A Leap from the Bridge

Alexander Scrimgeour

Between 1951 and 1954, Wolfgang Koeppen published three scathing, disillusioned novels ridiculing the notion of a new start and a clean slate for West Germany. At the time, perhaps as many as 80 per cent of public officials, including many judges and senior civil servants, were former members of the Nazi Party. Most people didn’t want to be reminded of this and when The Hothouse was published in 1953, one review carried the headline: ‘Not to be touched with a barge-pole’. The novels have come to be known as a trilogy, although they are united only in their concern to expose the residual effects of Nazism and the war on German society. Tauben im Gras (Pigeons on the Grass), the first of the three, is set in Munich on a single day and its 105 short fragments reveal the failure of more than thirty characters to face up to reality. The last to be published was Death in Rome, which examined the emotional and intellectual legacy of the Nazi period in two German families who meet again in Rome after the war.[1] The Hothouse, the middle volume, is set in Bonn. It covers the last two days in the life of a disillusioned politician called Keetenheuve, who became a member of the Bundestag after returning from exile at the end of the war with high hopes for the newly created Federal Republic.

As the book opens, Keetenheuve is on his way back to Bonn from his wife’s funeral. She died from an overdose, but he believes that his neglect killed her: he spent his evenings attending to his political paperwork and was frequently away at conferences and meetings. He comes to the conclusion that these attempts to change Germany for the better are useless, that his wife’s love represented his one chance at a different, successful life. The Christian Democrat slogan ‘Keine Experimente’ encapsulates the 1950s wish to damp down any desire for radical change and Keetenheuve’s frustration with this conservatism is made clear when he attends a committee meeting to discuss new housing for miners. The flats – standard apartment blocks – are to be built in the ‘Nazi idiom’, by architects who also worked for the Fascists. Keetenheuve hates the scheme: it was exactly this kind of housing, he believes, that produced an environment in which the everyday became so repellent that ‘many went gladly to fight because they hated the daily grind, because they couldn’t stand their tight lives any more, and because, with all its terrors, war represented escape and freedom, the possibility of travel, the possibility of withdrawal, the possibility of living in Rothschild’s villa.’ Instead of saying any of this, however, he starts to daydream about ‘Corbusier machines-for-living, contemporary castles, an entire city in a single high-rise, with artificial roof gardens, artificial climate control’. He thinks about ‘the possibility of insulating man from excesses of heat and cold, of freeing him . . . from “ domestic squabbles and noise’. He sits through the meeting without saying a word, sure that the other committee members ‘would think his tower was a tower of Babel’.

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[1] This has also been translated by Michael Hofmann and was reviewed in the LRB by Gabriele Annan (5 November 1992)

[2] ‘Ich stellte mich unter, ich machte mich klein’: Wolfgang Koeppen 1933-48 (Stroemfeld, 358 pp., €24, 10 October 2001, 3 86109 161 5).

[3] Translated into English by a relative of Littner’s, Kurt Grübler, as Journey through the Night: Jakob Littner’s Holocaust Memoir (Continuum, 2000).