Obituary: Wolfgang Koeppen
Thursday 28 March 1996
Wolfgang Koeppen was one of that older generation - 40 when the Second World War ended, with two novels published and well received in the 1930s. Between 1951 and 1954 he published three more. After 1954, however, he wrote no other novel. Prizes came later, but they never made a public, spotlit figure of Koeppen, did nothing to alter the impression of a writer who, in fiction at least, had long since fallen silent.
Koeppen had hardly seemed programmed for silence. At school in Greifswald - he was born there in 1906 - he was, in his own words, fleeing from life into writing. When he was 15 he stuck a label on his door: "Wolfgang Koeppen, Man of Letters". The commitment was plain enough, but it was threatened by a hesitant, fragile creativity. When Hitler came to power Koeppen had been for several years a successful feuilletonist in Berlin and, whilst out of sympathy with National Socialism, saw himself as one of the writers who "if they hadn't been driven out or imprisoned or hadn't emigrated, clung to hopes that it wouldn't be too bad." He returned to Germany from Holland in 1938, avoided military service and lived mainly from writing film scripts.
Koeppen survived, proud of never having worn a uniform for Hitler. But uncertainties survived as well: "I asked myself what I had been waiting for all those years, why I had been a witness and why I had survived." The self-questioning seems finally to have proved productive - three novels appeared in rapid succession: Tauben im Gras ("Pigeons in the Grass") in 1951, Das Treibhaus ("The Hothouse") in 1953 and, in 1954, Tod in Rom ("Death in Rome"). The timing is crucial - in a country barely emerged from chaos in 1951 it took gifts of both narrative range and focus to characterise a society that was both in shambles and in a vacuum.
In Tauben im Gras, disconnected fragments track a multitude of characters through one day in a German city under American occupation, a city unnamed but recognisably Munich. In a many-toned language Koeppen not only depicts a cacophonous world but peoples that world with individuals whose lives barely overlap. The result documents a uniquely German situation; it also, with its echoes of James Joyce and John Dos Passos, reconnects the German novel at a surpris- ingly early date to modernist fiction.
In the two novels that immediately followed there is perhaps less of the virtuoso kaleidoscopic sweep but there is a no less formidable mastery of multi-focused narrative and a no less sharp sense of the tensions and the overriding futilities in the world of Bonn politics (Das Treibhaus) and in a world where a failed musical vision and an unabated Nazism nightmarishly coexist (Tod in Rom).
The rest was not silence - Koeppen wrote travel essays that earned much praise - but living, as he put it, within a novel made it difficult to write one. Those early unique 1950s had, it seems, uniquely fuelled and directed his imagination: "I wanted to find the climate of the time, the temperature of the day." No one at that time sensed the climate and took the temperature more memorably.
Wolfgang Koeppen, writer: born Greifswald 23 June 1906; married 1946 Marion Ulrich; died Munich 15 March 1996.
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