Pigeons on the Grass

Last German Literature Month I read Wolfgang Koeppen’s first novel, A Sad Affair, the story of a tempestuous relationship between an infatuated young man and a woman who seems incapable of loving, originally published in 1934. In 1935 he published a second novel, Die Mauer schwankt (The Wall is Swaying / Fluctuating – I suspect the English title, should it be translated, would be different!) about a master builder which he seems to have later disregarded, perhaps because elements of it were nationalistic. In 1951 his third novel, Pigeons on the Grass, finally appeared, a portrait of Munich, where he had settled in 1943, in the aftermath of the war. Originally translated into English in 1988 by David Ward, it appeared in a new translation by Michael Hofmann (who had already translated the two following novels which form a loose trilogy) last year.

Pigeons on the Grass is, quite simply, a tour de force. A novel set in one city over the course of one day, it owes something to both Berlin Alexanderplatz and Ulysses, yet, in one sense, goes further, having no central character, no still point for the reader in the heart of the hurricane. The novel opens with planes overhead, their bomb bays “still empty”, immediately raising one of Koeppen’s key questions: has the end of war brought peace, or, like the First World War, will it simply lead to further conflict? No one looks up, however:

“The people had forgotten their sirens, had forgotten their bunkers, the collapsing houses, the men were no longer thinking of the yell of their sergeants, pitching them into the dirt of the barracks yard, the trenches, the field dressing stations, drum fire, encirclement, retreat…”

Richard, an American soldier with a German father, wonders, “So what was it that had been destroyed here?”

“A few old buildings had fallen down. Well, it was probably high time.”

The novel contains a number of American characters. Richard, searching for relatives, worries about “sinking into the swamp of origin.” Two of the most important American characters have no such fear, both being black. Odysseus Cotton arrives as the novel opens with “the victor’s aura”. Like all Americans he is assumed to be rich:

“The Yanks were rich. Their automobiles glided along like ships, like Columbus’s caravels back from the New World.”

Odysseus is, one assumes, a nod to Ulysses; he travels around the city carrying a radio, the familiar voice keeping “him warm when he was in foreign lands.” Or rather, Josef, an elderly porter, carries his case and follows him from pub (where he outwits some Greeks!) to church tower, to the Black American soldiers’ club. The second black American is Washington Price who, in contrast to Odysseus, is settled in Munich, with a woman he loves, Carla, who is expecting his child. Even so, he knows that being a rich American is important to the relationship:

“Carla would have faith in the colour of his money.”

Carla is less keen on the baby she is expecting, “a little black creature stirring in her belly.” In the course of the day, she is arranging to have an abortion, and Washington is attempting to stop her. Washington remains a hopeful character (as represented by his “sky blue limousine”), with a dream to open a bar in France where all are welcome. (Koeppen seems to see racial discrimination seems as an echo of anti-Semitism).

In contrast to the optimism of the Americans, the German characters often seem defeated. Emilia, “the rag princess”, spends the day trying to sell what valuable belongings she has left after losing her family’s wealth in the war:

“She wanted to forget the worthless stock, the expropriated rights, the Reich treasury bonds on deposit, paper, all paper, so much paper, forget the crumbing real estate, the mortgaged stone of the walls she wasn’t allowed to sell…”

Her husband, Philipp is a writer who is unable to write, or take up any other opportunity he is given to make money, describing himself as “incompetent, cowardly superfluous.” Their doctor, Behude, who we first meet selling his blood, wonders, “What am I trying to heal them of?” The contrast between Americans and Germans is perhaps best articulated by Philipp when he meets a young American school teacher, Kay:

“She had the sort of youth that didn’t seem to exist yet in Germany.”

Other characters abound – a visiting poet, an actor, and his “nymphomaniac wife”, numerous children, a dog. Koeppen cuts between them, using links of various types. For example, a section describing the poet, Edwin’s, arrival in the Consul’s limousine ends with the car brushing a cyclist – “Oh dear, he’s going to fall, he’s wobbling…” The next section begins with Dr Behude on his bike (presumably the cyclist), “He kept his balance.” At other points the sections are linked by a word: “He needed money. Now-” – “Now hop off the 6 onto the 11.” And at others it is an idea that joins them, for example “he melted out of the shop” is followed by “- like snow on their lips”, a reference to the froth of the beer Odysseus and Josef are drinking. This creates an enormous energy in the narrative, an unstoppable flow, and is one of a number of reasons why the novel is so compulsively readable despite its complexity. The novel ends as the day ends:

“A day is over. A page of the calendar is torn off. Next, please.”

The novel’s title comes from Gertrude Stein and suggests both the possibilities of randomness and pattern (like the novel itself). It returns us to the question of ‘What next?’ by questioning whether even the present or the past can be understood:

“The birds are here by chance, we are here by chance, and maybe the Nazis were here by chance, Hitler was a chance, his politics were a dreadful and stupid chance, maybe the world is a dreadful and stupid chance of God’s, no one knows why we are here, the birds will fly off and we will walk on.”

Koeppen cannot offer us an answer, but what he does provide is an exceptional novel capturing a moment in time in all its hope and despair.


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10 Responses to “Pigeons on the Grass”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds quite stunning, Grant. I’ve never heard of it before, and am very tempted, though a little worried that I wouldn’t get all the references!

  2. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    Yes, this does sound like it might help to have read a lot of other titles, though I do recognise the Gertrude Stein repetitiveness in the last quote about the birds.

    It feels like that concept of being at the still point in the eye of the storm, chaos all around.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I love that cover. It’s simple yet very effective, just the type of artwork that would catch my eye in a bookshop. I’d definitely pick it up for a closer look.

    As for the book itself, it sounds very striking – breathless, almost – with a propulsion all of its own.

  4. German Literature Month XI Author Index – Lizzy's Literary Life Says:

    […] (Review 1) Kleist Anecdotes 1 Kluge Dispatches from Moments of Calm 1 Koeppen Pigeons on The Grass 1 2 Kutscher Babylon Berlin 1 Lendle All the Land 1 Lernet-Morenia Baron Bagge 1 I Was Jack Mortimer […]

  5. Books of the Year 2021 Part 2 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] of his third (the second has never been translated into English) published 17 years later, Pigeons on the Grass (which benefitted from a new translation from Michael Hofmann in 2020). In the tradition of Ulysses […]

  6. Death in Rome | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] of my favourite discoveries last year was Wolfgang Koeppen’s Pigeons on the Grass, so when I discovered that Death in Rome, the final volume in what is often regarded as a loose […]

  7. Books of the Year 2022 Part 1 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Koeppen’s Pigeons on the Grass, the first in a loose trilogy, was one of my favourite novels of 2021, and so naturally I followed […]

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