Magazine article The World and I

The Tormented Fatherland - Wolfgang Koeppen's Profound Novels from the 1950s Shed a Harsh Light on Germany's Angst Following World War II-And They Are Remarkably Contemporary

Magazine article The World and I

The Tormented Fatherland - Wolfgang Koeppen's Profound Novels from the 1950s Shed a Harsh Light on Germany's Angst Following World War II-And They Are Remarkably Contemporary

Article excerpt

While Robert Ross' major field is postcolonial literature, he has long taken an interest in postwar German fiction. He currently lives in Aachen, Germany.

 Book Info:THE HOTHOUSE
Wolfgang Koeppen
Translated by Michael Hofmann
 Publisher:New York: W.W. Norton, 2001
221 pp., $23.95
 Book Info:DEATH IN ROME
Wolfgang Koeppen
Translated by Michael Hofmann
 Publisher:New York: W.W. Norton, 2001
202 pp., $12.95

Not long ago, a German politician dared to claim that he was "proud to be a German." His forthright declaration unleashed a storm of protest from his colleagues, as well as from the press and citizenry.

Confronted with immigration issues, the opposition party recently proposed that new citizens should follow the German Leitkultur, generally translated as "the defining culture." The Council of Europe's Commission Against Racism and Intolerance was quick to condemn the concept as a veiled form of racism, pointing out that "Germany is a society in which serious incidents of racially motivated violence occur."

A German businessman, in all seriousness, apologized for his country: "We're not all that bad. We haven't started a war in over fifty years." Over five decades later, though, the demons of the Nazi era linger, both within the country and among its neighbors.

While many German novelists have dealt with the angst of the postwar period, the best known internationally are Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll. Yet Grass once called Wolfgang Koeppen (1906--1996) the "greatest living German writer" and mentioned Koeppen in his Nobel acceptance speech. The author of two unimportant novels in the 1930s, then of three very important novels in the 1950s, Koeppen, who never published fiction again, has been largely ignored until recent times. In 1988 an English translation of Pigeons in the Grass (1951), the first book in what is considered a trilogy, appeared in England. Michael Hofmann's translation of the trilogy's final work, Death in Rome (1954), first received British publication in 1992. Now that novel, which many critics regard as Koeppen's masterpiece, has been reissued with Hofmann's new English version of the middle book, The Hothouse (1953).

Neither Grass nor Boll nor any of the other writers confront postwar Germany in so brutal, direct, and commanding a manner as Koeppen did. Perhaps for these reasons the German public and much of the country's critical establishment rejected his work when it first appeared. It must have resurrected the specter of the Third Reich all too vividly. Yet another element surely contributed to the negative reception. From a purely literary standpoint, The Hothouse and Death in Rome are far, far ahead of their time. Not only do they offer an original and exceedingly raw examination of the immediate postwar years, they are also experimental--at least for the 1950s--in subject matter and literary form. The narrative strategy and stylistic devices, even the treatment of sex, make it seem unlikely that the novels were written over fifty years ago. So Koeppen, who could have been writing today, may at last find an audience ready for his work, albeit in English translation. Of course, recognition abroad often brings belated acceptance at home.

Purity wilts

There are two hothouses in The Hothouse. The first is Bonn, which served as Germany's postwar capital until the recent move to Berlin. In Koeppen's hands, this once insignificant northern city along the banks of the Rhine takes on a life of its own. The novel describes how the "corrupters and the corrupted, the fox, the wolf, and the sheep of the security services, the news hawkers and news fabricators, all the string pullers, the stage managers, the pact makers, the splinter groups, all those who wanted to strike it rich ... the spongers, swindlers, moaners" come to Bonn, which "smelled provincial" in its "staleness of tight little streets."

Koeppen summons up, sometimes with acerbity, other times with wit, the transfigured old university city: the makeshift corridors of power, the apartment blocks in their uniform drabness, the untended ruins from the war, the stuffy wine bars, the canteen with its heavy German food, the lighted shop windows brimming with newfound goods--all sodden in summer humidity and bordered by the sluggish, polluted Rhine. …

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