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

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.


  1. Hi John,

    You write, “Michael Hofmann (whose name attached to a work in translation is almost a guarantor of quality)”. Bang on!

    Hofmann tends only to translate really good stuff — and he does it peerlessly.

    “Translated by Hofmann” sells a title to me almost instantly.

  2. Yes, I want this too! Michael Hofmann now forgiven here for his diatribe against Sebald, I suppose somone had to say it and get it out of the way! Thanks for this one John, I shall be searching it out.

  3. Agreed, Mark – I saw a book reviewed in the Guardian on Saturday, a Holocaust memoir of life in the Lager – “another one!”, part of me thought, but then I saw that it was translated by Hofmann, and immediately decided to look out for it and pick it up when I can.

    Of my recent reading, Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun have also benefited from his attentions.

    And there’s a novel by his late father (Gert Hofmann?) which is buzzing about in the back of my memory, which comes recommended by someone book-blog-related (you? Steve Mitchelmore?). Something about a flower girl?

  4. Well you can get the gist of it here http://tinyurl.com/29psmy and the full piece is in the latest book of Sebald criticism so e mail me if you want to read the rest. I often wonder whether Hofmann may have lived to regret being quite so controversial and waspish given that Sebald died soon afterwards and this piece lives on in perpetuity, ever to be quoted and displayed. As I recall he’s not that complimentary about Anthea Bell either.
    Yes that pic gives me some mature authority don’t you think?

  5. Well, he’s entitled to his opinion, isn’t he? And the criticisms he makes of Sebald are ones that would occur to anyone reading his books – though they may go on to dismiss them. I enjoyed The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz less so and don’t think I’ve read Vertigo (they do blur into one another somewhat, mind :oops:)…

  6. I learned about Koeppen from Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s memoir “The Author of Himself.” That coupled with your write-up has really made me want to read it!

  7. Reich-Ranicki is a German/Jewish/Polish literary critic and television personality. His life’s story is amazing, if he does say so himself (and he does, but he has reason to). He wrote with enthusiasm about Koeppen’s three books, I’m seeming to remember that “Death in Rome” is part of a trilogy of books that anthropomorphize relationships between World War II and post WWII European countries – I hope I’m not conflating. Given that I have a midterm tomorrow I’m going to take a rude shortcut and link you to a post I wrote about reading Reich-Ranicki’s memoir here.

    You would probably find the books quite interesting giving your taste for things literary. I’m very much enjoying my visits to your blog, by the way.

  8. Thanks Ted – very interesting (I’ve incorporated your link into the text of your comment, for anally retentive tidiness purposes). I knew Death in Rome was one of three books written close together, but not that they were a trilogy as such. I think The Hothouse, recommended by Andrew whom I mentioned above, is another of the three, and is also available in English. The third one isn’t though; the only other Koeppen novel that’s been translated is his first, A Sad Affair.

  9. Thank you once again for bringing a book to my attention that I would otherwise have missed. 🙂

    Also, I think the Gert Hofman book you’re thinking of is Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s in my queue to read. I do believe it may have featured on Mark’s Book Depository blog at some point – in one of the lists of 10 best? Anyway, I heard of it relatively recently, somewhere in the blogosphere. 🙂

  10. Thanks Victoria, that’s the one all right! Yes, it’s somewhere like that I saw it mentioned – your recall is a little better than mine (but not much!) 😉

  11. Like Ted says, Ranicki is very known in Germany, a sort of literature Pope. Not one of G.Grass’s or Martin Walser’s favourite people:). Walser’s polemic novel “Tod eines Kritikers/Death of a critic” is based on a character inspired by him (it’s said to have anti-semitic passages, haven’t read it).
    During 13 years Ranicki was the “star” of a ZDF program: “Das Literarisches Quartett” (with 3 steady members and one guest). I enjoyed watching it though I did find him a bit authoritary sometimes. On the other hand, his brilliancy was(is) undeniable. In 2000 one of the Quartett members left the program after a discussion (live) over “South of the border, West of the sun”. This lady (austrian critic Sigrid Loeffler) found Murakami’s book nothing but “fast food with 4 letter words” with no place in a program about “real” literature. Ranicki argued that she was giving too much importance to a word while overlooking the rest, for the scene before the sexual act (where the f word appears) was one of the most tender and beautiful he had read in years, etc, etc. He ended up calling her a prude and she was offended.
    Sorry for having digressed, afterall your post is not about Ranicki:). Very interesting anyway the book Ted mentions:”Mein Leben/The author of himself”.

  12. Thanks, John. I believe “Pigeons on the Grass” was the other of the three loosely connected books. I think this commentary trail has just augmented my TBR list by about five books!

  13. This has nothing to do with the above but I am halfway through The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald and I never would have thought, beginning the book, that I would enjoy it so much. I wouldn’t normally pick up a tale of a late eighteenth century philosopher.

    I have a whole stack of her books waiting now.

  14. A worthwhile reminder that I mustn’t let my awakening to Koeppen fade, John. Will certainly get hold of this book. A man of jagged substance.

  15. Yes me too, Andrew: will be keeping an eye out for The Hothouse.

    Thanks for the further info, Maria and Ted – I am quite happy with digressions, particularly on interesting sounding authors I haven’t heard of!

    Candy, I saw your comment on The Blue Flower on your blog and am glad you liked it. By the way, you can still add a comment to the Fitzgerald post on here: just go to her in the drop-down author index at the top right. Your comment will still appear at the top of the Recent Comments box, even though the post is older now.

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