War Recollected In Tranquillity

Walter Kempowski has taken over Gunter Grass's title of postwar German sage

Tibor Fischer

Günter Grass’s reputation has been slowly waning since his moral authority was crippled by the revelation of his SS record, while Walter Kempowski has come up on the outside, running hard for the position of postwar German sage. Born in 1929, Kempowski was only two years younger than Grass, and so was old enough to have a good grasp of what the Second World War meant.

Like Grass, Kempowski was a Baltic boy, and his last novel, All For Nothing, takes place in the vanished territory of East Prussia, now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The action of the novel — first published a year before he died in 2007 and now translated into English by Anthea Bell — takes place not in the much-examined locations of either Danzig or Königsberg, but in the out- of-the-way town of Mitkau, at the beginning of 1945, as the von Globig family, minor gentry, wait to see whether the Russians will    arrive.

I’ve complained about this before, but I find myself doing so again: contemporary German novels just don’t do big stories any more, or if they do, they do them from a distance, in a very relaxed, dreamy, piecemeal fashion. A Nobel Prize winner like Herta Müller, or another more recent immigrant to the Reich, Saša Stanišić, favour vignettes, impressions, the poetic, the peripheral, the fragmented, the nugatory. If you want a straightforward yarn you have to go back to the 1930s and Hans Fallada.

All For Nothing comes with a number of fervent endorsements on the dustjacket. I understand the desire of publishers to obtain money from the public, but I sometimes think it’s unwise to wildly puff up certain novels. Perhaps these are just my preconceptions, but I do expect some bang from a novel, some entertainment.

Perhaps Kempowski meant the opening tranquility of All For Nothing to be the twist. The reader knows the apocalypse is coming, but the characters mostly don’t. The mansion of the von Globigs is the stage for a series of visitors making their way from East to West or vice-versa, who initially have fairly minimal impact on the family; there’s a strong whiff of Waiting For Godot.

Nevertheless, the book has a certain charm, as long as you’re not expecting much to happen. The first half is largely bereft of event, apart from culinary activities in wartime and a discussion (ocasionally tongue in cheek, I’d guess) of what consititutes German culture and character: “The church was the church and Pastor Brahms was thought of as fractious, and a fractious person was somehow very German.”

Kempowski does a good job of chronicling the bystanders of war and history, the mothers, the children, the old, those who have to wait for others to act or things to happen.

But the pace quickens when the chatelaine is persuaded by Pastor Brahms to offer a fugitive Jew sanctuary. And in the last third of the novel, when what’s left of the family have to abandon their home and go on the road as refugees, the drama turns up. All For Nothing is a very slow burn, but it does explode into life in the final pages, admittedly a somewhat depressing life. And the very last page will surprise you.

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