ALL FOR NOTHING
by Walter Kempowski
translated by Anthea Bell
NYRB Classics, 368 pages
reviewed by Tyson Duffy
Every self-professed American optimist should read the oeuvre of Walter Kempowski—not that they ever will. The chronicler of brutality was never given a fair shake even by his fellow Germans, and despite strong book sales, by literary award committees. Kempowski had plenty of reasons to be angry—angry at his Nazi father whom he betrayed, at what the agonized Sebastian Haffner once called the “moral inadequacy of the German character,” at the literary world for snubbing him, and at every center of power involved in WWII: the Russians, British, Germans, Europe itself.
The triumphant Soviets—without whom WWII could not have been won—were responsible for imprisoning Kempowski as well as his innocent and elderly mother. The Allies, whom Kempowski had risked his life to aid, did nothing to help him once the war was over. He rotted in prison for eight years of a twenty-five-year sentence and never saw his mother again. “Again and again,” he wrote, not long before his death and less than two years after the Iraq War began, “there will be pictures of war and bloodshed, with no end to show in sight. The skyscrapers are already burning.” He must have believed that there was no reliable morality emanating from any single direction, that people—their militaries, governments, communities, and families—are all susceptible to self-serving lies, casual violence, and solipsism, in addition to occasional kindness and unexpected generosity. But while the decency is unpredictable and short-lived, brutality remains constant. This being so, perhaps life really is all for nothing.
Kempowski was a man who walked the middle path, despite outrage from all sides, stepping back to objectively examine the nature of state-sanctioned persecution from its fulminating epicenter out to the blood-spattered periphery, exempting no single perspective. Lamenting the extermination of millions of faceless people in concentration camps is too simplistic, he once suggested, so he decided in his massive compilation Echolot (partially translated into English as Swanson 1945) to include every last letter and diary entry he could find of Germans in the final days of the war—barbers, bank directors, Jews, Nazi officers, Thomas Mann, Eva Braun, Hitler himself, and hundreds of others. These “particles” amassed together in thousands of pages created a psycho-socio-political map of an era, an attempt at recreating what Lionel Trilling would have called the “huge, unrecorded hum of implication” of that particular milieu. He continued this same work, in a different way, in his novels.
“When humanity suffers, it should be recorded in literature,” Kempowski states toward the end of All for Nothing, a novel focusing on the von Globig family and their self-delusions as the Russian incursion of 1945 creeps forward to smash their crumbling Georgenhof estate, leaving all of them dead except for twelve-year-old Peter. Up until then, despite living within one-hundred kilometers of the Russian front, the von Globig family was busy personifying the idealized Nazi family, hanging icons of the Fuhrer around the house and heaping derision on their Polish house workers. But with the husband, Eberhard, off in Italy doing his duty for the Reich, the attractive, flighty, and superficial Katharina von Globig finds herself vulnerable to the persuasions of a local pastor who wants her to house a fugitive Jew for a night. Her decision to do this leads to the destruction of the von Globigs—prison for Katharina, suicide for Eberhard, and orphanhood for young Peter.
This novel is a painting by Bosch or Goya, every sentence a carefully placed stroke creating a beautifully detailed but two-dimensional depiction of life in a violent netherworld.
Nothing about this plot device, however, seems as impressive as the impression of that unrecorded hum of Trilling’s coinage. This novel is a painting by Bosch or Goya, every sentence a carefully placed stroke creating a beautifully detailed but two-dimensional depiction of life in a violent netherworld. The prose is broken up into short sections of a few paragraphs each, descriptive, simplistic, quizzical, and imbuing the writing with an ironic Zen shapelessness. Meanwhile, what seems to be the real heart of the story is carried to the Georgenhof, piece by piece, in a string of transient guests—a political economist, a Nazi violinist, a painter, a band of fleeing refugees. These strangers and their interactions with the von Globig family are described with inscrutable cool, the prose communicating the unique quality of tension and misplaced optimism that must have existed in an ennobled German estate in the outskirts of a nation-state on the verge of collapse.
Kempowski was often criticized for pulling back when insight or judgment was perceived to be required of a character in his fiction, and I must say the criticism is not unwarranted. Although the excuse for Katharina’s unexpected choice seems to be that she was bored and in pursuit of excitement, her decision to harbor a Jewish refugee never comes off as entirely fitting. Would the amoral wife of a Wehrmacht officer living across the street from a Nazi official do such a thing? Would anyone even think to ask her? On the other hand, the most repulsive character of all, the local Nazi tyrant Drygalski, is given his moment of redemption at the end of the book, making a self-sacrifice that comes out of the blue. What are we to make of this? As the great wave of fighter-jet-and-motor-car modernity sweeps across the horse paths of East Prussia, the only casualties are the innocent, the elderly, the oppressed—the youthful Nazi soldiers get to sit around fires, cracking jokes. You could almost be forgiven for forgetting that the end of the WWII was actually a defeat for the forces of wanton evil. Although young Peter survives, he is so traumatized by his experiences that he entertains himself by looking at his dead Auntie’s blood under his trusty microscope, finding it to be a “crusted substance with nothing mysterious about it.” But if you’ve ever looked at blood or any living stuff under a microscope, you could hardly agree with that description.
Kempowski’s novel confirmed for me the bias of the unsafe middle path—when you draw back to view the world of destruction from such a great height, you’re liable to overlook a thing or two about human beings.
Do we live in a world in which admirable deeds are only carried out by awful people, and in which admirable people do nothing at all? It’s not the world I recognize. Kempowski’s novel confirmed for me the bias of the unsafe middle path—when you draw back to view the world of destruction from such a great height, you’re liable to overlook a thing or two about human beings. For one thing, their blood is no crusted substance but full of mystery. For another, the private madness and societal destructions of war do not represent the sole achievement of humankind.
At the same time, Kempowski’s depiction of what war does to a society cannot be brushed aside, its stubborn persistence in life is too central to our species. We are, perhaps, and despite our temporary decencies, a thuggish and warring animal with only self-preservation in our hearts. Perhaps that is true, but, despite it all, it’s by no means provable as the only truth.
I once had the pleasure of having dinner with Eddy L. Harris, the underappreciated American author of Mississippi Solo. He spent his life as the target of abuse from all sides of the American racial divide, particularly for his book Native Stranger, prompting his self-exile to France where he now lives. He seemed to me a kindly, Buddhistic fellow who had done the admirable work of pursuing truth at all costs, a thankless task. I asked him why walking the middle path seemed to be such a controversial choice. “Life is a turf war,” he said, with the tang of strong resentment. Those who presume to walk in the no man’s land between two opponents, critiquing the action on all fronts, can expect to gain nothing in the way of allies and everything of denigration from a polarized public. To be sentimental about this duty would be sheer dereliction, since, as Carl Jung once said, “Sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality.”
Post-1945 Germans couldn’t quite countenance Kempowski’s implicit condemnation of the Nazis, and post-1989 Germans felt he was too soft on them. But there is a certain type of person, like Kempowski, like Harris, who ranges too far from the action to be categorizable in typical literary or social terms. They attempt to see fate and life through the eyes of God. And though, because of this, they may not be quite able to capture the individual goodness and nature of ordinary people and communities, they nonetheless have a message for us. How you respond to that grim tiding depends, unfortunately, on which side of the fight you are on.
Tyson Duffy is a writer, editor, teacher, and translator. He’s a former Fulbright Fellow and a current fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center Writers’ Institute. His most recent fiction appears in the Carolina Quarterly Review. He lives with his wife in New York City.