Michael Hofmann on Wolfgang Koeppen

In the winter of 1992, I visited Wolfgang Koeppen in his high gloomy cavernous apartment on the banks of Munich's green rushing river, the Isar, to give him a copy of my new translation of his novel, Death in Rome. Many things about that afternoon, which was dark when it began and soon turned into evening, might have been calculated to cause vertigo and bewilderment. I was there ostensibly to "interview" him, which was not something I'd ever done before. I had and have the deepest admiration for his writing—especially the so-called "post-war-trilogy" of Pigeons on the Grass (1951), The Hothouse (1953), and the book I had begun by translating, Death in Rome (1954—Koeppen was someone who wrote his books quickly and in little clusters, or not at all). It was all so long ago in his life, and before the beginning of mine—but what else was there to talk about? Death in Rome was and remained his last novel. Then there was Koeppen's age, he was in his mid-eighties, fifty years my senior: how to show respect and forbearance to such a man, and yet extract some information from him for the readers of the Observer? His long life was full of old mysteries. Uninquisitive and content with the books, I didn't know what they were: how he got through the War; the mystery of his writing and not-writing; his long, torturous marriage to a woman who when he married her was under-age—that was something else it certainly wouldn't have occurred to me to question him about. And yet here was someone who had haunted 1920s Berlin, the Romanisches Café and all—who spoke with real feeling for the lost decades of German-Jewish civilization, who, himself a young man in his twenties, claimed to have met Joseph Roth, whom I had also lately begun translating, and who had always seemed inconceivably remote to me, until I found myself sitting in the company of this man who had once been his younger colleague!

With my English reticence and youth, I met Koeppen halfway: in other words, we were both barely out of our shells. He was quietly plangent, courtly, a little dusty (literally, not in the sense of "dusty answer"), eerily patient. He gave me six hours of his time. I had a piece of paper on my knee, and tried to write down whatever struck me in what he said. Much of the time we must have been silent, some of it with me scribbling. What spoke to me was the décor, the stage-managed layout (Koeppen had a background in the theatre)—though he didn't show me round, and I of course didn't ask to be shown. A sense of dim rooms going off in two or three directions, each one with a writing table in it, each writing table equipped with a bright table-lamp and a typewriter, each typewriter with a piece of paper in it, scrolled half-down and written upon, everywhere a key practically in mid-stroke, mid-letter, mid-air. How could one man keep all these rooms and tables and typewriters happy? It suggested a kind of literary Jackson Pollock, hitting the ground, when at all, running. The appearance of an unremitting productiveness, a ghost factory, a grand alibi. If I had read it at the time, it might have reminded me of the scene in Koeppen's first novel, A Sad Affair (1934), in which Friedrich, his autobiographical hero, is set to work nights in a light bulb factory, replacing bulbs as they burn out in experimental circuits. Presumably, Koeppen would not have done much more than that, going the rounds of his sites of production, replacing the bulbs, feeding, depending on your point of view, a delicious refusal or a wretched hoax.

Because there were no novels after 1954. In 1958, 1959 and 1961—another cluster—there were three moody travel books about Russia, the USA and France (the American one was published last year in Michael Kimmage's translation). There were reviews, essays, occasional prose aplenty—but that, as a writer once said, I forget who, is the sort of writing that most writers don't usually think of as writing. And no novels. This was all the more troublesome as Koeppen in 1961 had been the subject of one of those expensive, long-running public transfers of a kind more apt to be associated with European footballers, where they are called "sagas": his publisher, Henry Goverts, went out of business, and Koeppen, with the kind of semi-dignified languid hustle that became his speciality, alerted half a dozen interested publishers, before finally moving to Suhrkamp, where Siegfried Unseld had just lately taken over the reins from the eponymous founder Peter Suhrkamp. Unseld worshipped Koeppen's writing, and soon fell thrall to his difficult personality as well (this is amply documented in their collected correspondence, published by Suhrkamp with the gorgeously, achingly literal title Ich bitte um ein Wort [A Word From You, Please] in 2006).

Initially all the signs were good: contracts were drawn up and signed, promising with brisk professionalism a play and two novels within two years. In 1962, Koeppen was awarded Germany's most important literary honour, the Büchner Prize. Unseld must have hugged himself for signing a great writer at the top of his game and in his best decade. Over the years Koeppen's backlist was acquired and re-jacketed by Suhrkamp: the post-war-trilogy, the travel books, the two early novels from the thirties. And the keenly awaited new book—the consummation of the deal—that was promised, mooted, announced, described in catalogues and face-to-face meetings, on occasion even read from. With the passage of time, it also (possibly) morphed identity, not just a moving target but a changing target: it involved Bismarck; it was to do with a masked ball; it was about the folk-hero and trickster Tyl Eulenspiegel; it was called Into the Dust with All the Enemies of Brandenburg; it was about the poet Tasso; it was set on a luxury liner. Unseld was in the role of a naturalist who was promised, one after the other, a unicorn, a yeti, a golden goose and a talking horse. And Koeppen? Well, he was always needy, apparently often on the brink of destitution, he had a difficult home life and where his productive morale was concerned he was disturbingly sensitive—but surely he was writing something, and he was negotiating in good faith?

The noli me tango between publisher/patron and silent, broody author went on for thirty-five years, till Koeppen's death. In the course of it Koeppen took the uncomplaining Unseld—a figure from Märchen, if not tragedy or sainthood—for tens, even hundreds of thousands in advances and retainers. A rhythm established itself: Koeppen intimated that he might like to go away somewhere, or that he was tempted by some sublunary offer of work, a journalistic piece for someone or other, something for the radio or television that was of course inopportune but given his circumstances irresistible. Thereupon Unseld would offer him money to go—or to stay—and apply himself to the phantom novel instead: perhaps all it took was an empty apartment in Manhattan. Koeppen would commit himself to a deadline, receive more money, endorse the deadline, be reminded of the deadline (usually it was so that a book might appear in time for the Frankfurt Book Fair of this or that year), miss the deadline, and go quiet, either from calculation or more probably shame. The correspondence, in the lovely term of one of the editors, Alfred Estermann, is an epistolary cosmos with many black holes. Probably there was always some little spark of hope on both sides that something might yet get written, or that Koeppen would finally permit a completed manuscript to emerge into the open. Unseld brought out deluxe editions of tiny opuscula of Koeppen's (and his dearly acquired backlist), while Koeppen's own stock in trade became first his silence, and then the discussion of the silence. German journalists beat a path to his door to ask him about it. It is both agonizing and shameless, coquettishness and torture, as here:

Interviewer: What are you most worried about at the moment?
Koeppen: "The Ship."

Interviewer: Is that a book?

Koeppen: 150 pages. But possibly, possibly! A book I've been working on for over a year, and can't seem to get anywhere with.

And so on. (There is a book of these too.) Surely, you think after reading a few of these, Koeppen has actually taken the hard way out: surely a novel, any novel, is easier than these unendurable questions and stricken answers, this mixture of over-obliging and prevarication. It's the opposite of a trap, or a trap in which the only party really to be caught and to suffer is the party setting it: a trap that bites itself. At its most reduced, artfully configured and psychologically expressive, it takes the form of a title page mocked up by Koeppen and depicted in Ich bitte um ein Wort: in the middle, the name of author, "Wolfgang Koeppen"; below, a descriptive subtitle, "My Life;" and near the top, the title, one word—though probably not the one Siegfried Unseld was craving for three decades—"No."

The one exception, the single oasis in thirty-five years of literary-commercial desert, the very last of the Sibylline books, is Jugend (Youth), which was first published in 1976 as number 500 in the iconic Bibliothek Suhrkamp series (there was really no limit to Unseld's generosity and thoughtfulness), when Koeppen turned seventy. "Dear Wolfgang," wrote the gallant Unseld as late as 1 July of that year, "I'm awaiting Youth every day, with the sort of intensity with which one only and always waits for youth." This time, for whatever reason, Koeppen didn't disappoint him. Perhaps it was that the book was in fifty-four separate sections, some of them written long before (he was like a baker, in the German saying, kneading his bread from crumbs)—but I don't want to interrogate its appearance, after wondering so long why nothing else appeared! I heard a story of Koeppen reading aloud from it, in my birthplace, Freiburg: he began, he read for a while, he paused, people left, he had a drink, he carried on, he paused again, more people left. By the end, he had read the whole thing, there was next to no one there, it was midnight, it must have been unforgettable. As Robert Lowell wrote, "genius hums the auditorium dead."

Here, Koeppen's characteristic "No" isn't confined to the title page, but suffused, dissolved throughout the book. What sort of "youth" is it in Youth? A second-generation illegitimate child, living alone with his mother who takes in boarders (one of whom makes her pregnant—it's the balloonist/ophthalmologist/anyone-for-tennis figure, one of the more marginal and absurd fathers in literature), and—not sewing—does sewing in the big houses. His experience comprises hunger, boredom, loneliness, punishment, discipline and fear. Have I omitted anything? Toward the end a little chaotic—and largely ineffectual—rebellion. His world contrives to be both claustrophobic and agoraphobic: little seems to come between him and the steely, striving, militaristic battery-farm of Wilhelmine Germany with its twin cults of cruelty and obedience. Whatever he does, whichever way he turns, he seems to encounter a main of power, the Prussian state embodied in teachers, policemen, officers, herring-sellers, pederasts, sadists, convicts, fraternity medical students, classmates, heiresses. The young Koeppen feels like one of those shrunken Beckmann figures who barely fit under an oppressively low ceiling in a chaotically full room: they are usually the ones being hanged or scourged or crucified. He goes around barefoot, in rags, a proto-dropout; the wags in the small town tell him to see a doctor—who will prescribe a haircut. He's friendless and in a minority—not just an autodidact, but a self-taught rebel, otherwise one might think the whole thing was fifty years later, in the 1960s, when rebellion was a sanctioned orthodoxy. When he goes into the city and witnesses a demonstration, he finds himself, so to speak, snubbed by the proletariat. The sailors don't want to know either. One might note that not one of the many institutions referred to in these few pages gets off intact: church, parliament, university, family, fraternity, army, police, law, hospital, school, theatre, feudal manor or small town; even the local cemetery turns out—small surprise there—to harbour corruption. The only things that seem to do well in this far from paradisal world are the snakes, literal and figurative.

But youth as in something to look back on with fondness, as in salad days and "fair seed-time had my soul," to wax nostalgic over? A time of pleasure, instruction, irresponsibility, secure in the pride and protection of family? Of winsome, attractive, promising growth and healthy experimentation? Hardly. It is hard to think of another book not just steeped but cat-drowned in poverty and perspectivelessness, lovelessness and universal disappointment as this Youth of Koeppen's—a sort of opposite of Cider with Rosie, if you like. Not that there is anything contrived or showy or larmoyant about it either. The young Koeppen glimpses the thing the soubrette is showing him in the window, and bravely toddles upstairs to claim it. There's no chance, is there, of his mother not taking it away?! Or later when he picks the lock of the bread-bin and scarfs their bread, or when he wastes the electricity by keeping a light on for himself. The pressure of society and of the history of the period—War, Revolution, Inflation, constant low-level political violence, provincialism,
the rise of the Nazi party—has garroted this youth. Nothing is exempt. There is no secret, protected pearl in this book, nothing kept in reserve, no recipe for survival, no self-complacent holy of holies. Sex—except as an expression of power, which he doesn't have—makes no sense to the young Koeppen (after all, how can something that produced him be in any way good?!). He lies chastely beside the young girl in the port of Stettin. Friendship is little short of hubris, an offence to the gods. The young salesman lodger takes him to the cinema for the first time; no wonder he is soon killed in battle. Ditto the communist friend, Lenz. Unforgettable, the son and his mother at night, hibernating: "[wondering] if we should play dead, ignore the summons, draw the curtains to keep out the town. We were a closed society of our own, on occasion stand-offish. We lay in our beds at right angles to each other, not sleeping. We did nothing but listen to the other's breathing; sensing it might stop at any moment, out of fury or fatigue." At a pinch, all there might be is books—and again, not lovingly gone into, but boiled down into one or two lists: books borrowed overnight from the bookshop, and returned in the morning.

Youth ends—this youth does, anyway—before sex and before foreign travel, the point at which the novels begin. It ends at the same place where Knut Hamsun's Hunger ends. Tried and found wanting for terrestrial existence. And then, in a final scene, we are given to understand his mother dies—at the age of only forty-four, in 1925. Koeppen is orphaned, and delivered into a profession that isn't really one, that he doesn't want or understand, with which—no pun intended—he can't cope. This character is like a younger, callower version of the adults and young adults who people the novels—just as Youth, in the oddest way, offers a kind of concordance to them: military cadets, red swimming trunks, boys' bare legs in shorts, a luminous unapproachable blonde, evening dress, beer (Koeppen disliked beer), gourmandise, Vehmic murders, the cinema, the theatre, his horror of a bourgeois public, the railway station and railway porters, the hotel, field-shovels and many other things besides had a role to play in the novels, and feature in Youth. When the Koeppen character is only a little older, he will become Friedrich in A Sad Affair, the romantic lead who runs everywhere and gets nowhere; or Philip in Pigeons on the Grass, an introverted man of letters in a time of spivs; or the neo-Quixote Keetenheuve, widower and failed MP in The Hothouse; or the younger generation of Germans in Death in Rome, Adolf Judejahn the Catholic priest, and his cousin Siegfried Pfaffrath, the gay atonal composer. He has nothing to teach them but dissidence, disobedience, disaffection. Ohne mich, he says in a slogan that—alas for Germany!—didn't become popular till the Sixties: include me out.

One of the points of Youth is this all-pervasive ugliness—objectively present, one feels, in the history and project of Prussia, as much as subjective. But one's sense, in reading it, is overwhelmingly of beauty. This is rapturous, sublimely willful, independent-minded, resourceful prose, as Hans Magnus Enzensberger declared, the most beautiful twentieth-century German prose. Whether a sentence is a beautifully landscaped torrent going on for several pages or a dumbly insolent "I was Germany's future" or one of Koeppen's patented "or maybe..." constructions, sidestepping into freedom, it is all scrupulously managed, supple, cadenced, sumptuously lexical, expressive prose.