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In a masterful novel of fascism, harrowing lessons for today

Marrow and Bone
By Walter Kempowski, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins
New York Review Books, 208 pages, $16.95

Predictions are difficult right now. But here is what will probably happen. Officials will continue abusing and degrading their offices. The major institutions will do what they were designed to do: provide good service, efficiently, to a few and bad service, inefficiently, to everyone else. Many people will act with bravery, but their bravery will be constrained by the lack of institutional support. Many people will die, meaninglessly.

In six months or a year there will be a flattened curve, a vaccine, a herd immunity. Those who’ve been able to stay inside all day will reemerge. Others who’ve had to keep working outside will continue to live precariously, but at least in less immediate danger. Politicians will brag, or lie, about how they handled the crisis. Political parties, countries, and continents will blame one another.

Comedians will make jokes, gently at first, then more aggressively, and then — whenever the next terrible thing happens — not at all. The rest of the entertainment industry will follow, but not all at once. Television will respond briskly, Hollywood slightly slower, theater slower still. Novelists will be the slowest of all. They will ask themselves the same questions they always do, but more earnestly. How should they turn this recent crisis into writing? Does recency mean they can afford to be more on-the-nose than usual, or more obscure? What of interest do they have to say about the crisis? Doesn’t the very fact that they have time to write imply that their perspective on the crisis is less than vital? Won’t whatever they write be “about” the virus, whether they like it or not? What, in short, is the angle?

Jonathan Fabrizius is looking for an angle. A Japanese motor company wants him to write an article about the People’s Republic of Poland. He’ll drive through the countryside, accompanied by PR lackeys, converting what he sees into his usual discerning prose. At first, Jonathan is reluctant to accept the assignment, but they’re offering him five thousand marks. A trip to Poland will help him finish a different article, and the assignment is a good excuse to get away from his girlfriend for a while. Oh, and he was born in Poland, back when it was East Prussia, to a Nazi soldier and a woman who died in childbirth. He’s unsure what he’ll write, but he knows his article needs an angle — an “unusual angle.”

Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski: The author of the newly re-released “Marrow and Bone” died in 2007. Image by Getty Images

When an English translation of Walter Kempowski’s 1992 novel “Mark und Bein” was published by Granta Books last year, it came with a new name: “Homeland.” The same excellent translation, by Charlotte Collins, is now available from NYRB Classics under a literal and vastly superior title, “Marrow and Bone.” The phrase — which, in idiomatic German, means something like “to the quick” or “to the core” — is sure to be misinterpreted, though misinterpretation may be a part of its weird power. In English, it’s stuck halfway between cliché and vivid image, reassuringly metaphorical and sickeningly literal. One struggles to imagine a better title for this book, in which the characters’ eloquence tends to fall flat and little clichés are always shooting off in ugly directions.

Language, fresh and stale, was Kempowski’s subject as well as his medium. He was born in Germany in 1929, too late to be drafted to fight for Hitler but old enough to be forced into the Hitler Youth (and later, as punishment for truancy, the penalty unit). His father, like Jonathan’s, was a Wehrmacht soldier who died in 1945, but this didn’t prevent Kempowski from cooperating with the Allies after the war. In 1948, he and his brother were arrested for passing evidence of Soviet corruption to American troops. They were sentenced to 25 years; Walter ended up serving eight. In jail, he tried to kill himself. He learned French, read the twelve books in the prison library over and over, and wrote, on pieces of toilet paper, an epic poem. Words offered a way for Kempowski to maintain his sanity in the face of chaos — another cliché, the kind of thing a pretentious idiot like Jonathan would say, except that in Kempowski’s case it happens to be the truth.

After he was released, he kept on writing. It was a strange era in which to become an author, defined by half-apologies and smirking denials. Albert Speer published a bestselling memoir in which he claimed he hadn’t known about the Holocaust, and millions of Germans tried to believe him, because if Hitler’s right-hand man was innocent, then ordinary civilians must be, too. Günter Grass wrote a brilliant, blistering satire of German hypocrisy and began to cultivate a reputation as his country’s conscience. Fifty years later, after he’d won the Nobel Prize, he admitted he’d been a member of the SS.

In hindsight, Kempowski’s early work is remarkable for how deftly it avoids the moral traps that hobbled most of his literary peers. He doesn’t satirize. He doesn’t condemn. Often, he doesn’t comment at all. Two of his most famous works, “Did You Ever See Hitler?” (1973) and “Did You Know About It?” (1979), are oral histories, made from hundreds of Germans’ answers to the titular questions. Both books were bestsellers, and his novels and memoirs were made into movies. Nevertheless, or maybe as a result, Kempowski spent most of his career on the outskirts of prestige. Not until 2006, when he published “All for Nothing,” did he start to get the critical attention he deserved, and the novel wasn’t translated into English until 2015, by which time he was dead.

Anglophone critics agreed on All for Nothing as they agree on few things: it was brilliant, devastating, shattering, unmatched, etc. One reason “Marrow and Bone” hasn’t gotten as much love, I suspect, is that it’s about critics in the most uncomfortable way. Jonathan supports himself working as a freelance writer, which means he’s mostly supported by his wealthy uncle. His house is a jumble of leisure- and working-class signifiers: a Botero painting purchased on the installment plan; a typewriter minus the E; handsome parquet floors under a scuffed linoleum skein. Because he’s interested in being an interesting person, Jonathan likes to collect experiences — he’s always thinking, this could make a good article. His whole world exists to be chewed on, digested, and excreted into tidbits and humblebrags — even his orphandom guarantees him “an unparalleled advantage over his friends … as far as suffering was concerned.” Rarely has a novel so thoroughly trashed the kinds of people whose job is to review novels.

But of course, Kempowski was one of those people — not so irritating, maybe, but always scribbling, financially comfortable, endowed with a certain moral authority because of his childhood circumstances. Temperamentally, his resemblance to complacent, coddled Jonathan is greater than you’d suppose: his first novel, the autobiographical “A Report From the Cell Block” (1969), begins, “At dawn, they pulled me out of my bed. Two of them wore leather jackets. You’ll have quite a story to tell when you’re back on the other side, I thought.” This is, again, exactly what Jonathan would say. Kempowski pokes fun at the writer’s instinct to turn everything into a story, but only because he knows first-hand how powerful and life-affirming this instinct can be. The question is how to use it responsibly — how to turn things into fiction without bending them into an unusual angle.

By the end of the novel’s first chapter, Kempowski has provided a few clues. Jonathan’s broken typewriter evokes Georges Perec’s “La disparition,” a novel more famous for what it’s missing — namely, the letter E — than what it contains. Perec’s father, like Kempowski’s, died in battle in the 1940s; his mother died in a concentration camp. “La disparition,” published the same year Kempowski made his literary debut, has been read as a metaphor for the tragedies of the war, which are too vast to acknowledge directly (in French, a book with E is a book without père, mère, parents, or famille). It’s an extreme version of a strategy many contemporary writers have used when dealing with historical trauma: portraying it as an absence, so that it swells and warps in the reader’s mind. The more trivial the characters’ chatter, the graver the trauma; the greater their failure to engage with history, the blacker history’s nightmare gets. This is Kempowski’s method in “Marrow and Bone”: to fill his slim novel with snatches of World War II (a Nazi’s orphaned son, a journey through Poland, a bunker that will stand for a thousand years) and never permit them a resolution.

All this has a slight schematic ring (and indeed, “La disparition,” may be more fun to write about than to read). Kempowski is too imaginative a writer, however, to allow his book to shrivel into mere intellectual exercise. Few reviews of “Marrow and Bone” have done justice to the crackle of its prose, or the delirious oddness of its tableaux, or the lovely horrors of its similes, which evoke Germany’s violent past while almost never mentioning it outright. Before Jonathan heads to Poland, he strokes his girlfriend’s head, “much as one might close the eyes of the dead,” and she gives him “kisses like fiery little coins.” At a restaurant, the couple dines on “the roasted flesh of rams that had been tortured to death.” Reading the first half of a Kempowski sentence, you can never be sure where the second half will lead you.

Nevertheless, you follow. One reason you do is that Kempowski is funny, and funny not despite but because of the grimness of his subject. He’s a master of the queasy comedy of simultaneity, the way the universe is always pressing together large and tiny things that etiquette prefers to keep apart. At an airport, muzak “tints” the air, while, like some forgotten outtake from a David Lynch movie, a machine squirts “white emulsion” that annihilates “the last surviving insects.” In a similar vein, a “gentle giant” of a ship sails through a harbor — a “splendid sight” — while “in the water, the fish struggled to breathe.” There’s a lot about struggling to breathe in this book about the long shadow of the Holocaust — a lot of sick, funny lines, so that sometimes you can’t help gasping for breath as you read about gasping for breath. Jonathan, whose witless voice Kempowski approximates in free indirect discourse, is fond of telling people how his mother “breathed her last” after giving birth to him. It’s a stale, flavorless figure of speech, unbecoming a freelance writer, and Kempowski earns the right to make fun of it because his own writing is the opposite.

Beautiful writing is not incidental to Kempowski’s view of history in “Marrow and Bone”; it is a form of history. It can also be a kind of rebellion against recent history, which corrupted the German language as it was corrupting German society. Jonathan has a vague feeling that “it was not him doing the thinking … Order was being created in his brain as if in a carousel vending machine,” and one thinks of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” with its portrait of an intelligentsia dulled by its own dry, meaningless words. Or maybe the apter comparison is with a different George. In his 1959 essay “The Hollow Miracle,” George Steiner worried that the German language had been ruined by Fascism — that years of propaganda and violence had settled “into the marrow.” “How,” he asked, “should the word ‘spritzen’ recover a sane meaning after having signified to millions the ‘spurting’ of Jewish blood from knife points? (And what, to jump ahead half a century, was the Bundestag trying to suggest when it founded a ministry for “Heimat,” a word soaked in the Nazi rhetoric of blood and soil, in 2018?)

It shouldn’t, Kempowski answers. No word in his vocabulary has gone entirely untainted by war; no literary genre has, either. “Marrow and Bone” begins with a description of a big, pretty house, all stately calm and finely shaded observations, like something out of a 19th-century novel of manners. Then the next paragraph hits, and we find out the house was almost blown up by Allied bombers. Nature writing, a genre seemingly immune to war, is left with a harsh, metallic rasp: when Jonathan notices a stork swallowing a frog, he wonders what goes on in the bird’s guts: “injection nozzles would leap into action on all sides,” so that “being eaten equated to death by suffocation.” Even when this book isn’t about Fascism, it’s about Fascism.

No book about Fascism should end with foolproof solutions (“solution” being another tainted word). To tell readers that they’ll be able to stop another atrocity by doing x, y, and z is a dangerous comfort, since Fascism is always evolving and one of the best defenses against its mutant forms would seem to be mute, uncomprehending horror, without the salve of “now we know better.” Kempowski spent most of his adult life despising Günter Grass — in part because Grass’s reviews were better, but also, I think, because Kempowski was too wise to play the role of “Germany’s conscience.” In his interviews and books about Fascism he never permits us the comfort of obviousness; he knows that the biggest lie about Fascism is that we’ve learned enough from history to recognize it when we see it.

“Marrow and Bone” is a cruel book in some respects: cruel in its treatment of Jonathan, and cruel in denying him the chance to recognize and outgrow his own foolishness. At the same time, “Marrow and Bone” is not quite a satire, if we accept Guy Davenport’s point that satire is the most sentimental genre, since it needs to know what is right in order to attack what is wrong. Kempowski mocks his protagonist’s cluelessness about the Reich without always knowing what to replace it with, so that sometimes we’re laughing out of squirming recognition instead of disagreement. What’s unique about free indirect discourse, of course, is the mixture of the character’s voice with the narrator’s, and as readers approach the end of this novel the voices become harder, not easier, to keep apart. It’s the ideal form for a work about the Nazi legacy, drawing on Grass’s comedy without the smugness, Perec’s ambiguity without the self-conscious artfulness. The work “Marrow and Bone” most resembles might well be “Gulliver’s Travels,” another semi-satire that follows a wide-eyed, globetrotting fool who seems, in the end, no worse than author or reader.

One risk of Kempowski’s approach is that the characters’ nastiness to each other can be hard to distinguish from Kempowski’s nastiness to his characters. Who, for instance, is the joke on when Frau Winkelvoss, the car company’s publicist, worries aloud about being raped by two “filthy men” on a farm, and then is mocked by the driver, who points out that she’s infertile and doesn’t have to worry about rape? Are we supposed to snort at Winkelvoss, who Kempowski portrays as a shrew, or her clueless questioner, or perhaps both at once? When Jonathan takes a guided tour of a Nazi fortress, he notices a group of lefty students who try a bit too hard “not to get lumped in with the ultra-reactionaries” and, “incidentally,” haven’t heard of the Hanseatic Order, a merchant confederation from the Middle Ages. What starts out as a critique of shallow, image-obsessed socialists (a favorite target of Kempowski’s) ends, or seems to end, with Jonathan the medievalist scolding a bunch of schoolchildren for neglecting their studies. Jonathan’s voice hampers Kempowski’s, and vice-versa — not enough about this character, or Germany at large, is revealed in the friction.

At the close of “Marrow and Bone,” on the other hand, everything is revealed — but to whom, and by whom, we can’t be sure. The result is a bright, terrible mystery of a passage, boasting all of Kempowski’s strengths as a stylist and a moral thinker. It’s an epiphanic stretch of prose about a lack of epiphany, in which the Fascist discourse of the Fatherland becomes comically literal and the clichés of Jonathan’s thoughts finally have some feeling behind them. It’s also a ghost story, so short you could almost miss it — who knows whether it plays out in the author’s mind, the character’s, or someone’s subconscious? The novel’s climax, then, is neither a bang nor a whimper, but a question — and it’s entirely to Kempowski’s credit that he resists the temptation to answer:

Jonathan bent down, scooped up a little sand and poured it into Maria’s medicine bottle. Perhaps a forensic institute could have identified microscopic fragments of his father among the tiny brown, black and quartz pebbles. And that was the end of the ceremony […] The fishermen bent over their boats, and birds flew away and the Wehrmacht lieutenant sank back into the warm mud from which he had been summoned. “That was my son, looking for me,” he whispered to his comrades. And they passed the message on: “His son was looking for him.” And Jonathan thought: My mother breathed her last during the evacuation, and my father was killed on the Vistula Spit.

Polish soldiers guarding the bridge over the Vistula River, which connects Poland to Czechoslovakia, World War Two, Warsaw, Poland,

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