- Death in Rome by Wolfgang Koeppen, translated by Michael Hofmann
Hamish Hamilton, 192 pp, £9.99, November 1992, ISBN 0 241 13238 X
This German novel has waited nearly forty years for its English translator. Michael Hofmann fell in love the moment the Good Fairy told him about it, and set out to liberate it from the thorn hedge of neglect. The Good Fairy, in this case, was a Berlin bookseller ‘who First recommended Koeppen’. Wolfgang Koeppen is 86. He wrote a couple of novels before the war, but his fame (now in abeyance, even in Germany where he was once classed with Böll and Grass), rests on the three he published in quick succession in the early Fifties. This is the third and he has not written much since. In his Introduction, Hofmann thanks the bookseller, Barbara Stiess, and also his publisher Daniel Halpern ‘for his unforgettably impulsive agreement to publish the book’. So the English version of Death in Rome is the result of three people’s enthusiasm.
One sees their point immediately. The writing is intoxicating – ‘gorgeous, bristling, pugnacious’, Hofmann says. His translation matches the verve, suppleness and grandeur of the original, a grandeur which never becomes pretentious because, although the manner is – visionary, the vocabulary is specific and colloquial – perhaps not quite as colloquial as Hofmann’s. But if the translation is an act of love, the novel itself is an expression of hatred – German self-hatred, which, Thomas Mann said, ‘goes to the point of self-disgust and self-abomination.’
The blurb tells us that the four chief characters in the novel represent the four elements of the German soul : ‘music, bureaucracy, arms and religion’. The story is set in Rome in 1954, six years before La Dolce Vita, but it has Dolce Vita tints, especially in the gay bar where a lot of the action is. This Rome, though, is seen through German eyes – several pairs of them, some hostile, some bewildered, one enchanted, and all belonging to the same family. They see noble ancient buildings; they see statues, Roman and baroque, serene and sexy, poised over streets crawling with sexy cars, sexy men, women and boys. Leaving out the cars, this is what Goethe saw, and in a sense Koeppen’s novel is another Italian Journey, a guidebook full of German Sehnsucht for the land of flowering lemon trees where people are uninhibited and graceful. Loving descriptions of squares, fountains, bridges and passers-by shade into musings on history and the difference between the German and Italian character.
The chief muser – he muses in the first person whereas all the others do it in the third – is Siegfried Pfaffrat (music), a young composer of serial music. He is in Rome for the premiere of his symphony and runs into his cousin Adolf Judejahn (religion), whom he hasn’t seen since they were both pupils at a boarding school for the Nazi élite. Adolf is training for the priesthood and staying at a German seminary. Both young men are on the run from their families, who represent the Nazi past. Siegfried’s father, Friedrich Wilhelm Pfaffrat, is an ex-Nazi bureaucrat (bureaucrat), now the democratically elected mayor of a German town. He has come to Rome for a secret rendezvous with his brother-in-law, Gottlieb Judejahn (army). Gottlieb is Adolf’s father. He was a top-ranking general in the SS, who disappeared at the end of the war and was presumed dead. In fact, he escaped and has been training the army of a Gulf State ruler. Now he thinks the time has come for his return to the Fatherland, which is about to regain its sovereignty and its armed forces. He wants Pfaffrat to get him back onto the ladder of power, and that is why he has summoned him to Rome. Judejahn stays in a luxury hotel and gets about in a chauffeur-driven limo with Arabic numberplates, Pfaffrat stays in a tourist hotel popular with noisy Germans. He has brought along his younger son Dietrich, his wife Anna, and her sister Eva Judejahn. Eva is not at all pleased. She has been a professional Nazi widow for nine years, an Erinys nursing her hatred of Jews and foreigners, proud of her husband’s heroic death. She doesn’t want him alive and refuses to see him: ‘she couldn’t tell them, they who had made their peace ... with collapse, betrayal and robbery, she couldn’t explain to them that the marriage contract between herself and Judejahn was so inextricably bound up with the Third Reich, had only lived in this one faith, only been fed from this one source, that the bond was broken, it had ended automatically with Hitler’s death ... Neither of them was at fault in what had happened and couldn’t now be mended, but they both inevitably shared the guilt of every survivor.’ Judejahn is more of a survivor than his wife, though; not crazed like her, and already poised for a come-back. He too is a fanatical nationalist, he hates foreigners, and the thought and sight of Jews throws him into paroxysms of hate if they are male, and paroxysms of desire if they are female: what he wants to do with Jewish women is first to fuck them and then line them up naked in front of a pit and shoot them.
Siegfried Pfaffrat’s patron, the famous international conductor Kürenberg, has a Jewish wife, the daughter of a cultivated Jewish store owner from the same town as Pfaffrat and Judejahn. They burnt down the store and sent her father to die in a concentration camp. The novel ends with Judejahn observing Ilse naked through the bathroom window of her hotel suite. He shoots her dead; then he has a stroke and dies. The last sentence of Death in Rome mimics its epitaph, which is the last sentence in Death in Venice: ‘That same evening Jude-jahn’s death was reported in the press; its circumstances had made it world news, though the fact of it can have shocked no one.’
Koeppen is not as fond of the Kürenbergs as you might expect. They are successful, soulless materialists, well-groomed and well-fed; they live out of suitcases in luxury hotels and love eating in expensive restaurants; the great conductor enjoys cooking with his portable kitchen equipment. Their feelings are under perfect control. When Ilse’s are aroused by Siegfried’s symphony, she is irritated; she does not want to feel.
Then there is Siegfried’s younger brother Dietrich: he is a greedy opportunist and will presumably turn out just like his father. That leaves Siegfried and Adolf to represent the German soul. Neither of them is very satisfactory, both of them know it, both are full of self-doubt. Adolf is shy, inadequate and clumsy. He has no vocation for the priesthood : it is simply a refuge for him from the bloody past. But he has doubts about the Church too : ‘an organisation that – unwillingly, tragically, with a grotesque inevitability – found itself in league with the killers’. He very nearly goes to bed with Laura, the willing and ineffably beautiful bimbo from behind the till in the gay bar; but in the end his vows hold him back. Later, among the naked marble Venuses in the Museo Nazionale, he ponders this other questionable aspect of the Church: ‘Was it right to threaten, to terrorise, in order to rescue the soul, and was the soul lost if one responded to beauty?’
Beauty is Siegfried’s refuge. Like Aschenbach in Death in Venice, he is a pederast. Aschenbach is a passive one, Siegfried not very active, and certainly not a queen like the customers in the gay bar. He can manage girls if they are boyish, but prefers the beauty of young males. Music is another refuge for him, but not completely satisfactory either: ‘Music was an enigmatic construction to which there was no longer any access, or just a narrow gate that admits only a few people. Whoever sat inside couldn’t communicate to those on the outside.’ Siegfried feels isolated, in life and in art. Still, thanks to Kürenberg’s conducting, his symphony wins a prize. Not a whole prize : he has to share it with another composer. Half a prize and sex with a rent boy are the nearest he comes to fulfilment.
Half-way through the book he and Adolf discuss their parents. ‘They were murderers,’ says Siegfried, ‘or else they stayed cosily at home knowing full well that people were being murdered.’ Adolf: ‘And do you think that can’t happen again?’ Siegfried: ‘You bet I do! In my daydreams and nightmares I see the Browns and the nationalist idiocy on the march again.’ You might think that Hofmann had timed his publication extraordinarily well. Once more there are Germans demonstrating their hatred of foreigners (and Jews), while other nations, egged on by their own xenophobic press, feel free to hate all Germans.
But Koeppen can’t have intended his novel to be just a fictionalised editorial. He wouldn’t have invoked Death in Venice if his aim hadn’t been to produce something more profound and universal. After all, Thomas Mann’s novella also has elements of Zeitroman and begins ominously on ‘a spring afternoon in the year 19 .., which for months presented such a threatening aspect to our continent’. Like its prototype, Death in Rome is full of pessimistic Schopenhauerian and Nietzschean rumblings, and Bergsonian rumblings too. It is a philosophical thriller. The action all happens in 24 hours, with each episode ending in a big crisis (it can be a crisis of conscience), followed by a cut. The technique is cinematic, and all the way through one is reminded of films of the period; not just by Fellini, but by Bergman, Antonioni, Huston.
Koeppen is as brilliant as any of them at creating moods and tension. But he fails to create characters : the nasty ones are all one-dimensional, and the reflective ones shadowy, just strings of reflections, in fact. Actors would give them substance: at one point Sidney Greenstreet very nearly materialises as a sinister arms dealer in shades and a wheelchair, living in a darkened room on a diet of pasteurised milk.
But why isn’t it Siegfried who dies rather than Judejahn? Siegfried, after all, is the Aschenbach figure. What is Judejahn’s dramatic death supposed to mean? One has a right to ask in a novel so encrusted with symbols, where even the names are symbolic: Friedrich Wilhelm imperial, Siegfried Wagnerian, Adolf Hitlerian, not to speak of the first syllable of Judejahn which means Jew, and the first of Pfaffrat which is a derogatory term for a priest. Does the end foreshadow another German collapse, preceded by another holocaust? If so, Koeppen is taking Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence very literally indeed. And what will become of Siegfried, who looked like being the hero? Will he just go on floating around Rome, occasionally meeting Adolf for a chat in an open-air café?