture and themselves. He shows them to us. All of them.” Like his Austrian counterpart, Thomas Bernhard, Koeppen was never afraid to dirty his own nest.*

Wolfgang Arthur Reinhold Koeppen (1906 – 1996) was born in Greifswald, Germany on the Baltic coast, some 200 kilometers north of Berlin. He is best know for his post-war trilogy: Pigeons on the Grass (1951), The Greenhouse (1953), and Death in Rome (1954). He also wrote a travelogue called Journey Through America (1959) that is available in English. He died in Munich in 1996.

Michael Hofmann is arguably the preeminent translator of modern and contemporary German language literature, having translated the work of such writers Franz Kafka, Ernst Jünger, Joseph Roth, Durs Grünbein, Hans Fallada, Thomas Bernhard, Herta Müller, and Peter Stamm. 

*For his vociferous criticism of his homeland, Austria, Bernhard was frequently criticized as a
       Nestbeschmutzer, one who dirties his own nest.
+Thanks in part to George Steiner’s controversial 1959 essay “The Hollow Miracle” and Aaron
       Dennis Horton’s “Catastrophe and Identity in Post-War German Literature”

Peter Adam Nash

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