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Authors: Wolfgang Koeppen

Death in Rome

BOOK: Death in Rome
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Copyright Wolfgang Koeppen,
Introduction and translation copyright Michael Hofmann,
All rights reserved The moral right of the author and translator has been asserted




It was the painter Kokoschka who said, 'If you last, you'll see your reputation die three times, and even three cultures.' This is just what has happened to Wolfgang Koeppen, whose career has spanned six decades, from Weimar to post-Unification Germany. Important critics have repeatedly hailed him as—with Grass—'the greatest living German writer', but in spite of that, he has remained vastly less known and less read, a victim of call it what you will: Kokoschka's 'Law of Longevity', the censorship of fashion, the tyranny of neglect, the neglect of fashion, the fashion of neglect . . . Articles on him have been published with titles one might translate as 'Wolfgang Koeppen: the Anatomy of a Failure'. However, the failure is not Koeppen's but Germany's, and its circumstances are both specific and illuminating.

Koeppen was born in
wald on the Baltic coast. He studied, in the German manner, various subjects at various universities he doesn't seem to care to have publicized, and probably never took his degree. From
he had what he described as the only regular employment of his life, when he worked as a journalist for the
He published a novel,
Eine unglückliche Liebe
(An Unhappy Love Affair),
left Germany for Holland in
published another,
Mauer schwankt
(The Tottering Wall),
but returned to Germany before the war broke out. He then dropped out of view until the
when, in the space of four years, he published the three novels that (perhaps for the second time!) made his reputation, all of them written very quickly, in no more than three or four months apiece, he says. These books are among the best things to have come out of post-war Germany:
Tauben im Gras (
Pigeons on the Grass
there is an English translation by David Ward, published by Holmes
Meier in
set in Munich in a single day, a modernist jigsaw in 110 pieces and showing
Das Treibhaus
(The Hothouse),
about the dilemma of a Socialist member of the Bundestag during a rearmament debate, and something of
succès de scandale;
Death in Rome,
the most accessible and I think the best of the three, about a German family reunion in Rome. The three books form a loose trilogy, an interrogation of the Federal Republic's phoenix act, the famous
Since then, in almost forty years, Koeppen has published only one short work of semi-fiction,
three travel books about Russia, America and France, and some essays and reviews. His silence—which is perceived as such—is one of the loudest things in German literature today.

So much for the fast-forward version. Taken a little more slowly, it shows the troubling shape of a career in twentieth-century German letters. Where Chancellor Kohl congratulated himself on being born late, Koeppen could lament being born early. He was formed by the
the great decade of modernism, late expressionism and
Neue Sachlichkeit
He read Proust, Kafka, Faulkner and
as they appeared.
small-press edition of the first German translation—was the stuff his dreams were made of. By the
his own career had begun. He went abroad. He wasn't a Nazi. He returned. He didn't have the reputation, the contacts, the command of foreign languages to enable him to make his way in exile. Nor did he lay claim to the condition of 'internal exile'. Along with the poet Gottfried Benn and a very few other significant writers he lived through the period in Germany.

This put him at a disadvantage later. One might have supposed that the
status quo ante
would be restored as a matter of urgency, but that isn't what happened. Instead, the story was one of discontinuity. It was as though the literature had been bombed as the cities had been. It took until the
and even the
for the classic books of the 20s and 30s—a Silver Age of German letters—to get back into print, for the still-living writers from that period to be 'discovered' and the dead ones to be exhumed. Precedence was given to the returning exiles—to Thomas Mann in the West,
in the East—and to the work of new writers like the
The preferred form for literature was a clean slate, with only the distinguished markings of a very few on it—the ones with cast-iron alibis. It was a very German solution—
Schwamm drüber!—
unjust and evasive and superficial, an extension of collective amnesia.

Koeppen's position was exacerbated by the nature of the books he wrote and published in the early 50s. Far from underwriting a fresh start, they connected stylistically with the 20s and politically with the 30s. They were works of memory and continuance and criticism—and they were savaged for it by the press. The response to them was characterized by 'hostility, even revulsion and repugnance'
(Neue Zürcher Zeitung).
Their detractors squealed at their ferocity and outspokenness, their self-conscious and difficult technique, their sexual content. 'Is this really what we need at such a time in our history?' (always an obnoxious argument in literary politics) was the gist, 'let's look on the bright side!' Even those praising Koeppen were embarrassed by the political content of his books, or sold their artistry short. And so the conservatism of the modish and dirigible German public won out. Koeppen's books never had anything like the currency and acclaim they deserved.

Five years later, Grass's
appeared; another four, and Boll's
Ansichten eines
and the internationally accredited commodity 'post-war German literature' had come into existence. The earliest and fullest and most drastic description of German post-war reality didn't figure in it. Anyway, whether for that reason or others, Koeppen gave up fiction. His travel books were respectfully reviewed—no one to tell him what he had and hadn't, could and couldn't see—but as a writer of fiction, in spite of the efforts of two determined publishers and a handful of
he has ceased to exist. It is a great scandal.

Death in Rome
is the most devastating novel about the Germans that I have ever read, and one of the most arresting on any subject. It takes a German family—not a real German family, not even a caricature German family, but a prototypical German family that George Grosz would have had the bile but not the wit to invent, and Musil or Mann the wit but not the bile—and brings them to Rome, a city having an association with Germans that goes back hundreds of years, there to enact their conflicts. It is a history book, a family book, a book about the battle over who gets to represent the authentic face of Germany.

Significantly, this German family is all male. (Of course there are women in it too, but they are minor, though also well done.) There is the older generation, consisting of Gottlieb
the unreconstructed and unkillable old SS man, and his brother-in-law
Friedrich Wilhelm Pfaffrath,
who held office under the Nazis and is once more making his way up the greasy pole, this time as democratically elected burgomaster; and there are their respective rebel sons: Adolf
who is on his way to becoming a Catholic priest, and his cousin, Siegfried
a composer of serial music. (There is also Siegfried's conformist brother Dietrich, but let's forget about him for the moment.) These four represent the four principal areas of German achievement, or the four quarters of the riven German soul: murder, bureaucracy, theology and music. It is like having Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Luther and Beethoven in one family. Their movements, their meetings and
in the alien city of Rome—which, interestingly, offers each of them what they want, so each of them sees it in a different version—are, as the novelist and critic Alfred Andersch pointed out, choreographed like a ballet: a macabre ballet of outrageous contrivance, viewed by the reader with growing horror, alarm and incredulity: how
these people show their faces, how
they belong together
. . .

This is part of Koeppen's point. Church and state. Music and the camps. You can't have one of them without the others. In the 50s when Germany wanted severance and disavowal of the past, Koeppen showed it bonds of steel and blood instead. He gave Germans a character at a time when they were supposed not to have one; he wrote the history of a period that strove for greyness, and—until invented by
had seemed invisible: whatever happened between
and the World Cup in
There is something implacable, almost vindictive—like one of his Furies—about his pursuit of the Germans postwar, post-Holocaust, post-division, turning away from their crimes towards rehabilitation and the EC, once again exporting their goods and their culture and themselves. He shows them to us. All of them.

Death in Rome
is a comprehensive and brilliant provocation of an entire nation (it's only a pity that the nation didn't respond a little better to it). It begins, like all the best German stories, with the words,
einmal . . .',
'Once upon a time', and it ends with a dirty, tawdry version of the last sentence of
Death in Venice
(the original of which is helpfully given as an epigraph). In between there are countless glancing references to German history, from Roman times to when the novel was written in
There is a whole micro-plot about the German presence in Rome, from Alaric the Goth to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (who was also Emperor of Germany, is known as
Karl der Grosse,
and lies buried in Aachen), Henry IV's penitential visit to Pope Gregory VII at Canossa, the cultural trippers of the Grand Tour including Goethe, and finally Hitler himself on his fraternal visits to Mussolini. In their various ways—destroyer, ruler, penitent, tourist, warrior—these are all antecedents for the various
and Pfaffraths who have descended on the city now. As I said before, Koeppen is interested in establishing continuity and pattern.

Most of the German references concern the Nazi period—although the Nazis themselves, in their hunt for legitimacy and historical validation, had a deliberate policy of reinvesting old words, old places, old habits and old wars. For instance, they set up their
'Napola' schools in the old Teutonic fortresses in the East—which is why Adolf and Siegfried talk about their school as the Teutonic castle or academy; they revived concepts like the
the 'Vehmic Court', first used in fourteenth-century Westphalia, then applied to political killings in the
they tried wherever possible to associate themselves with the military traditions of German history. And so the great majority of these terms and references are military or power-related, and are woven in around the figure of Judejahn, whose own immaculate National Socialist c.v. takes in everything that was anything in terms of right-wing murder and thuggery in the years after
the Ruhr Uprising, the
Putsch, the Black
Of course, it's all too bad to be true—no single person can have participated in
of the above—but it tags, insists, calls to mind, reinforces the myth. Koeppen is calling the German language as evidence of the recurring violence and power-lust of German history.

I would like the English reader not to be too bothered by all this. If it's any comfort, I doubt whether most German readers would be able to explain half the references. It isn't necessary. You take in the principle of historical labelling and cross-referencing, feel the (foreign) texture of the word, take from the context whether it's a building or a political movement or a personality that's being referred to, and pass on. It can be read pedantically—by all means, consult an encyclopaedia—but it wasn't written in such a spirit, and the original didn't come with notes either.
Death in Rome
works as myth much better than as an agglomeration of allusions.

BOOK: Death in Rome
6.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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