Tag Archives: Germany

Marrow and Bone: Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone is a road trip novel rife with a sense of historic reckoning. The tale is set in 1988, West Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jonathan Fabrizius, the centre of this story, is a middle-aged journalist, navigating a middling career. He doesn’t make enough to support himself, but he has an uncle, a furniture manufacturer, who supplements his income with a monthly allowance. Jonathan is a war orphan. His father was a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht who died on the Vistula Spit on the Baltic coast. As for his mother, following a horrendous, freezing journey from the Eastern front in a cart, she died in East Prussia after giving birth to Jonathan. This bare bones story provides Jonathan with his sense of identity, and while the history is murky and lacks details, it has provided a sort of heroic, romantic structure of his past.

As far as suffering was concerned, this guaranteed him an unparalleled advantage over his friends.

Jonathan lives in a fabulous but decaying building which somehow managed to survive the bombing of WWII. His peculiar girlfriend, Ulla, who works part time at the municipal art gallery, also lives there. It would be a stretch to say that they live together, for while their rooms connect, they both block their room’s access with furniture. That’s a statement, so it’s probably more accurate to say they share things together: such as sex and outings. Ulla is fascinated by “depictions of cruelty in the visual arts,” so her “shelves were full of books showing all sorts of Inquisition torture” But she’s also interested in modern atrocities but “none of these terrible images left the slightest impression”on her.

Marrow and Bone

With Jonathan’s relationship with Ulla moving towards a termination (that he’s unaware of) he receives an invitation from the Santubara car maker. The company offers Jonathan a job, a trip to East Prussia. It’s a “test-driving tour for motoring journalists to convince them of the outstanding quality of its latest” car. Jonathan agrees and soon finds himself on a road trip accompanying diminutive harem-pant wearing Frau Anita Winkelvoss, and race car driver Hansi Strohtmeyer.

There’s humour in the Germans’ attitude towards Poland and the Polish. This ranges from amusing (Jonathan, Anita, and Hansi tend to make sweeping, unflattering generalizations) to queasy observations. 

She praised the fact that they’d been able to take a shower in this hotel without a problem and was astonished that all the Poles were so friendly. To us Germans! After what we did to them. A third of the population exterminated and all the towns and cities destroyed.

Along the way to their destination, the three Germans stop at various historic sites such as Danzig and Marienburg which “the Russians had used for target practice.” At one point several groups of Germans converge: the homeland association, and a delegation from Bremen, the “Socialist Pupils Council of the Rosa Luxemberg Comprehensive there to see “what sort of fascist revanchism was being played out.” Touring the sites has awkward moments with the Polish tour guide leaving out “the invasion of Poland by the German Wehrmacht.” It’s entirely possible that members of the homeland association “had been here before, as children, with their school or with the Hitler Youth.” At one point the German tourists see an exhibition of concentration camp drawings, and the “homeland association slunk past these,” while a teacher “perked up” and yet another tourist, who had been imprisoned in Dachau wants to move on. 

The book, with dark humour, examines how these Germans ‘deal’ with their history and “the business with the Jews.” Frau Winkelvoss has definitely moved on from “all that Jewish stuff,” and her ignorance shows. Another major theme is human suffering as spectacle. The characters here are removed from human suffering–it’s a thing of the past, history or even Art. 

In Stutthof they had a pleasant surprise, as Hansi Strohtmeyer put it: the concentration camp was shut. 

At one point the three travellers visit Hitler’s Bunker, and again, Jonathan, while the most informed of the three, seems to lack understanding of Hitler’s psychology. This is in many ways a book that deals with our ‘roots’ and confronting our personal and national mythologies and history, and for Jonathan, finally, the trip has an unexpected emotional impact. 

Review copy

Translated by Charlotte Collins

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Confusion by Stefan Zweig

“Since that evening when the man I so venerated opened up like a shell that had been tightly closed and told me his story, since that evening forty years ago, everything our writers and poets present as extraordinary in books , everything shown on stage as tragic drama, has seemed to me trivial an unimportant. Is it through complacency, cowardice, or because they take too short a view that they speak of nothing but the superficial, brightly lit plane of life where the senses openly and lawfully have room to play, while below in the vaults, in the deep caves and sewers of the heart, the true dangerous beasts of passion roam, glowing with phosphorescent light, coupling unseen and tearing each other apart in every fantastic form of convolution? Does the breath of those beasts alarm them, the hot and tearing breath of demonic urges, the exhalations of the burning blood, do they fear to dirty their dainty hands on the ulcers of humanity, or does their gaze, used to a more muted light, not find its way down the slippery, dangerous steps that drip with decay?”

Stefan Zweig’s novella Confusion is a frame story narrated by a sixty-year-old professor, who at the end of his career in the Department of Languages and Literature, is presented with an “expensively bound” collection of his published works. The professor, Roland, notes that while the articles, no matter how trivial, are organised like a “well-swept staircase,” in reality, his life has not been this well-structured. The collected articles present just the surface of Roland’s life and that “missing is the name of the man from whom all my creativity derived.” And then Roland takes us back to his mis-spent youth

A young Roland, the son of a headmaster from a small Northern German town, is sent to Berlin to study English. Since he hates books, he’d rather much join the army or the navy, but Roland’s father “with his fanatical veneration for universities” insists that his son should receive an education, so Roland finds himself in Berlin, away from home for the first time. With absolutely no interest in the lectures “a morgue of the spirit,” Roland instead throws him enthusiastically into a life of debauchery. He’s a good-looking young man and he discovers, to his delight, that his female conquests are “cheaply won.” The fun comes to an end, however, when his father comes to visit and discovers that his son does not attend his lectures. Roland is sent away from Berlin to attend university in a small provincial town in central Germany.  

Roland is expecting more of the same–in other words, he expects to be as bored in his new location as he was in Berlin, but to his astonishment, when he tracks down his Professor of English, instead of finding a dusty old dinosaur, he finds an older man with a vigorous mind and a deep love of Elizabethan literature, a man whose lectures are so infused with enthusiasm, that his love for his subject is contagious. Roland finds his professor “curiously challenging,” and for the first time in his life, he felt a “superior force,“–a man he wishes to emulate.

In no time at all, desiring to be closer to his idol, Roland takes a room in the same building as the professor. There are some days and some evenings when the two men enjoy energetic discussions, but then there are periods when the professor disappears only to reappear days later rather the worse for wear. The professor’s much younger wife is always excluded but nonetheless she manages to lurk in the background when Roland visits his mentor. Is she jealous? Does this explain why she eavesdrops on their conversation?

For most of the novella, we see Roland as a young man, a confused young man–a man who doesn’t understand his emotional responses to various situations. While the big mystery here is just what the professor is up to, it’s fairly easy to guess the answer before Roland arrives at any conclusions, but the interest in the story comes not from the mystery behind the professor’s behaviour as much as it’s derived from Roland’s youthful and naive responses to the various difficult situations he encounters. This is essentially the story of how a young man matures and sees that his idol has feet of clay. Who cannot identify with this story? Who hasn’t admired someone formative only to discover that they are not the ‘perfect’ construct our imagination has created?

One of the elements I enjoyed about the novella was its buried sexuality which appears to come not only from young Roland but perhaps from Zweig himself:

We live through myriads of seconds, yet it is always one, just one, that casts our entire inner world into turmoil, the second (as Stendhal has described it) the internal inflorescence, already steeped in every kind of fluid, condenses and crystallizes–a magical second, like the moment of a generation, and like that moment concealed in the warm interior of the individual life, invisible untouchable, beyond the reach of feeling, a secret experienced alone.

And:

I never understood and loved Berlin as much as I did then, for every cell in my being was crying out for sudden expansion, just like every part of that overflowing, warm human honeycomb–and where could the impatience of my forceful youth have released itself but in the throbbing womb of that heated giantess, that restless city radiating power? It grasped me and took me to itself, I flung myself into it went down into its very veins, my curiosity rapidly orbiting its entire stony yet warm body–I walked its streets from morning to night, went out to the lakes, discovered its secret places.

My copy from New York Review Books is translated by Anthea Bell and contains an introduction, which adds greatly to the novel, by George Prochnik. Prochnik tells us of Zweig and his wife’s joint suicide in 1942  and states “the question of how he could allow his much younger and cherished second  wife to follow him into the realm of the shades is the only real outstanding mystery of his death.” The introduction goes into some depth on the subject of Zweig’s literary career, his dread of aging and the fear of having to “live on as one’s own shadows.”  Zweig, who was Jewish, made an “unwise” statement regarding Hilter’s 1930 victory: “a perhaps unwise but fundamentally sound and approvable revolt of youth against the slowness and irresolution of ‘high politics’ .” And, of course, we all know how that ended.

Zweig eventually fled from Austria and began a nomadic existence which ended in his suicide. My impression from other pieces I’d read was that Zweig committed suicide in Brazil due to the continued successes of the Nazis, but Prochnik’s excellent introduction throws a different light on the matter.

Confusion from Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) is part of Caroline and Lizzy’s joint celebration of German Literature month, and thanks to both of them for their energy and enthusiasm in organising this event.

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Baader-Meinhof: Pictures on the Run 66-67

“We lived a sort of armed existentialism.”

Astrid Proll’s book Baader Meinhof: Pictures on the Run 67-77 is for those interested in the Red Army Faction. The RAF is an integral part of West Germany’s history, and as a revolutionary/terrorist group (pick the term you prefer), they were a thorn in the side of German politics for decades. Astrid Proll was an early member of the First Generation RAF. Proll’s “underground time with the RAF … lasted less than a year,” and she was arrested in 1971. When she was released from prison, she escaped to England, and that is probably the reason she remained alive. This book of photographs is a compilation of some significant moments in the history of the RAF.

The photos from the early days are giddy, and high-spirited, but then a photo of the dead Benno Ohnesorg–shot by police during a demonstration–marks the swift change in events. One photo shows the abandoned shoe of Rudi Dutschke after he was shot by a “right-wing assailant.” Later photos include ‘wanted posters’, and prison photos of Ulrike Meinhoff, Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader, and Jan-Carl Raspe.

The final photos are taken from the funerals of Ensslin, Baader, and Raspe after the state claimed they committed mass suicide in their prison cells.

The book includes an introduction by Proll, and these pages include both German and English text. Proll makes some interesting comments and admits that the RAF “overestimated themselves ridiculously … we were self-timers who acted cut off from reality in a void.” If you are interested in learning more about the RAF, I highly recommend the following: How It All Began: The Personal Account of a West German Terrorist by Bommi Baumann, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex by Stefan Aust, and the film, Germany in Autumn.

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