Death in Rome

One 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 trilogy, was originally published in 1954 it was a foregone conclusion that I would be reading it this month. Admittedly this has entailed foregoing the middle volume, The Hothouse, but as the novels are unrelated in plot and the connection between them is largely thematic in that they examine, in different ways, Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War, moving from ‘one’ to ‘three’ causes no real issues. Translator Michael Hofmann, in his introduction, suggests that Death in Rome is not only the “most accessible” but “the best of the three”, describing it as “the most devastating novel about the Germans I have ever read, and one of the most arresting on any subject.”

Like Pigeons on the Grass, Death in Rome has a number of central characters and moves freely between the stories and consciousness of each one; but unlike the earlier novel – which has around thirty characters – Death in Rome limits itself largely to one family intended to be representative of Germany. Of the older generation we have Gottlieb Judejahn, an unrepentant Nazi who cannot return to the fatherland at present without fearing arrest, and his brother-in-law Friedrich Pfaffrath, who also held office as a town mayor under the Nazis but still has political power being a careerist rather than a fanatic. Their sons represent the younger generation: Adolf Judejahn, who is training for the priesthood, and Siegfried Pfaffrath, a composer. According to Hofmann:

“These four represent the four principal areas of German achievement, or the four quarters of the riven German soul: murder, bureaucracy, theology and music.”

Each generation despises the other. The music Siegfried has written is a deliberate act of rebellion:

“…a form of composition that was considered unacceptable in Siegfried’s youth, and which now attracted him for that very reason, because it was frowned upon by those in power, his hated teachers at the military academy, his feared uncle Judejahn, the mighty man whose glowering image in the vile uniform had hung over his despised father’s desk.”

In a similar fashion, when Judejahn hears that his son has entered the priesthood he “reeled, his face twisted, he grew pale and the red, his brow and his cheeks purpled, his veins stood out, he was apoplectic, he clutched at his throat…” At one point he says to Friedrich, “What’s the matter with our kids?”

As the novel progresses the characters meet both accidently and deliberately as Koeppen choreographs their movements around the city. Siegfried is in Rome because his composition is being performed; Gottlieb is there to meet Friedrich who believes he can fix it for his brother-in-law to return home. All are in some way defined by their experience of the war, but Gottleib is the most unpleasant (and therefore the most memorable) of the four. It is he who believes that death is coming for him, he who has caused so many deaths. (When he discovers his son is becoming a priest he thinks “he should have sent a few more priests to heaven since he’d gone and supplied the church with a new one”). He feels only nostalgia for the war and the power it brought him, which he now seeks to recreate as a mercenary. When he is attracted to a woman in a bar, Laura, he is excited by the thought she might be Jewish:

“…he needed a woman to hate, his hands, his body, needed another body, another life to have and to destroy, only when you killed were you alive…”

Gottlieb is undermined not only by his name (as are all the characters, their names, of course, having been chosen by the previous generation) but by subtle touches such as the mangy, stray cat he adopts and christens Benito, and a moment when a building collapses and he attempts to take charge “but no one listened to his German voice, no one understood him…”

The novel is deliberately male, and the female characters, while sympathetically drawn, often function to reveal aspects of the male characters as we have seen with Laura. She later meets Adolf at the bar where she works who, in a sense, supplants his father, who exits unnoticed as Adolf is “sitting in Laura’s smile as under a giant sun, the wonderful sun of an innocent paradise.” Siegfried, who witnesses this, also gains the sympathy of a woman, the wife of the conductor, Ilse Kurenberg, whose family, it turns out, his father refused to save when he was mayor. Just as in Pigeons on the Grass, Koeppen is a master at creating and exploiting connections. Death in Rome is complex, intricate, yet compulsively readable, and Koeppen’s trilogy must rank among the great works of the twentieth century.

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8 Responses to “Death in Rome”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds quite brilliant, Grant, and yet he’s not an author whose work I’ve seen about much – I wonder why he’s not better known?

    • 1streading Says:

      I think it’s partly that he wrote only five novels – just one more after this – and a complicated relationship with the German literary establishment – which possibly explains why he only wrote five novels!

  2. Julé Cunningham Says:

    I’ve come across several recent references to these three books, all of them praising Koeppen’s work – obviously three for the TBR wishlist. Thank you for a wonderful review!

  3. winstonsdad Says:

    I’ll be reviewing this next week as stalled reading it will finish it next week I have pigeons on the grass on my tbr

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    I remember your review (and the eye-catching cover!) of the Pigeon one, so it’s good to hear that the third book in the loose trilogy is just as good. How does Koeppen compare to someone like Hans Fallada in terms of style? For some reason, he came to mind as I was reading your piece…

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

    […] novels of 2021, and so naturally I followed it up by reading not the second volume but the third, Death in Rome (luckily each book stands alone). It, similarly, tells its story via a cast of alternating […]

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