Obituary: Wolfgang Koeppen

Economic miracles were not the only kind of miracle that occurred in Germany in the 1950s. At the very end of the decade and within little more than two years many of the writers who came to dominate German literary life - Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Gunter Grass, Uwe Johnson, Martin Walser - published, to great acclaim, their first books. It was not the first time that a young generation snatched the limelight, sidelining an older generation.

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week