Thursday, 7 August 2008

We Are Sailing - or My First Koeppen

My mum once told me she used to like Rod Stewart’s music until she found out what a dodgy character he was. I have the opposite problem – I’ve just found out what a dodgy character Wolfgang Koeppen was and am put off reading any more of his books.

David, a Reader of My Blog, had suggested that in order to live up to my name, I really ought to read Koeppen. That’s actually easier said than done, in German at least (Michael Hofmann has translated four of his novels into English though). I wanted to leave the choice of book to coincidence, and kept looking out and asking for him in small bookshops. The response was always, "No, sorry – such a shame, but there’s not much demand these days." So when I came across a novel entitled Jakob Littners Aufzeichnungen aus einem Erdloch by Wolfgang Koeppen, I snapped it up, knowing absolutely nothing about it.

Really, it wasn’t a good start. In fact, it could hardly have been a worse start. My edition consists of 126 small pages narrated in a journal-like format in the first person, plus a brief foreword by Koeppen and an afterword by Alfred Estermann. It is the story of Jakob Littner, a German Jew, and how he survived the Holocaust in the small town of Zbaracz, now in the Ukraine. Reading it was a hard slog. It gave me nightmares. It occupied my waking mind wondering whether and how to write about it here. I found it difficult to judge such a horrifying testimony, especially the part that takes place in the eponymous hole in the ground, as a novel.

Usually, memoirs like these are written in a sober, near-objective tone. German-speaking culture has reached a consensus that this is how these things are done, avoiding any excess emotion and presenting the bare facts, which are shocking enough as it is. But in this case, the book claims to be a novel. In his very literary foreword dated 1991, Koeppen provides his explanation of how the book came about. A “man from a German hell” came to a publisher. He was “once a respected citizen of his city … then a Jew who was … tortured in ghettos and extermination camps…” According to Koeppen, the man told the publisher a few places and dates and wanted an author to write his story – and that author was Koeppen. “I … wrote the story of a German Jew’s suffering. Then it became my story.”

As it turns out, though, that wasn’t quite the case. The very revealing afterword tells the story of the book. First published under Jakob Littner’s name in 1948, it sold only a couple of hundred copies. But then Wolfgang Koeppen got famous, and it was rediscovered and republished under his name in 1992. Contrary to Koeppen’s version, Littner had actually written an entire manuscript, which Koeppen had edited liberally, polishing the style. Ten years after the second publication, this original version was published in English translation under the title Journey Through the Night. A new edition of the Aufzeichnungen was published the same year, with the addition of the afterword. Koppen, meanwhile, never had to face the music, as he died in 1996.

I found two excellent essays on the whole subject online, one by Arnold Heidsieck (pdfs in German and a shorter English version) and one comparing the two texts (in German) by Marcel Atze. It seems that Koeppen did make wide-ranging changes, adding and taking away certain elements but also leaving some of the text unaltered. Probably the most significant addition is the closing passage, in which the narrator (or Koeppen?) suggests that only God can judge the perpetrators, “and may he show clemency in his judgements where all human mercy would be out of place.”

Can you imagine why the whole experience has put me off? Koeppen repeatedly alluded to Littner as a “stamp dealer” (he was in fact a very successful wholesale philatelist), revealing yet more arrogance in his condemnation of his writing style. So the first time around, the young author was strapped for cash and pretty much butchered the guy’s manuscript, at which Littner was not amused – but it was published under his name anyway. And then, an ageing writer with a reputation to protect, Koeppen passed it off as all his own work – claiming he had been paid in food parcels and imagined up a novel out of three pages of notes. He obviously never bothered to reread the thing, though, or he wouldn’t have written that Littner had been in extermination camps – as he wasn’t. Koeppen even claimed to have spent time hiding out in a cellar himself towards the end of the war – a gross misrepresentation to say the very least.

So, like Atze, I’m not all that bothered about whether the Aufzeichnungen are a new piece of literature or “bordering on plagiarism” (nice euphemism there, don’t you think?). However I choose to see the book, its history gives me the impression of a thoroughly dislikeable, arrogant and dishonest author. And while that’s nothing unusual in itself (insert all manner of examples here), in this case I think bolstering one’s personal legend on the back of a Holocaust survivor does cross a certain moral line.

That’s not to say nobody else should read Koeppen… there are plenty of people who still enjoy Rod Stewart’s tunes, despite my mum’s antipathy for the tartan-clad father of seven and model railway enthusiast. But I for one have inherited that inability to uncouple artists’ lives and morals from their work. I doubt I’ll be troubling booksellers for Wolfgang Koeppen in future, despite many glowing recommendations.


Tom Cunliffe said...

I didn't know Rod Stewart was all that bad!

By the way, I am just reading A Paragon of Virtue by Christian von Ditfurth and am enjoying it immensely. I am just wondering if you have written anything about this author?

kjd said...

Hi Tom,

I can't stand Rod Stewart myself either but there you go.

I've never written anything about Ditfurth, as I didn't know anything about him until a few hours ago. But he seems very prolific and the book has got some really great reviews - plus I know the translator Helen Atkins!

Do you know the international crime writing websites in my links on the left? I think Eurocrime is really good.

David said...

So sorry your Koeppen experience was unpleasant. I agree he was something of a "dodgy" character. But then so were Benn, Grass, Juenger, etc.

"Tauben im Gras" , "Das Treibhaus" and "Tod im Rom" are great novels and should be read by anyone interested in postwar German fiction.

kjd said...

You're right, David, of course. I suppose the twentieth century made it more difficult for Germans not to cross moral lines. I found the whole Günter Grass thing really alienating, and now Strittmatter...