When you’d started a world war

Blake Morrison

Why has so little of Walter Kempowski’s work appeared in English? In Germany he published forty-odd books but only two of his novels were translated into English during his lifetime: Aus grosser Zeit (Days of Greatness) in 1978 and Hundstage (Dog Days – not to be confused with Günter Grass’s Hundejahre, Dog Years) ten years later. There was also a collection of interviews, Did You Ever See Hitler?, one of the three ‘inquiry’ volumes accompanying his autobiographical novel sequence, Deutsche Chronik, though to buy it now you’d have to fork out £144.40 on Amazon. The 2004 Cambridge Companion to the Modern German Novel makes no reference to him, even in passing. Only in the last few years, with Swansong 1945, a collective diary of the last days of the Third Reich, quickly followed by his masterpiece, the novel All for Nothing, has the English-speaking world opened up to him. The first came out here in 2014, the second in 2015, in each case nearly ten years after their appearance in German. Translations can be slow to emerge but neither Ferrante nor Knausgaard experienced such delay. If and when Kempowski’s early novels are translated, the time-lag will be more than fifty years.

In Germany he was and remains a well-known figure but critical recognition was slow in coming there too. Only with All for Nothing, published as Alles umsonst in 2006, did he feel he was given his due and he didn’t have long to enjoy it: he was 77 when the novel came out and he died the following year. In an interview he gave in his last months, he’s wry and a little bitter about it:

You were ignored for a long time by the literature business. And you suffered as a result. And now shortly before you pass away, you’re suddenly a literary star.

I don’t understand that either. It could have come a bit sooner.

It might have come sooner if he’d been less of a curmudgeon and less at odds with a leftist intelligentsia (think Kingsley Amis and you get the idea). He kept insisting that Germans were victims as well as perpetrators during the Second World War, a position that became less contentious around the turn of the century, with the publication of Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (about the bombing of German cities by the Allies) and Grass’s novel Crabwalk (about the sinking of a German hospital ship by a Russian submarine), but which in an earlier postwar period was associated with the right. There was also his hostility to the Soviet bloc in general and to East Germany in particular. The novel Homeland, the latest of his backlist to appear in English, is, among other things, an exploration of the differences between East and West. It’s set in 1988 but didn’t come out until 1992, when to harp on national and ethnic divisions was bad form, Cold War hostilities having officially ceased. In one scene, the central character, newly arrived in Gdansk, which he prefers to call by its former German name, Danzig, is harassed by three women out to rob him – Gypsies, he assumes, who ‘probably lived off hedgehogs baked in clay on an open fire’. Though no Catholic, he responds by crossing himself, at which the women call him a bastard and back off. The novel is more ambivalent than the scene would suggest but, along with Kempowski’s occasional outbursts of misogyny and Islamophobia, it’s calculated to provoke rather than endear itself to readers.

Whether wittingly or carelessly, he also made enemies, Grass among them. ‘Extraordinary to think that Günter Grass roamed this city on his scooter as a young boy in shorts,’ one of the characters in Homeland reflects. By ‘shorts’ she’s probably not thinking of him dressed as a Hitler Youth but Kempowski may have been, if only as a naughty joke. Grass didn’t own up to his Nazi past until 2006 and even his biographer claimed to know nothing about it. Kempowski can’t have known about it till then either but in the interview he gave shortly before his death, there was more than a hint of schadenfreude: he couldn’t stand Grass, he said, ‘or his attitude to politics. Keeping his SS membership secret and alleging the contrary, that’s quite a number. As far as that’s concerned I agree with Rolf Hochhuth, who just said: “Disgusting”.’ It wasn’t only politics that divided them. Kempowski resented Grass being seen as the conscience of the nation and was envious of all the awards he picked up. Grass, he complained, was given ‘a whole apartment at the Goethe Institut’ to use for free, whereas he ‘suffered from people’s disregard and silence. Even today some papers never mention me.’ Neglect of his work, he said, caused ‘a cancer to grow in my soul’.

By neglect he didn’t mean poor sales or lack of exposure: his fiction was adapted for film and television. But the fiction was thought too ‘popular’ to be serious. And with the non-fiction there was the difficulty of granting him full status as an author, given his role as compiler and editor. When the first, 2400-page, four-volume edition of his Echolot – a panoramic history (or ‘echo sounding’) of the German experience of the Second World War, drawn from a wide range of personal accounts – became a bestseller in 1994, the reliably unimpressed Marcel Reich-Ranicki called it ‘a chaotic mess’ that had ‘nothing whatever in common with literature’. Definitions of what constitutes literature have loosened since then: if the Echolot isn’t literature nor is Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, though it helped win her the Nobel Prize. With its chorus of voices, the Echolot is an extraordinary achievement: not quite a one-man Mass Observation (as it grew, others helped him) but one he initiated and housed himself. All we have in English is the final volume, Swansong 1945, but it’s enough to see the value of the project overall, not just historically, through its witness-bearing (from the front, from military hospitals, from concentration camps, or from Hitler’s bunker), but in the artfulness of Kempowski’s collages, with the delusions of those close to the Führer contradicted by the heartbreaking clarity of detainees, or the arrival in Berlin of vengeful, ‘blind drunk’ Russian soldiers offset by the alcoholic euphoria of VE Day.

The idea for it began when Kempowski was serving time in prison, a story in itself. Born into an affluent, ship-owning family in Rostock in 1929, he was a reluctant participant in the Hitler Jugend (narrowly escaping serious punishment for bunking off to listen to music) before being drafted into the youth wing of the Luftwaffe, at the age of 15. The thousands of refugees passing through East Prussia in flight from the Red Army left a lifelong impression on him, as did the death of his father, an officer killed by a Russian bomb on the Eastern Front in the last days of the war. After the war Kempowski found work at a US supplies store in Wiesbaden and made contact with the American counterintelligence corps (forerunner of the CIA): his brother Robert had bills of lading which proved that the Russians were stripping East German factories and sending materials back to the Soviet Union. In 1948, on a trip home to Rostock, Kempowski was arrested by the NKVD and charged with espionage. The experience is fictionalised in the first line of his novel Im Block (1969) and repeated in the last line of Uns geht’s ja noch gold (1972): ‘At dawn, they pulled me out of my bed. Two of them wore leather jackets. You’ll have quite a story to tell when you’re back on the other side, I thought.’[*]

Kempowski and his brother were sentenced to 25 years in Bautzen prison. Their mother was imprisoned a few months later for abetting them (Kempowski had implicated her under interrogation, something he regretted for the rest of his life). While in prison, he heard his fellow inmates telling one another their wartime stories, a ‘Babylonian chorus’ which he thought the outside world deserved to hear. He worked as a schoolteacher for many years after his release and wrote his family saga, Deutsche Chronik, on the side. The polyphonic method of Echolot is already apparent in Days of Greatness, which includes fictionalised interviews with friends and employees of the Kempowski family. And the idea of collecting people’s wartime stories was renewed when he discovered pages from a dead soldier’s diary in the street. He put advertisements in newspapers inviting people to send him their memories of the war years, and hunted through secondhand bookshops and market stalls for further material. The original plan was to include entries for every day of the war. Later, he scaled it down, restricting himself to particular dates. Swansong 1945, set in April and May of that year, features just four, including Hitler’s birthday and VE Day. Even so, it runs to 480 pages. Most of the contributors are ordinary civilians and combatants but world leaders – Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt – also have their say as do Brecht, Hamsun, Mann and others.

*

So much of Kempowski’s work is taken up with the Second World War, and/or with the history of his family, that Homeland initially looks like a departure: it’s not about his ancestors and it’s set at the time he was writing it, in the late 1980s. Jonathan Fabrizius, its central figure, is 43 years old and lives comfortably enough, in small part thanks to his earnings as a freelance journalist but chiefly thanks to the uncle who brought him up after the death of his parents and who still sends him a monthly allowance. An easy life, you might say: a spacious flat in Hamburg and a younger girlfriend, Ulla, with whom he shares it. Then again, the easy life has made Jonathan languid and purposeless. Passivity even defines his sex life: when Ulla fancies it, she gives him a two-fingered whistle from the adjoining bedroom and he reluctantly sets about ‘the act that was supposed to be pleasurable for him’, diligently following her instructions before being dismissed. Ulla works at an art museum, where she’s currently preparing an exhibition on cruelty through the ages. If there’s a hint of cruelty in her treatment of Jonathan (and in the author’s treatment of her), it’s not as though he is specially nice to her. When he surprises her with flowers and bread rolls on her birthday, he vaguely strokes her with his right hand, ‘much as one might close the eyes of the dead’.

The post brings her birthday cards as well as a strange letter for him, from the Santubara car company, inviting him to write a piece about East Prussia, more precisely Masuria in present-day Poland, as background for the motoring journalists who’ll be going there to test-drive its latest eight-cylinder model; the fee will be five thousand marks, a generous sum. East Prussia is where his mother died giving birth to him, on the back of a truck, before she left him on the steps of a nearby church; and where his father was killed, by the Russians, on the Baltic coast. He has played this story to advantage with friends: ‘Father killed on the Vistula Spit, mother breathed her last when he was born. Trek, icy wind, etc.’ But he hesitates to go to a place that’s now in Poland. Living standards are poor. The police are corrupt. He might be mugged or even murdered. Besides, is it his homeland? He grew up in his uncle’s house, in Lower Saxony, and is immersed in Western culture.

Of course he goes: there’d be no novel if he didn’t. And after its downbeat, naturalistic opening, the narrative takes a farcical turn, largely because of his two companions on the trip: the man at the wheel, Hansi Strohtmeyer, no mere chauffeur but a flamboyant, super-rich racing driver; and Frau Winkelvoss, Santubara’s PR woman, who’s relentlessly positive about the Polish people and their ‘up-and-coming country’, despite the privations and tribulations that follow. These include being pickpocketed, incurring several bogus speeding fines and having their luxurious car first vandalised, then stolen: ‘When you’d started a world war, murdered Jews and taken people’s bicycles away (in Holland) the odds were stacked against you.’ Only when Frau Winkelvoss is touched up by the car thieves does she allow herself to doubt the essential decency of all Poles. Meanwhile she pressures Jonathan to go easy on the historical aspects of their tour: will the motoring journalists really be interested in knowing about concentration camps or the Wolfsschanze, Hitler’s headquarters in the Masurian woods? Might that not have an adverse effect on car sales? Though played out as none-too-subtle comedy, the conflict between Jonathan and Frau Winkelvoss – he is for historical truth, however uncomfortable; she is for living in the now – goes to the heart of the matter confronting Germans in the second half of the 20th century: how important is it to remember? Might it be more helpful to forget?

A visit to the Marienberg fortress replays this clash with a different set of characters, all of whom Kempowski satirises: on the one hand, the ‘homeland association’, a group of elderly Germans on a tourist bus, who’ve come out of patriotic pride; on the other, a teacher and three students from Bremen, on the lookout for evidence of Nazi and pre-Nazi wickedness, of which the Marienberg, that ‘monument to the Germanic lust for conquest’, affords more than a few examples, including ‘machicolation’, an opening in the fortifications from which boiling water could be poured onto the heads of would-be attackers. Though the novel’s focus is on Jonathan, it isn’t strict about point of view, and were the mode less playful his ability to access what’s going on in the heads of others (in this case both the homeland ‘revanchist bastards’ and the student lefties) would seem ridiculous. As it is, what he sees and hears mirrors the conflict in himself. Many aspects of life in Poland dismay him. But when a woman with a sick daughter pleads with him to get her medicine from the West, he goes to her home and meets the daughter, who’s mentally troubled and physically frail (in the manner of Munch’s The Sick Child) but whom he finds oddly beautiful. ‘Who’s to blame?’ she keeps asking, a question he takes with him on the rest of his journey.

In German, Kempowski’s novel has the title Mark und Bein (literally, ‘marrow and bone’), not to be confused with the Nazi slogan Blut und Boden (‘blood and soil’) – ‘durch Mark und Bein gehen’ is to be ‘shaken to the core’, as happens to Jonathan at the climax of his trip when, finding himself by chance back in the village where he was born, he slips on a grassy slope and bangs his head. The result is mild concussion and an epiphany: instinct tells him that a particular spot by the tumbledown wall of the graveyard is the place where his mother is buried. He denies feeling anything: ‘He was neither sad nor happy … he was neither cold nor warm … A kind of numbness had taken possession of him.’ But the numbness proves illusory. When, back at the car, Strohtmeyer asks ‘what about your father?’ he breaks down:

Jonathan pounded the armrest with his fist and the words kept hammering in his brain: all for nothing! All for nothing! He didn’t mean the death of his mother or of his father, who’d had to ‘bite the dust’, or the sofa beds his uncle manufactured, but the suffering of all creatures, the flesh lashed to the stake, the calf he had seen bound and gagged, the torture chamber in the Marienberg, the shuffling procession of mankind beneath the condemning sky.

It’s all for nothing, he thought, again and again. And: who’s to blame?

*

For a time ‘All for nothing’ became Kempowski’s motto, a bitter marker of his literary unsuccess: all that effort for so little recognition. But its deeper meaning – the wartime squandering of lives, knowledge and culture – is embedded in his last novel, which takes the despairing phrase that haunts Jonathan as its title and draws on everything Kempowski learned from other people’s testimony, and experienced for himself, in East Prussia in 1945. The autobiographical element in All for Nothing is more conspicuous than in Homeland. There’s also a larger cast of characters but the central figure, and one of the few still alive at the end, is 12-year-old Peter, who the author readily admitted was a self-portrait, not least in his reluctance to be a Hitler Youth. The family home is a large estate, the Georgenhof, once affluent, less so since the war began, its vistas somewhat spoiled by the housing development over the road, where a man called Drygalski, the local Nazi enforcer, keeps a watchful eye. Peter’s father is a German army officer, as Kempowski’s was, but safely stationed in Italy rather than on the Eastern Front. His mother, Katharina, beautiful and distracted, leaves the practicalities of running the house to an elderly spinster, ‘Auntie’, and to a Polish farmhand and two Ukrainian maids. The Russians are coming, so rumour has it, and their advance brings a stream of visitors to the house, among them a political economist, a violinist, a baron and a schoolteacher, as well as Peter’s regular tutor, Dr Wagner. The ambience is Chekhovian – ruin is at hand but no one wants to acknowledge it: ‘Hitler wasn’t fool enough to let the Russians into the country. He might let them in just a little way, but then he’d pull the strings of the sack closed and trap them.’

It’s clear the family and their entourage need to get going but they stay put far too long: that’s what gives the novel its tension. When, eventually, they do hit the road, most of the characters we’ve come to know (Kempowski excels at making each one knowable) are brutally dispatched within a sentence, as if to underline the peremptoriness of wartime death. Only Peter survives, hiding out in empty houses and living off scraps, much like Ballard’s young Jim in Empire of the Sun. The novel is full of collectors but everything they inherit or hoard (china, silverware, books, stamps, family documents) has to be left behind. One of the abandoned houses Peter wanders into is that of a writer, Gotthardt Baron von Erztum-Lohmeyer, who flourished under Hitler but whose typewriter now sits unused: there’s no longer a chance of his being ‘inspired to write a great epic on human nature. When humanity suffers, it should be recorded in literature. The great tales of the Thirty Years’ War: Verdun, The Children of Israel, always crossing the Red Sea.’ So too the flight of German civilians and soldiers from the Red Army deserves a record and is given one not only here but, more sweepingly, in the Fuga Furiosa, which make up four of the Echolot’s ten volumes. There’s a similar moment when Dr Wagner, Peter’s tutor, resolves to publish the letters he received from former pupils killed in war as ‘a memorial to the dead’.

All for Nothing works on an epic scale by keeping things small. ‘I’ve got this thing for specific details,’ Kempowski said, and it’s no coincidence that Peter’s most treasured possession is a microscope. Humour is another narrative strategy, employed not to alleviate tragedy but to accentuate it. The comedy inspires affection for those it lights on, including Vera, one of the Ukrainian maids, who – finding herself pregnant – is told to avoid any sudden movement that might cause a miscarriage. ‘After that, Vera could be heard all over the house jumping off stools wherever and whenever she had the opportunity.’ It’s only in the last chapters that a darker view overwhelms the humour: ‘The teacher and his wife had believed that mankind was basically good and “nothing will happen to us,” but they had taken rat poison in the end.’

Homeland isn’t in the same league as All for Nothing; few novels are. But it takes us back to the same place, the shuffling procession of refugees in East Prussia in 1945. And it allows itself one glorious, ghostly lift-off when Jonathan visits the site where his father (and Kempowski’s) died, on the Vistula Spit. Journeying there has been a Vergangenheitsbewältigung for Jonathan, a coming to terms with the past. But picturing his father in a Wehrmacht uniform, cigarette in his mouth, just before the bomb went off, doesn’t bring closure: that would be too bland – both Homeland and All for Nothing end with a question mark, as if much remains to be puzzled out. But there’s comfort of sorts for Jonathan’s father who, sensing that someone is ‘gathering up his final seconds’, rises from the mud where he has lain for forty-odd years, sees who it is, then – knowing that he hasn’t, after all, been forgotten – sinks back into the mud. ‘“It was my son, looking for me,” he whispered to his comrades. And they passed the message on: “His son was looking for him.”’

[*] I’m grateful to Sophie Hardach for the translation.