Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Reading group: All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski

Everyone present loved this suggestion of Doug's, Walter Kempowski's 2006 novel set in 1945 East Prussia as the German army retreats from the Russian advance and refugees begin to trickle and then pour from the occupied lands.

Sealed off from the growing chaos in their rundown rural mansion, the Georgenhof, the remains of an estate now largely sold off, is the semi-aristocratic von Globig household: a dreamy young wife, Katharina, known as a beauty, whose army officer husband is away in Italy requisitioning goods for the German army, her introspective twelve-year-old son, a spinster relative who acts as housekeeper, and their few Polish and Ukrainian servants. Unaware of the military threat, and of the slyer threat from their envious Nazi neighbour, Drygalski, the 'kind of deputy mayor' of the new housing estate across the road, the von Globigs merely watch curiously as the processions of refugees pass the house, and make no preparations to leave. Their peace begins to be broken, however, by a series of travellers who call at the house from out of the surrounding snow, and when Katharina is asked to harbour a particularly mysterious stranger for one night, their fate is set.

Doug said - to murmurs of enthusiastic agreement - that he thought the book brilliant. It begins in a mode that at first seems old-fashioned, with leisurely, objective and omniscient descriptions first of the house and then of each member of the household in turn - a mode which does indeed recall the nineteenth-century world from which the von Globigs have failed to be woken. Yet there are strange repetitions that do not belong to the polished, patrician prose of an earlier century: in the section concerning one character we will be told a fact that we have already been told in an earlier section dealing with a different character, and in exactly the same words, as though the fact is being introduced for the first time. There is too much of an overall air of authority to the prose for this to be authorial clumsiness. As Doug said, the precise verbal repetition creates a sense of the fateful connections between the characters - such as between the von Globigs and Drygalski - and, at the same time, of their psychic isolation from each other in the situation. As the book proceeds, there is a growing musicality in the repetition, and the novel builds like a piece of music, moving in simple prose through a dreamy tone towards nightmare as the chaos of war overtakes the von Globigs, and opening out to orchestrate a huge cast of characters, the repetitions becoming sinister: Where would they all end up? ; Had it all been for nothing?

Previously to writing this novel, after coming across abandoned papers and photos revealing the unrecorded experience of German people during the war, Kempowski had produced a monumental non-fiction work of witness, and this clearly informs All for Nothing. What had seemed at the outset a conventional omniscient narration about one family becomes a magnificent piece of free indirect discourse giving witness to whole populations devastated by war, moving from head to character's head and out again, breaking down the stereotypes through which they see each other and showing us all of them - Nazi, Jew, German, Ukrainian, Pole - from every perspective in all their flawed humanity.

The book is translated from the German by Anthea Bell, who also translated W G Sebald's Austerlitz (which we also loved). Once again we were extremely impressed by the translation. In particular, as Ann pointed out, the handling of idioms is especially impressive, easy on the English ear whilst never detracting from the German feel of the prose.

In a nutshell, we all loved it. There was one small doubt, which I think all of us shared: although the novel has something of the quality of fable (rather than of the realist novel), we did find the ending, which I won't give away here, psychologically unconvincing and potentially sentimental, though we forgave the book that for its overall magnificence.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here
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