Hofmann Michael

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone

Midway through Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Alone in Berlin (US title: Every Man Dies Alone), a character gives up on reading a book. He’s asked if he isn’t enjoying it.

Ach, you know, not really … They’re all such terribly good people, and I get bored. It’s too much like a proper book. Not a book that a man can sink his teeth into. I’m looking for something with a bit more excitement, you know.

How kind of Fallada to incorporate that passage to make it easy for people like me to say: he should have read Alone in Berlin then. Here there is plenty of excitement to sink your teeth into – even though it is very much like a proper book.

Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin

And the beauty of it is that most of the characters are not “terribly good people”: and we’re not even talking about the Nazis. Alone in Berlin is “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis” (Primo Levi), but it is its open-eyed realism which makes it shine. The characters are venal, selfish, chaotic, not types but real people. (Indeed, the book is based on true events.) There is the ineffectual and emotionally incontinent Enno Kluge; Emil Borkhausen, whose loyalty lies with the highest bidder; Karl Hergesell, former resistance organiser who gave up for the comforts of a secure home life (“My happiness doesn’t cost anyone else a thing”). Even the heroes of the story, the Quangels, are deluded about the scope of their resistance campaign.

As the book opens, Otto and Anna Quangel, living in an apartment block in Jablonski Strasse, Berlin, in 1940, have just learned that their son has been killed when fighting for Hitler in the war. It’s a merciful release, in a way, from the ever-present fear for him (“After each letter from the front you felt better for a day or two, then you counted back how many days had passed since it was sent, and then your fear began again”). When Anna, distraught, blames Otto – “you and that Führer of yours!” – this sets off an emotional journey in Otto which leads him to undertake a modest but life-threatening resistance campaign across the city. This, incidentally, is where I began to see more sense in the UK cover design, which initially seemed to be a dramatic lapse in the normally good taste of Penguin (if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that was Comic Sans). I still have my doubts, however, about the UK title. On the one hand, aloneness, as discussed below, is a central theme; on the other, the US title, Every Man Dies Alone, is a closer translation of the original German (Jeder stirbt für sich allein) and has a brutal relevance, as a chaplain points out to Otto Quangel when he doubts the value of the resistance.

Of course, it would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us. Such and such is what you have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone, or that our deaths will be in vain.

In fact the UK title and cover – and quotes on the back, where Alan Furst and Philip Kerr get precedence over Primo Levi – make clear that here, Alone in Berlin is being sold as a thriller. And it is: there is an excellent control of pace (over 570 pages), good and not-so-good guys in all shades of grey, and some genuinely thrilling moments such as the showdown between Escherich and Kluge at the end of part two.

Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone

Beyond that, Fallada displays an acute understanding of motivations. When Enno Kluge is being interrogated by a Gestapo man, he is so psychologically beaten by the experience that he offers a false confession as a “favour” – “he was terrified of antagonizing this nice inspector”. The inspector himself, knowing the confession is false, nonetheless comes to believe in Kluge’s guilt because “too many curious coincidences clustered round the fellow.” Fallada efficiently shows that of such illogical (in)humanity are life and death decisions made.

The book is not perfect. Fallada wrote it in less than a month, and it is an astonishing achievement with or without that knowledge. But sometimes his haste shows – tenses change mid-scene with alarming frequency – and too often his thumb is on the scales, with melodramatic chapter endings and authorial intervention. Even translator Michael Hofmann, never knowingly underpraised on this blog, makes a few odd choices, such as using words like “mate” which give the impression that the book has been translated not into English but into British. Curiously, the rough edges seem to enhance rather than detract, neatly meeting the book’s promoted status as an unearthed relic, written on the hoof (Fallada died shortly after completing it, having been incarcerated in a Nazi insane asylum during the war). We should be grateful to have it in translation at last. It’s hard not to see Alone in Berlin becoming a widely read modern classic.

Solitude – being alone, in Berlin or anywhere else – is foremost in the minds of many of the characters. One character longs for it – “perhaps when she’s alone she will amount to more: she’ll have some time to herself, she won’t need to put herself last”, while wondering when facing time alone, “what will I discover about myself that I never knew?” In a Germany “jam-packed with uniforms”, all the resistance volunteers are made to feel alone together. “No amount of reticence could change the fact that every individual German belonged to the generality of Germans and must share in the general destiny of Germany, even as more and more bombs were falling on the just and unjust alike.” The sense of oppression is well done, and all the better for its contemporaneity, which gives it the essence of reportage and the ring of truth. “Danger’s not on the doorstep,” Otto Quangel tells his wife. “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.”

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well

Just the other day I remarked on how unusual it is to read a new book that is both important and exciting. And then two come along at once. Strictly speaking, Fred Wander’s The Seventh Well is only ‘new to us’ – it was published in (East) Germany in 1971, where apparently it sank like a stone. Republished in 2005, a year before Wander’s death, it has found a deserved audience and been translated into English by the redoubtable Michael Hofmann, who once again has provided an essential afterword. It is the best new book I have read so far this year.

The cover image shows clearly enough that this is a new (‘to us’) entry in that vast body of work, Holocaust literature. This in itself presents certain problems of preconception. I want to like the book because it is a book on an important subject by a good man. But also, it deserves a harsher eye because of its important subject, to justify its addition to the literature. Hofmann in his afterword observes that “the welter of extreme and unbearable content demands an exceptional awareness and use of form to master it.”

The form which Wander adopts is, first, fiction so heavily informed by memory that the distinction seems to dissolve. He wrote the book a quarter of a century after his liberation from Auschwitz, following the death of his daughter. Second, it contains individual episodes, linked but distinct, drawing together the lives of Jews before the war and their existence in the concentration camps.

“Did you know my Zikmund?” I heard a Jew ask the man in the next bunk to him. “No, you didn’t know my Zikmund, because he was not himself when he came with me to the camp. Because he lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore…”

Lyricism, savagely inappropriate to the camp setting, risks artificially romanticising the prisoners’ former lives. But Wander knows restraint (as that 25 year period, holding his breath and his thoughts, showed). He only rarely resorts to expressions of high emotion, and even then, there is a certain reserve.

Something in him is driven to yell out: I am human! I have known respect! he wants to cry out. I was loved, I had a home, a wife and children, friends. I have performed kindnesses and not asked for reward. I have seen marvellous things, I know the smell of old cities. I could have done anything, achieved everything, and if I didn’t do or achieve, then it was only because I didn’t know, I couldn’t sense…

Here, as elsewhere, Wander’s task is to tell the stories of his (or his narrator’s) fellow prisoners: the first episode, ‘How to Tell a Story’, uses as inspiration Mendel, an inmate who regarded the camp guards “not with hate or accusation, but with curiosity. What is driving this man, those eyes wanted to know.” His other question is, What keeps a man alive? This, inevitably, is balanced by unavoidable details of how a man can die in the concentration camps. “Now they just pushed the victims over the edge.” Or: “Open wagons stuffed full of men, bent double with cold. Only when they die do they stretch out in something resembling dignity.” Or:

When Yossl keeled over at his work in the lumberyard, and the sentries shovelled snow over him as a joke, and the little heap of snow stirred and a small hand emerged from it, and they went on chucking snow over him and laughing and smoking cigarettes, and when we dragged him back to the camp that evening, then Yossl was still not yet dead. He was frozen stiff and his face was as pale as marble, and they stood around him at night in the barracks … and they talked to him, cajoled him and flattered him and screamed at him: “Yossl, listen, you must live, Yossl, don’t go, your mother is waiting, your father is waiting, Yossl, stay with us, keep us company…” And they stroked him and kissed him and rubbed his body with cloths and with snow, they wrapped him in blankets, and they sat him up on the table like a doll, he didn’t keel over, he was frozen stiff, but he wasn’t yet dead. He was frozen, but deep within him there was still a little ember of life, and they stoked it with their affectionate words, with their prayers and their charms, crying and weeping the while: “Yossl, stay!”

Here, then, we have the sort of book which I just want to retype here more or less in full. It does, effortlessly, do justice to its subject matter, which is not the Holocaust generally or the concentration camps specifically. It is what the Jews in the camps spent their existence exhibiting, and which the Nazis in the camps utterly failed to fulfil: what Wander calls “the expression of the vast effort to be human.”

Peter Stamm: Agnes

I don’t normally write here about books I didn’t like, or felt indifferent toward. First, I’m unlikely to finish them. Second, if the book is out of print, as this one is, there’s not much point in writing a post just to say: Here’s a book you probably haven’t heard of; and it’s no good. Peter Stamm’s Agnes is not, in fact, no good, but it doesn’t match up to the high standards expected when Michael Hofmann’s name is attached as translator. It was by searching for Hofmann translations that I found Stamm. Another novel of his, Unformed Landscape, has the funniest (intentional, I hope) quote of praise I’ve read in a long time, from the New Yorker: “If Albert Camus had lived in an age when people in remote Norwegian fishing villages had e-mail, he might have written a novel like this.”

Agnes (1998; tr. 2000) is an object lesson in the dangers of book blurbs, which have to be interesting enough to make the reader pick the book up, but not so detailed that they will detract from the pleasure of following the line the author has drawn. Here, the blurb tells the story from start to finish.

Agnes is dead. Killed by a story.

All that is left of her now is this story. It begins on that day, nine months ago, when we first met in the Chicago Public Library

‘Write a story about me,’ Agnes said to her lover, ‘so I know what you think of me.’ So he started to write the story of everything that had happened to them from the moment they met.

But as he writes, at first studying her intently from his computer, and later on his own, the borders between fiction and real life begin to blur. Each day he reads a new chapter to Agnes, and eventually their story catches up with the present.

On New Year’s Eve he leaves Agnes alone in their flat. She turns on the computer and reads on, into the future which he had imagined for her. And to her death.

Agnes is an unforgettable and haunting love story with a chilling conclusion.

The problems with this are threefold. First, it sells the book as some sort of metafictional piece of postmodernism, which it is not. There is no real blurring of the border between fiction and real life in the story, or in the story which Agnes’s lover writes about her. Second, it omits what is actually most interesting about the book, which is its portrayal of personal interdependence and freedom. Third, it is not accurate: in neither the story nor the story-within-a-story is there any indication that Agnes has died, and only the most generous interpretation would allow for it. The pointer does also appear in the opening line of the book (“Agnes is dead. Killed by a story”), but this is a far more ambiguous use of ‘dead’ and ‘killed’ than the blurb suggests. So by altering my expectations of what the book was about, it became a disappointment which it needn’t have been.

The narrator, unnamed, is a Swiss writer living in Chicago, who has published non-fiction books on Pullman trains and the like, and whose aims for art have broken down over the years (he started a novel but never finished it). He is disaffected and disinterested.

I liked [the coffee shop] because none of the waitresses knew me or talked to me, because I didn’t have a special place where I always sat, and because someone asked me every morning for my order, though it was always the same.

He meets Agnes, with whom he falls in love (“I felt an almost physical dependency on her; when she wasn’t there I had a dismaying sensation of not being complete”), but this love does not improve his constitutional mood:

We imagine we all share the same world. But each of us is in a mine or quarry of his own, just chipping away at his own life, doesn’t look left or right, and can’t even turn back because of the rubble he leaves behind him.

The story explores dependency: the narrator’s for Agnes; hers for him when he begins writing her story which she comes to rely on as a guide for what to do (“Now Agnes was my creation”); the reader’s for the author generally. “I’m always sad when I finish a book,” says Agnes. “It feels to me that I’d become the character in it, and the character’s life ends when the book does.” (This, presumably, is the passage which is supposed to lead us to conclude that Agnes dies at the end of the book.) This dependency clashes with the need for freedom, as the narrator observes when his relationship with Agnes ends. “My freedom had always mattered more to me than my happiness.” It is also reflected in the research the narrator does on his Pullman trains, finding that their creator, George Mortimer Pullman, suffered a revolt by the workers for whom he had created a model village:

The failure of Pullman’s vision and the uprising of his labour force against the complete control of their lives by their employer fascinated me more than the company’s celebrated railway carriages. It seemed that Pullman had planned for every contingency, except his workers’ desire for freedom. He thought he had constructed a kind of paradisal community for them. But his Paradise didn’t have a door.

The question for Agnes and the narrator is whether life has a door. There’s not much spoiling to be done here – the book comes pre-spoiled by that blurb – but one other excerpt is worth quoting, going right back to the issue I began with, of whether to write about books we don’t care for. The more I write about it, the less sure I am that I didn’t care for it. Why do we go back to books we’re unsure of? Does hope spring eternal, do we think that all writing must have some qualities if only we can dig deep enough (in the same way that even a poor film gives me pleasure, because I so enjoy the experience of going to the cinema)? Or is it something else?

‘I don’t read much anymore,’ said Agnes. ‘Because I didn’t want books to have me in their power. It’s like poison. I imagined I’d become immune. But you never become immune.’

Gert Hofmann: Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl

Poet and translator Michael Hofmann has been cited before on this blog as a reliable source of reading – he wouldn’t waste his time, so I won’t be wasting mine – but I wondered if his judgement might be clouded when it comes to his father. Gert Hofmann has had his final three novels translated by his son: this, published in 1994 following Hofmann’s early death at the age of 62, was the last. Until now we’ve had to rely on an (admittedly handsome) US edition from New Directions. This month, the book is finally published in the UK by CB Editions. Its cover is elegant if plain, but might have an austere 1950s charm appropriate to these credit-crunched times.

The book itself is a fancy and a beauty. We are prepared for – or forewarned of – what to expect from the opening paragraph.

Once, many many years ago, Professor Lichtenberg pulled on his lecture coat and headed out. He wanted to see what the weather was doing. Because he was a vain fellow, he had silver buttons on his lecture coat. From time to time, he would lose one. Then he would go crawling around his apartment in the wing of the house on the Gotmarstrasse, crying: Where has it got to now? As he scrabbled around among the chair legs, one thing became clear: he had a hunchback! Quick, let’s write about it!

The hunchback was enormous!

At once we are in a conspiracy where the narrator shares the skittish, disarming charm of the character of Lichtenberg, and the boundaries between author and character – and even reader – are blurred. And why not, since Lichtenberg was a real person (though the only place I had seen his name before was in the catalogue of NYRB Classics): an 18th century polymath who is depicted by Hofmann as having the childish curiosity of great genius. Around him the world is flooded with Enlightenment discoveries:

How quickly progress was being made all over the world! In England they were assessing the effect of electricity on the growth of plants and animals. How it made everything shoot up! Only cats failed to thrive and shrivelled up!

Lichtenberg himself investigates: “He made some extraordinary discoveries that later all turned out to be wrong.” Yet for all his interest in the outside world, it is Lichtenberg’s ability to look in on himself which gives the book balance. He has self-awareness enough to know his physical limitations: four feet nine inches, hunchbacked, with “awful teeth,” lying about his age (“My poor spirit happens to have been poured into a miserable vessel”). However he lacks understanding of social mores and falls in love with a thirteen-year-old flower seller (22 years his junior): “a girl had ‘crawled into him, and was spreading out’.”

Hofmann’s task here is to prevent Lichtenberg from seeming like a sexual predator, to maintain the reader’s compact with this charming man. This is as significant an achievement as Nabokov’s ability to gain sympathy for Humbert in the closing chapters of Lolita. In fact it is more significant: Hofmann has balanced the tone of the story delicately so far largely through a wild overuse of exclamation marks, which results in an inversion of the usual rules. Now a full stop, relatively rare, seems to be making a dramatic point, and when Lichtenberg’s lover, ‘the Stechardess’, makes a plain plea as they consummate their relationship –

Don’t hurt me, she said.

– it brings back Isaac Babel’s dictum that “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” Thereafter, in this exceptional central scene, even the formerly charming exclamation marks have a chilly, seductive horror to them:

When she was finally naked, and he pulled her to him, he saw she was still a child. She got quite beside herself, throwing her little head from side to side and and crying: No! No! He said: Wait! and blew out the last candle.

What happened next was the laborious, brutal and bloody business!

And then? as the Stechardess would say, to drive Lichtenberg to tell her more of his life. Then we have an acute understanding of the contradictory impulses of the human heart and brain. “Ideas are … the backdrop to the world. Everything takes place in front of a prospect of ideas.” But Lichtenberg finds that, once admired for the beauty of his lover, “there wasn’t much left of the sympathy he had once enjoyed as a cripple.”

When comic novels are rarely done, and even more rarely done well, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is a breath of air, a carefully chaotic representation of real life through the prism of a fictionalised historical character, complete with cheeky bracketed birth and death dates for its secondary characters. “The times were, like all times, extraordinary,” observes Hofmann. And his book, unlike many others, is too. The only problem lies in the question you ask when you want to find something else to read that’s as lively, charming and cheering.

And then?

Joseph Roth: The String of Pearls

I feel that Joseph Roth has had a sort of invisible presence on this blog – through his lover Irmgard Keun and his devoted translator Michael Hofmann – so it’s about time I wrote about one of his books. A couple of years ago I read and enjoyed The Legend of the Holy Drinker, which apparently was the last book Roth wrote and was published posthumously. The daunting question when delving into any new author then is: where next? My semi-logical solution: get the next last book, and stick to translations by the reliable Michael Hofmann. Granta Books seem to have cottoned onto the latter as a selling point: Hofmann, unusually, is named on the cover, and the By the Same Author page also includes a list of books By the Same Translator. Michael: you’ve made it.

The String of Pearls

I hope it hasn’t gone to his head: Hofmann has boldly changed the title of The String of Pearls (1939, the last book published in Roth’s lifetime). Its original name was The Tale of the 1002nd Night. Changing a title so comprehensively is not something to be undertaken lightly, but here I think it works. The difficulty with Roth’s original title, full of Eastern promise, was that it pins down the story onto the opening chapters, which end up seeming little more than a prelude.

Which is to damn it with faint praise, as those opening chapters are among the most engaging in the book. They take us back to the 19th century, and tell us of the Shah of Persia, who experiences an unaccustomed “sense of malaise” which he decides to alleviate by taking a trip to Europe. “You know I haven’t touched a woman for weeks,” he tells his eunuch, Patominos, who responds by informing the Shah that he feels sorry for him:

For many reasons, but especially because men are driven to the pursuit of variety. And that is a treacherous objective, because there is no such thing as variety.

Nonetheless the Shah takes his trip, to the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary, and the wit Roth brings to every detail is magnificent, from the ship’s captain who invents a storm to explain to the Shah why the ship is sailing in circles (in fact they are awaiting word from the Persian Amabassador before docking), or the niceties of political and media spin when the Shah arrives in Austria:

Carriages were boarded and driven away. Behind a blue wall of soldiery, the populace cried out their huzzahs. The horses of the mounted policemen became jumpy and, much against the wishes of their riders, kicked out. There were twenty-two injuries. The police report in the Fremdenblatt merely noted three instances of people ‘fainting’ from ’emotion’.

Once in Vienna, the Shah is delighted to discover that his hoped-for variety is present – “How was it that the women in his harem at home were a thing of indifference, even irritation to him, while these women here, in Vienna, seemed to belong to a different race, an unknown people that were as yet undiscovered?” – and finds one who dazzles him, Countess W., at a ball held in his honour. “One looked for a moment and felt so richly rewarded one felt like saying thank you.” The Shah makes known his desire for her. The Countess of course is not available on such terms, but an Austrian officer, Baron Taittinger, happens to know a prostitute who closely resembles her…

This sounds like the plot of a crude farce – and it is – but it’s merely the set-up for the meat of the story. When the Shah rewards Countess W’s lookalike, Mizzi Schinagl, with a string of pearls, the valuable gift becomes the MacGuffin from which the rest of the book develops. However at this point Roth both accelerates his pace and widens his concerns, so that from here the book feels crammed, overstuffed with too many characters and developments even for an author as skilful as Roth to give full justice to. It seems to have the ambition and aims of a 600-page epic, a Dickensian doorstop, but without each element given space to breathe. As a consequence he is forced too often to distance the reader by telling us what has happened to various characters rather than showing.

This is not to deny the continued beauty of Roth’s observations, particularly his loving – though not indulgent – portrayal of Vienna and Austria, and his sympathetic but ironic portrayal of characters like poor (and then, through the gift of pearls, rich) Mizzi:

As far as men were concerned, the only reason Mizzi bothered with them was because she was quite convinced that life without them was no more possible than life without oxygen. When she had been poor and working and had not known what to do, she had accepted money. Now she could offer them love for nothing. It was good for her, to offer love for nothing. Sometimes it was she who paid men. Some were pleased to borrow from her for their ‘business’. She didn’t care for any of them. Men had been her daily, her nightly bread. She was like a poor quarry seeking its own hunters.

Among the themes seems to be the one Roth would visit again in The Legend of the Holy Drinker: that money will bring only temporary happiness, and lasting sadness; or rather that those typically without money will never retain it for long. There is social awareness which seems as recognisable to us as to the particular historic setting – a declining empire – which the book evokes. I had mixed feelings about The String of Pearls: a faint dissatisfaction that the whole of the book did not retain the poise and pace of the opening scenes, and yet the distinct awareness that my reading of it did not do justice to the brilliance of so many elements brought together. (As a result I’m itching for recommendations of where to go next with Roth.) Roth’s characters are real but distinct and often larger than life, so we can see a trace of the author when a waxwork manufacturer, at the end of the book, says:

I might be capable of making figures that have heart, conscience, passion, emotion and decency. But there’s no call for that at all in the world. People are only interested in monsters and freaks, so I give them their monsters. Monsters are what they want!

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.

Irmgard Keun: Child of All Nations

When the reliable Penguin Classics imprint thinks a new translation of a 1938 German novel has enough potential to be issued in hardback, I have to pay attention. When the translation is by the equally reliable Michael Hofmann (a poet in his own right), then my wallet sighs open with pleasure. A bibliophile and his money are soon parted.

Irmgard Keun was the partner of novelist Joseph Roth for the last few years of his life: I’ve only dabbled in Roth with his novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker, but the testimonies of Susan Hill and dovegreyreader promise much more pleasure to be had from him yet (and dgr has already mentioned Irmgard Keun on this very site). Of course, a romantic connection with a fine writer doesn’t mean that Keun’s book will be good too: it must be just a coincidence, then.

Child of All Nations

Child of All Nations [1938] on the face of it sounds like pretty uninspiring stuff: a family flee Nazi Germany and seek peace elsewhere in Europe. Heard it all before. But what sets Keun’s novel apart is the uniquely charming voice of Kully, the nine-year-old narrator.

The danger of a child narrator is that the author can make it too cute, too disingenuous, or two-dimensional. Fortunately Kully is none of these things, but gets her point across:

When I was in Germany, before, I did go to school, and that’s where I learned to read and write. Then my father didn’t want to be in Germany any more, because the government had locked up friends of his, and because he couldn’t write or say the things he wanted to write and say. I wonder what the point is of children in Germany still having to learn to read and write?

Now her father is away raising money to enable them to continue their journey, and Kully and her mother are in Amsterdam, trying to stave off the day when they have to pay their hotel bills (“I get funny looks from hotel managers, but that’s not because I’m naughty; it’s the fault of my father … the waiters no longer brandish their napkins in that jolly way; instead they flick them at our table. Mama says they do it to clear the crumbs away, but it looks to me more like what you do to keep away pesky cats that have their eyes on the roast”).

Kully recounts their journeys across Germany, the Netherlands and France, with Keun meanwhile probing gently at the major issues surrounding the story. Reading it in the comfortably informed 21st century, it’s easy to forget that Child of All Nations was written when the worst of the Nazi terror was yet to come: this makes it seem both prescient and retrospectively wise. There is a postmodern sort of dramatic irony in operation: not only does the reader know more than the narrator, the reader knows more than the author. On the subject of contemporary politics Kully’s father has this to say:

‘As for fear of God? Why? Why not trust in God? I’d rather my little girl worshipped matchboxes or liqueur glasses than that she be afraid of God. Everything that’s wrong in the world begins with fear. All that mess in Germany could only result because the people there have lived in fear for ever. … First a father demands that his child be afraid of him. Then there’s school and fear of the teacher, fear of God at church, fear of military or other superiors, fear of the police, fear of life, fear of death. Finally, the people are so crippled and warped by fear that they elect a government that they can serve in fear. Not content with that, when they see other people who are not set on living in fear, the get angry, and try in their turn to make them afraid. First of all they make God into a kind of dictator, and now they don’t need Him any more, because they’ve come up with a better dictator themselves.’

Child of All Nations is very funny too, from the authorial distance from her child narrator which enables Keun to invoke some witty irony, to Kully’s father’s bold way of trying to persuade people, and in particular women (all of whom, he feels, are susceptible to his charms). Here I saw reflections of Roth’s Holy Drinker Andreas, and his doomed attempts to stave off the loss of his money.

The one disappointment is the ending, or more accurately the last leg of the family’s journey. It damages the scale of the drama, and (as Hofmann acknowledges in his afterword) “breaks the claustrophobia of the book.” But this doesn’t matter too much – Child of All Nations is all about the journey, not the destination, and that is a very fine experience indeed.