Archive for the ‘Wolfgang Koeppen’ Category

Pigeons on the Grass

November 3, 2021

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.

A Sad Affair

November 2, 2020

Wolfgang Koeppen is widely regarded as one of the most important German writers of the twentieth century despite writing only five novels – two in the 1930s and another three in the 1950s. Though he did not die until 1996, he only published travel books and a memoir in that time, and the much promised sixth novel never appeared. A Sad Affair is Koeppen’s first novel, published in 1934, and written, according to translator Michael Hofmann, in a very short period of time after Koeppen spent the advance travelling to Italy, and, when he returned without the expected book, his publisher resorted to locking him in a room with a typewriter.

A Sad Affair is a story of tormented love. Its narrator, Friedrich, is completely entranced by a young actress, Sibylle. Unfortunately Sibylle thinks little of his, or any man’s, love, an aspect of her character that Friedrich is warned of even before he first encounters her when he overhears a conversation between Sibylle and his friend, Beck, which he describes as “a dance on hot coals.” Meeting her in the flesh, however, he feels “sandbagged or hexed” and struck with “sudden paralysis”. His broken arm leads her to declare, “you’re a cripple!” but he is also crippled by her presence:

“At the moment of my first encounter with Sibylle, I got into the habit of feeling crippled with indecision.”

Soon Sibylle is happy to go out with Beck and Friedrich, and use them to torment the man she is living with, Walter, declaring:

“I’m not your creature, I’m not your slave, I’m not your dog, I can do what I want, and if you don’t want to stand over me while I sleep with someone off the street, then you’d better get out and leave me alone.”

Sibylle is a powerful, one might even say empowered, female character. She may seem heartless, cruel even, if we judge her with conventional notions of morality (particularly if we wish the novel to be a ‘love story’) but she does not invite the attentions of the men who love her, nor does she make promises she does not keep. (As Friedrich tells us, “She had never used untruths or strategic evasions to gain a small, momentary advantage”). It is Friedrich who convinces himself that they are destined for each other, and that somehow the power of his love alone will win her over. At one point he complains that she does not see him:

“To Sibylle, he was a shadow. Her eyes barely took him in as a physical shape. He might stand before her, as now, or he might be far away in a different country – it made no difference, he was still a shadow.”

Yet, it is Friedrich who cannot see Sibylle, instead imposing his idea of her on the young woman in front of him.

Cleverly, Koeppen does not tell the story in this order, but begins with Friedrich already quite lost in his love for Sibylle and searching for her in a “foreign city”. It seems any attempt to get over her has failed:

“And there it was again, his heart was once more in someone else’s hand, sometimes they squeezed it shut, sometimes they allowed it to breath, it wasn’t to die on them, a little bird in a cage that had to sing.”

Their relationship stalls on the fact that neither one wants to sleep with the other: Sibylle because, despite her promiscuity, “I’ve never met a woman who was less able to give herself against her own will,” and Friedrich because he wants the moment to be an admission of Sibylle both acknowledging and returning his love – “He refused to take her against her own will.” Despite this, he begs her to travel to Italy with him. Whether she will go with him or not seems to be the defining moment in their relationship, though we also fear that, such is Friedrich’s passion, he may not be able to move on under any circumstances.

A Sad Affair is not a happy book so perfectly does it capture the pain of unrequited love. For the crueller reader there may be some humour in Friedrich’s utter helplessness, while for the more sympathetic minded there will be be frustration at his inability to extract himself from feelings which are clearly damaging. But Sibylle herself is an equally interesting character, though one viewed through the unreliable lens of the narrator. For all her flaws, the reader may find themselves a little bit in love.