In the High Peaks

Thursday, June 29, 2017

German Lit in Translation and Dark Nights!

It's so dark, so very dark, that it's creepy around here. I know it's just dense cloud cover and rain, but we have 3 hours of daylight left, and sun should be streaming through the kitchen window. I bought candles today to deal with our light deficiency. Actually, I do love the deep darkness of December and January. And that's what we're having right now. Just haul out the candles, pretend that it's winter, and all is well.

German literature in translation:
 I recently finished reading All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, the acclaimed German writer, who came into his own in the 1960s and 1970s. This novel was published in Germany in 2005. It was translated and published in English in 2015 by Anthea Bell. The most puzzling question for me is how does this novel compare, or fit in with, the dozens of works Kempowski wrote before it? Very, very few of his works of fiction, prose, and drama have been published in English. How can one possibly make an assessment of All for Nothing, especially as a person who does not competently read German? And, why oh why, was this particular book cherry-picked to be translated into English, out of all the acclaimed books he has published??? I find these facts especially frustrating as a reader.

Having worked in publishing in one form or another for many years, I know a little bit about how this sort of thing works. A foreign book is chosen for translation because editors and publishers' marketing executives think that a given German title "will speak" to English-language audiences in English-speaking countries. And, what exactly, for example, did they think would make this an ideal title for English readers?

Unless an English-speaking reader also speaks German, one cannot assess how All for Nothing fits with the other titles Kempowski has published about the Nazi and post-Nazi eras.

All for Nothing is set in a dull hamlet in East Prussia in January 1945. The Russians have already invaded and torn apart a number of the largest East Prussian cities, killing and raping Germans, just as the Germans have killed and raped their countrymen during the German invasion of Russia.

But in this little enclave away in the country, a wealthy family hangs on in their magnificent estate. They have plentiful food, because of their livestock and crops from the previous season. The husband and owner is a high official in the Wehrmacht, stationed in "safety" somewhere in Italy. His wife and his son live with the husband's aunt, as well as with lots of Ukrainian and Polish servants in this protected place, which seems very distant from the final destruction of Germany that is ongoing around them. Things deteriorate slowly. The façade crumbles.

The most striking thing about this novel is the way in which no character cared for anyone else, except for the 12-year-old son Peter. We see him care for the people in his life--his tutor, his mother, his animals, the refugees who come through to stay for few days. Peter's mother, even though we have her point of view, she clearly cares nothing for him or anyone, nor does his aunt care, nor do the Ukrainian or Poles, or anyone he meets in flight, when the Russians are truly on their doorstep.

Again, I have to say, without access to Kempowski's other work, I'm lost. Yes, he's anti-the-Nazi generation to the core, and bitterly angry. He pounds down the carelessness and the folly of the self-serving Germans who were adults in the Nazi era, but so did other German writers. How are we to assess Kempowski??  


  1. To me, his most interesting books are set from Germany's Grunderzeit up to the period just before WWII. Have you read "Days of Greatness?" This would give you an idea of the writing style used in his family saga "Deutsche Kronik" based on his family life. I found the saga a bit difficult to read in German and wish that more of it had been translated. But I did read it all. He also was interested in "collage" and used a writing style based on that in his massive work "Echelot" a portion of which was translated into English as "Swansong"

    With his vast list of published works, I share your dismay that more of his work wasn't translated. I enjoyed reading your comments and think that this book was selected for translation as it met with the agendas of others. And no, this book is not at all representative of his entire work

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about Kempowski's oeuvre. I will definitely seek out Days of Greatness.
      I guess my disappointment is personal. I have studied German on my own but am still not able to read it well. I can read magazines a bit, but I must admit that for the most part all I can do is "get the gist" of a piece. Nowhere, no how, not good enough.
      I have seen his "Swansong," and will try to get a hold of that as well.
      Thank you so much for responding with your thoughts.

  2. I would judge based on whether Kempowski condemns the anti-Semitic and other genocide that the Germans carried out, their mistreatment of the peoples of Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, the USSR, France, and gay people, labor unionists and political opponents, the use of concentration camps, etc.

    I'd judge him on his moral compass on all of this.

    1. Oh, yes, he abhors everything that the Nazi regime did. But I know I can't judge the specifics of his viewpoint toward the past without the chance to read more of his work.

  3. Interesting. Well, let us know.

    I read part of a book by Martha Gellhorn about her travels during wars. She talks about going to Germany where everyone in every town denied they were Nazis or sympathized with the Nazis.

    She got very suspicious of all of the denial. And none of them did anything to help Jewish people inside Germany.

    Her description upon visiting Dachau right after its liberation upset me so much that I had to skip some of it. Some amazing people survived for 10 or 12 years and were mentally sound. Others were not.

    I remembered that people who were the Nazis political opponents within the Reichstag were arrested after the Reichstag fire. Many of the Nazis opponents were sent to Dachau.

    So, for those arrested that year, 1933, not liberated until 1945, that was a 12-year sentence. Amazing people if they survived with their minds intact.

    1. Yes, Gellhorn was so gutsy and willing to endure whatever hardships she had to.
      It is a wonder that people imprisoned there for 12 years managed to survive, not to mention all the other people whom the Nazis tried to annihilate there and in other concentration camps.