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Back Catalogue #1 Wolfgang Koeppen, “Tauben im Gras” (1951)

Back Catalogue, Wolfgang Koeppen, Tauben im GrasAn exercise in memory

We like to call the classics “timeless” to signify their continuing relevance, but newer books, in a way, are just as timeless, because they exist in the eternal present of the publishing industry, a here and now with no width or depth. In our attempts at a balanced literary diet, we strive to catch up with the old and keep up with the new (good conversation requires that we do both), but we have little energy to spare for the not-quite-recent, the formerly-latest and the kind-of-classic. In fact, we generally have no idea what happens to once beloved books when they are sucked into the past and disappear from our radars. Browse the sales charts from 25 years ago and you will see for yourself. Of the ninety-nine English language novels that Anthony Burgess indicated in 1984 as the best since 1939, up to 30% are now strangely unfamiliar to the average public, and probably out of print abroad. When did you last enjoy a chapter from Władysław Reymont or Frans Emil Sillanpää? They happen to be Nobel prize recipients.

Admittedly, interesting new books are published every week, and nineteen out of twenty will unfailingly escape our notice. Plus, the overproduction of talent has been going on for decades, more or less since the late nineteenth century, for better or worse. This gargantuan stash of lost occasions and fateful encounters that never happened is the belle au bois dormant of our life as discerning readers, a limbo of unfathomable, unpredictable bliss awaiting (re)discovery. Between the stagnant present of the established canon and the ever-shifting present of current gossip and reviews, past the province of best sellers and reprints, lies a mythical region of untold richness and variety: the kingdom of novels that used to be cool, influential, prominent or simply exciting, but few now care to remember. Works of art needn’t be eternal or smell of fresh ink to claim our attention: just as being new is not a quality, being forty or sixty years old is not a disgrace. Not all glory wanes for a reason.

Language barriers and national tastes add to this confusion. Some books have strange résumés indeed: cult novels in one or more countries; virtually non-existent anothers. No major works by Julien Gracq are currently in print in Italy, while in nearby France some of them are practically compulsory readings. Bolesław Prus’s sprawling masterpiece Lalka/The Doll (1890) has been unavailable this side of the Alps since the 1960s. These examples are not fortuitous: Italy’s publishing industry is notorious for translating just about everything there is and then forgetting all about it. To varying degrees, other countries exhibit the same kind of selective amnesia. Aren’t readers missing out on something?

Back Catalogue. An exercise in memory is a virtual collection of great novels of uncertain standing, an imaginary bookshelf of lost or partially forgotten European masterpieces, a meandering journey through the literary archives of the last 100 years. If you wish, a tribute to a fragile cultural past squeezed between two invasive presents.

Wolfgang Koeppen, Tauben im Gras (1951)

Wolfgang Koeppen, Tauben im GrasA good place to start would be Wolfgang Koeppen’s Tauben im Gras, one of postwar Germany’s best-aimed shots at a popular avant-garde novel (although nowhere as successful, in the same league, as Günter Grass’s slightly later Tin Drum). A mandatory reading for German students in school, it has never been translated into Italian, and the French edition has not been reprinted since the 1953 original run. A strictly regional, kraut-based specialty? Possibly not, since the plucky American edition has a straight five-star score on Amazon… Marcel Reich-Ranicki has declared Koeppen the most representative German writer of the second half of the twentieth century. Still, he is a virtual stranger abroad. Reich-Ranicki, the alleged “pope” of German literature, is admittedly not an undisputable authority (more like a brilliant cultural entertainer), but his word and experience carry some weight.

Graced with a conspicuously Gertrud Stein-esque title (“Pigeons on the grass alas…”), Koeppen’s first major novel introduces a day in the life of a motley array of German civilians and American soldiers in 1946 occupied Berlin. The war is over, but life goes on, and life requires a constant supply of food, shelter, connections, love, money, and dreams. Desperately hunting for one or more of these things, each character goes about his business in a nightmarish metropolis of rubbles, frustration, rampant racism, poverty, and moral corruption. Paths intersect, destinies and bodies touch, occasions are lost, hopes are thwarted, and battles are fought with varying results – all until nightfall, before a new day begins. A dejected movie star, his nymphomaniac wife, a would-be writer with a creative block, a rich heiress who lives in poverty since her family’s real estates are tenantless, an elderly mogul of literary humanism (possibly a jab at Thomas Mann or T.S. Eliot) on a grotesque lecture tour, an old subservient railway porter, a majestic black G.I. called Odysseus, two children haggling over a stray dog…

The novel is a montage of fragments alternating each character’s vicissitudes in a subtle narrative counterpoint. Structurally, it is a highly ambitious construction, with as much as twenty or thirty stories going on simultaneously, but the reader, provided that he pays a modicum of attention, never feels lost (or more puzzled than he needs to be). In fact, individual threads are illuminated, not muddled, by each successive intersection. Koeppen’s crystal clear German helps matters a great deal. Floating stream-of-consciousness segments are legion, but the language is elegant and level, with occasional moments of Faulknerian obscurity, in a sharp contrast to the intricate formal pattern. Each character’s point of view is embedded in recognizable “voice”. Koeppen knows that you cannot be technically extreme at all levels at all times, and provides a challenging but rewarding reading experience.

In a way, it is easy to see through his game. On the one hand, he is unabashedly doing the Joyce thing (history of a day, a few characters named after mythological figures, lots of free indirect speech etc.); on the other hand, he has gleaned advanced techniques from Dos Passos and Faulkner, possibly through Heinrich Döblin, and he is not afraid to use them. When all is said and done, however, the result is original, organic, polished and nothing short of brilliant. Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero meets Ulysses.

Koeppen has a gift for striking and meaningful images. Colored American G.I. Odysseus’s portable radio, constantly booming cheesy pop songs that resonate with the dreary situations the soldier encounters while he is royally cruising through the city. The PA system breaking down while the elderly European intellectual half-heartedly delivers his pompous speech about values. The stoning of the black soldiers’ barracks by a mob of formerly Nazi, beer-guzzling Germans. The poor girl from a rich family carrying valuables and jewels in a plaid quilt to sell or pawn her precious heritage for peanuts.

A powerful, poignant, and exceedingly well-written work of high literary ambitions. A moral tale without a hint of rhetoric, all tendons and no fat. They no longer make ‘em like this. Or reprint them much outside Germany, as it seems. 

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