Sunday, May 27, 2007

Wolfgang Koeppen: The Hothouse

Journalist and author Timothy Garton Ash enthused about Germany in a recent essay on the Oscar winning film The Lives of Others saying that, "No nation has been more brilliant, more persistent, and more innovative in the investigation, communication, and representation—the re-presentation, and re-re-presentation—of its own past evils." I was reminded of these words while reading The Hothouse by German novelist Wolfgang Koeppen. It is a little difficult to summarise but there is no mistaking the accusation underlying the disjointed and disconnected montage of images, thoughts and sense impressions which form the bulk of the book i.e. Germany after the war was in a hurry to "move on." Blinded by the "economic miracle" of the post war boom and the contingencies of a nascent cold war realpolitik, the Germans had enveloped themselves in a collective act of willful amnesia.

At the start of the novel Keetenheuve, the middle aged politician and a member of the Bundestag (the German parliament) has just arrived in Bonn to attend a party meeting. His wife has died recently and he seems to be deeply depressed and grieving, even though his relationship with his wife were not so good. He sees the meeting as a final chance to do something for the country and for himself; a way of finally doing something about the "mild futility of his existence." He doesn't succeed in doing anything about it though. Over the course of the next two days the novel charts the process of his mental collapse and psychological dissolution. He feels alienated among the politicians who are more interested in their respective career than real politics. Nobody is interested in mourning the past, everybody is in a hurry to move on and start afresh. He is further oppressed by the willful blindness of everybody to the continuation of the Nazi legacy. He feels the presence of a "Nazi idiom" in the design of the new buildings representing the so-called new Germany. The wheels of the train remind him of Wagner. There are many other similar references to Nazism throughout the novel. It is clear that he is transposing his inner life on to his surroundings and that the basic problem is that of psychology, rather than politics. What he wants is some kind of collective mourning for the past. This inability to mourn, as Freud suggested too in his essay "Mourning and Melancholia," can result in serious psychological consequences. An indeed the novel ends in as gloomy manner as it can be imagined.

This need for "collective mourning" was a theme that W.G. Sebald also returned to again and again in his novels. In his essay "On the Natural History of Destruction" he explicitly criticised the post-war Trummerliteratur literary movement ("literature of the ruins") for its failure to tackle, or indeed in perpetuating the collective amnesia about the recent past. In the essay he was talking specifically about the German victims of allied firebombings of German cities but in his fiction too, he always returns to this theme again and again, and most often victims of Germans. Michael Hofmann in his introduction says that this (and his other two novels on the same subject) were not received favourably by the mainstream literary establishment which was in the favour of "new start" and "clean slate" school of writing. Koeppen lived long but wrote very little mainly as a result of this. Though later he was eulogised by Gunter Grass and Marcel Reich-Ranicki as one of the greatest of post-war German writers. (In fact in Ranicki's autobiography the chapter on Koeppen stands out conspicuously because he rarely has anything nice to say about any of his contemporary authors.)

The Hothouse is often very difficult to follow. It is written in the style of an unbroken stream of consciousness and the disjointed, fragmented prose style takes some time getting into. There were also many references to German politics and culture which escaped me at many places. And as my summary above would have indicated, it is also very, very gloomy. In fact it is downright claustrophobic and oppressive. Reading these German books I was also thinking about how much unhappiness these Germans have brought into this world, both for themselves and for others. But that's a subject for another post. A couple of reviews from the new york times and TLS. There is also a nice introduction by Michael Hofmann who also translated it.


Mr. Waggish said...

There is undoubtedly a strong sense of self-abnegation to Koeppen's work. I reviewed Death in Rome about a billion years ago (I feel old...) and detected what seems like a similar sentiment.

Alok said...

yes, and he wants to see the same self-abnegation in his fellow Germans too. Or at least to see them own their past and negate it explicitly.

I wonder what he would have felt reading this assessment from Timothy Garton Ash:

The Germany in which this film was produced, in the early years of the twenty-first century, is one of the most free and civilized countries on earth. In this Germany, human rights and civil liberties are today more jealously and effectively protected than (it pains me to say) in traditional homelands of liberty such as Britain and the United States. In this good land, the professionalism of its historians, the investigative skills of its journalists, the seriousness of its parliamentarians, the generosity of its funders, the idealism of its priests and moralists, the creative genius of its writers, and, yes, the brilliance of its filmmakers have all combined to cement in the world's imagination the most indelible association of Germany with evil. Yet without these efforts, Germany would never have become such a good land. In all the annals of human culture, has there ever been a more paradoxical achievement?