March 10, 2008
Wolfgang Koeppen: Death in Rome
I usually say something here about (a) what I know about the author, and (b) how I came to read the book. Well in this case, the answer to (a) is easy: absolutely nothing. And (b) is split in two: I picked up the book some months ago because it was in the ‘booksellers’ recommendations’ shelves of my local Waterstone’s (stand up Susan Salters); but it would have lain unread in my pile if not for Andrew’s comments on Koeppen after my post on W.F. Hermans’ Beyond Sleep. So thank you Andrew. And now we can proceed.
Death in Rome (1954) was Koeppen’s fifth and final novel: he published two in the 1930s, and three in as many years in the 1950s, after which he published no more fiction until his death in 1996. OK, so I do know something about him, but I’m getting all this from the introduction by translator Michael Hofmann (whose name attached to a work in translation is almost a guarantor of quality). In fact the introduction was written when this English version was first published, in 1992; as a result Hofmann’s words have a touching quality to them: Koeppen is still alive as he writes, and Hofmann seems to hope for a break in his four-decade silence yet.
The novel describes the meeting of four members of the same family in Rome, and switches deftly between points of view in two long chapterless parts. It is dense but engrossing, and the changes in character which at first seem disorienting soon become invigorating. The only first person narrator is Siegfried Pfaffrath (“an absurd name, I know”), a composer who is waiting to attend the performance of his first major work. But this event in the near future vies for attention in Siegfried’s mind with his past: “Why don’t I use a pseudonym? I have no idea. Is it the hated name clinging to me, or do I cling to it? Will my family not let go of me?”
No, they won’t: his father, Friedrich, is also in Rome; he held office under the Nazi regime but is now a democratically elected official. His wife Anna and her sister Eva are there too, and Eva’s husband Judejahn. Judejahn is the monster of the novel, an unrepentant Nazi, who has nothing but contempt for his brother-in-law Friedrich, “who in his opinion was an asshole.” Central to understanding Judejahn is that “in Hitler’s service [he] became respectable, he made it, he put on weight, he got fancy-sounding titles,” and so his attachment to the regime is as much personal as political. Judejahn cannot bear to recall the boy he was before, and his forename Gottlieb (“a ridiculous, unmanly name … priestly slime left on him by the schoolmaster his father, and he didn’t want to love God”) is used as a marker of his past haunting him. The present isn’t looking as good as it used to either:
He crossed the square and reached the Via Condotti, panting. The pavement was narrow. People squeezed together in the busy shopping street, squeezed in front of the shop windows, squeezed past each other. Judejahn jostled and was jostled back. He didn’t understand. He was surprised that no one made way for him, that no one got out of his road.
Koeppen, a critic of postwar German complacency, expends much of his energy on the character of Judejahn, sometimes to the detriment of Friedrich and the female characters who are occasionally voiced. He leaves no aspect of Judejahn’s character unexplored, revealing that the child in him, the Gottlieb, remains still as he reflects that he “had tasted power, but in order to enjoy it, he required it to be limited, he required the Führer as an embodiment and visible god of power … He was afraid it might be discovered that he was just little Gottlieb going around in boots too big for him.”
The fourth character in the square is Judejahn’s son, named of course Adolf, who has betrayed his father by becoming a priest. He has concerns about his Church’s past association with the Nazi regime.
Did salvation lie in renunciation, in flight, in solitude, was the hermit the only prototype of survival? But the solitary man always seemed a figure of weakness to Adolf, because Adolf needed support, because he was afraid of himself; he required community, even though he doubted its worth.
Like father, like son. The characters together provide a convincing dialogue on the direction of post-war Germany, which is all the more impressive when we consider that the book was written when the marks of war were still fresh in all memories. There are personal considerations too which come to light; the scene is set for surprising revelations and a dramatic, if not so surprising, conclusion.
Death in Rome delights not just in its psychology but its fine writing too – family conversation is “twittering swallows of small talk” – and in its occasionally unconventional narrative conceits, from stream-of-consciousness to switching viewpoint in mid-sentence. It’s one of those rare books where every line seems weighted with significance. The title has a conscious nod to Thomas Mann (the last line of Death in Venice is its epigraph), and seems like a touch of attention-grabbing dramatics that this fantastic book really doesn’t need.