Hall in the Bautzen prison. Drawing by Walter Kempowski, inmate.

Reviews A German who has traveled far. The man behind Echolot

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 53, Vol I:I, 2008
Published on on februari 17, 2010

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ROSTOCK HAS PRODUCED one of the twentieth century’s most original authors. Walter Kempowski (1929–2007) grew up here, and he returned to the town in more ways than one. His family had interests in the shipping industry, endorsed Christian-conservative values and rejected Nazism as an ideology. During the final stage of the Second World War, when the German Reich was disintegrating, Kempowski miraculously avoided being enrolled in the army. During the first post-war years, he drifted around the part of Germany that was under Western occupation. While visiting his home town in 1948, he was apprehended by the East German authorities and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment for espionage. He served eight years of the sentence — in Bautzen, where the Communist prison regime was particularly severe.

This gave him a late start in life. He was thirty years old by the time he graduated from senior high school. He thereafter qualified as an elementary-school teacher, with a radical, ”reform-pedagogical” work-method. This remained his profession for a couple of decades, paralleled by an increasing production as an author. Kempowski’s initial success as a novelist was nourished by his own family history. The publication of a grand family chronicle, stretching over several volumes, makes him the foremost portrayer of the German bourgeoisie. The chronicle covers more than one hundred and fifty years, up to, and including the final defeat in the modern war, which left the bourgeoisie feeling both defeated and humiliated — was not the war to a large degree the result of their own industrial efforts? Kempowski tried to understand frames of actions and patterns of reactions: his critics spoke of an apologia based on ”trivialization” — Verharmlosung.

HE HAD ENOUGH PUBLIC success to make him throw himself into new projects, spanning many genres: from pedagogical handbooks to radio theater. He appropriated the technique of collage with delight, so that many, contradictory voices might be heard. In literature, this was scarcely innovative: Dos Passos had done the same within the art of novel-writing, as had Walter Benjamin in, for example, his Passagenwerk. But Kempowski was more daring, more systematic. Through a process of public collection, he created an archive of tremendous proportions, consisting of diaries, correspondence, unpublished autobiographies and other documents left behind by eye-witnesses to events, epochs and environments. The author’s task was to arrange and sort the material, making it into a comprehensible whole.

The material proved very useful; it was more than adequate, providing material for research efforts other than Kempowski’s own. The great Echolotsuite (1993–2005) consists of linked, unannotated witness accounts by both well-known and unknown contemporaries. These describe important series of events taking place during the Second World War: the march on Moscow and the Leningrad siege, the battle at Stalingrad, the Third Reich’s final struggles and the mass flight from East Prussia as the Soviet army approached. The project would scarcely have been so successful and have such a singular impact had not the author himself been a habitual, not to say compulsive, note-taker who recorded everything that passed before his eyes. Notepads were his tools of trade; by zapping he could later construct precisely reproduced sequences of micro-time and a current reality, of created contemporality. Fiction and humanistic science met in Kempowski’s method. Cross-fertilization took place.

DICK HEMPEL’S BOOK is an excellent introduction to a recently concluded life’s work. It provides a journalistic overview rather than a literary analysis. Hempel places Kempowski in a socio-intellectual context, where he often found himself playing the role of outsider, Aussenseiter. He did not choose this part himself. It was, rather, a leftist literary critique that had difficulties swallowing a view on society that differed from its own. The chapters on the years of youth and imprisonment in a grim North Germany are among the book’s best. These are, to a large degree — and entirely in Kempowski’s spirit — based on interviews, letters and diaries. ≈

+ Dirk Hempel. Walter Kempowski – Eine bürgerliche Biographie. Verlagsgruppe Random House (2007).