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’.

Keetenheuve dreams of modernity as an antidote to this failure to confront the past, but he ‘didn’t want the Revolution, he couldn’t want it any more – it no longer existed . . . The Revolution was an offshoot of Romanticism, a crisis of puberty. It had had its time . . . and now it was a corpse, a dry leaf in the herbarium of ideas, a dead notion, an antiquated word.’ Even Keetenheuve’s only firm belief, in pacifism, comes into conflict with the way politics works. Before an important debate on remilitarisation in which he is due to address the Bundestag, he is taken to one side by the Party leader, who ‘reminds’ him that the Party (called simply ‘the opposition’) is ‘not principally and unconditionally opposed to rearmament in any shape or form’. All that it is opposed to is ‘the form of rearmament being mooted just now’. He does as the leader tells him, thinking to himself that to speak his mind would be ‘pointless’ anyway: ‘they know I don’t have a miracle cure that will have the patient up and about tomorrow.’

Instead of writing his speech for the debate, he sits in his office translating Baudelaire’s ‘Le Beau Navire’ and wondering if anyone else in Parliament has read e.e. cummings. During debates, he reads poetry hidden in one of his official folders. But seeking refuge in love poetry – Baudelaire described his own political position after the Bonapartist putsch as ‘physiquement dépolitiqué’ – isn’t a real solution, it is part of his fantasy of rejecting politics for the love that the death of his wife has made unattainable.

Life in 1950s Germany is also seen as physically intolerable. Everywhere Keetenheuve goes, he feels as if he’s in a hothouse. At the start, sweating in the train on the way to Bonn, he tries to turn the heating down, but finds it’s already set to ‘cold’. Germany, too, is overheating: it’s experiencing rapid, artificial growth but the result is terribly deformed. At one point, he sees – or hallucinates – ‘rare flora, greedy, curious plants, giant phalluses like chimney stacks full of billowing smoke . . . but it was a fertility without youth and sap, it was all putrid, ancient, the growths swelled, but it was all elephantiasis arabum.’ Nobody else seems to experience Germany in this way; it’s one of the many things that sets him apart as a stranger in the country he mistakenly thought of as home.

At the end of the book, the occasional hallucinatory sequences – the imaginary murder of his wife’s lesbian lover, dinner with Hitler and Chamberlain on the Rheinterasse – acquire a new intensity. Everything dissolves into a jumble of dreams and memories, featuring friends, colleagues, historical figures and people he’s seen on the street. All the while he’s having sex with a teenager from the Salvation Army whom he’s lured into the rubble of a bombed-out house as her friend looks on and sings, at his request, ‘the song of the heavenly bridegroom’. Suddenly it dawns on him that ‘there was guilt, no love, just a grave. It was the grave in him.’ He walks down to the Rhine, following the signs that still point the way to an air-raid shelter. ‘The delegate was utterly useless, he was a burden to himself, and a leap from the bridge made him free.’

At the time most people read this remarkable book as a roman à clef: Keetenheuve himself shares some characteristics with the charismatic SDP politician Carlo Schmid, also a translator of Baudelaire; the Chancellor resembles Konrad Adenauer, and so on. Koeppen felt his readers needed to be told that his novel was more than this and a disclaimer at the beginning states: ‘The scope of this book lies beyond any connections with individuals, organisations and events of the present time; which is to say, the novel has its own poetic truthfulness.’ Michael Hofmann’s translation does justice to the disclaimer: fifty years on there is still great power both in the portrayal of Keetenheuve and in the book’s anger at bureaucratic politics and the hothouse world that stifles his idealism.

Koeppen’s writing went against the grain in style as well as content. Heinrich Böll, the other major writer of the 1950s who criticised the Federal Republic (though later, and not as mercilessly), used more traditional methods to tell more traditional tales that were far more popular with the German public. Koeppen revived the tradition of Modernism, dismissed by the Nazis as ‘degenerate’: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz is clearly an influence, as are Joyce’s interior monologues. The author’s voice only rarely interrupts Keetenheuve’s highly-strung thoughts, observations, memories and fantasies, which are peppered with allusions to classical myths and German folklore, fragments of poems, historical references. This creates a breadth and richness of allusion that flows beneath the sharp anger of the book, which Koeppen once described as a ‘monologue against the world’. In his introduction, Hofmann says that of all the authors he has translated he has enjoyed none so much as Koeppen. He compares The Hothouse, and his enthusiasm for it, with Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, which gives a good indication of the position Koeppen occupies in the German canon, where, like Lowry, he is seen as a ‘writer’s writer’: highly respected but little read outside schools and universities.

Koeppen’s reputation increased in the 1960s as Germans began to revolt against the legacy of the Nazi past, but he didn’t write another novel after Death in Rome appeared in 1954. He published travel books, essays and criticism, and one volume of memoirs covering his life before 1925, but became famous as ‘the great silent one’, who repeatedly promised his publisher a ‘great novel’. On several occasions a novel was announced in the Suhrkamp catalogue but then failed to appear. When he died at the age of 89 in 1996, scholars hoped still to discover in his papers the novel about life in the Third Reich that he had frequently referred to in interviews and which his publisher, the late Siegfried Unseld, had once called ‘the German Ulysses’. They found plenty of fragments and quite a few beginnings, but nothing else.

Nevertheless, the unpublished and forgotten material that these researches made available prompted one Koeppen scholar, Jörg Döring, to find out more about his life.[2] It turned out that he had given a distorted version of what had happened to him during and immediately after the war: the parts of his life he had proposed to turn into a novel. Interviewers had often asked about this, but he revealed little beyond a few well-rehearsed facts, claiming, when pushed, that he didn’t want to discuss his experiences because they were ‘material for a novel’. In 1935 he had left Germany for what he later presented as ‘voluntary exile’ in Holland, prompted by political considerations: in fact he was trying to get away from the risks involved in prolonging his affair with the wife of an SS officer. In 1939, he returned to Berlin, where he worked on film scripts; he claimed none was ever made, but this was far from the truth. It doesn’t seem that this was for him a time of ‘inner emigration’ either – many writers who stayed in Germany under the Nazis claimed to have made a private withdrawal. After his apartment was bombed in 1943, Koeppen said that he went into hiding in a cellar in a small town in southern Germany until the end of the war. This ‘cellar’ was actually a room in the basement of a cliff-top hotel with a view of a nearby lake. Since he was registered with the home defence troops for the last months of the war, the claim that he had ‘gone underground’ was not true, either.

Döring’s book also reignited a controversy that had already flared up during Koeppen’s lifetime. Before 1992, he was thought to have written only five novels – two before the war as well as those of the 1950s. It came as a great surprise that year when a book originally published in 1948 under the name of Jakob Littner was republished with Koeppen as author. Aufzeichnungen aus einem Erdloch (‘Notes from a Hole in the Ground’) tells the story of a Jewish stamp dealer’s experience of Nazi rule, his persecution and miraculous survival. Koeppen said the book was based on three pages of notes provided by Littner before he emigrated to the US, and that the publisher had asked him to rewrite them. It later transpired that the ‘notes’ were actually a 183-page manuscript. Although it wasn’t made public at the time, during the 1990s Littner’s estate had tried to sue Suhrkamp for publishing the book under Koeppen’s name. Littner’s manuscript has since been published,[3] and the extent of Koeppen’s changes makes it at least plausible to treat his book as a separate work: ‘I . . . wrote the story about the suffering of a German Jew. In doing so, it became my story,’ he wrote in the 1992 preface. However, his failure to come clean about the size of the original suggests he wasn’t himself entirely at ease about claiming authorship.

What are we to make of this? From one perspective, Koeppen had appropriated a survivor’s memoir for his own gain after spending most of the war living happily enough under the Nazis. It’s also possible, though maybe too generous, to see it, as Döring does, as an attempt to make amends by aiding German understanding of the events of those years, since many of his changes seem intended to heighten the reader’s emotional reaction to Littner’s experiences.

The ambiguous morality of what Koeppen did before 1948 might well have contributed to his writer’s block, his failure to transform his biography into fiction. As people became increasingly sympathetic to his negative depiction of the Adenauer era, he was frequently held up as a courageous exception to what a historian in 1987 called the ‘second sin’: West Germany’s suppression and denial of its Nazi past. That the novels of the 1950s are themselves in part, as Döring suggests, a ‘substitute for his failure to deal with his own past in the Third Reich’ brings a strange symmetry to his life and work.

[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).