Waggish

Death in Rome, Wolfgang Koeppen

There’s a huge drop-off in big novels of ideas in the Germanic areas post-World War II. Mann, Broch, Musil, Schnitzler, Doblin, Stefan Zweig, and Joseph Roth all oriented themselves around fairly articulable ideologies, some more complex than others. Post-war, there are phantasmagorias like Gunter Grass’s and overwrought character studies like Boll’s, but very little that compares to something like The Magic Mountain. Even Doctor Faustus seems like it’s avoiding the issue.

Wolfgang Koeppen, at least in Death in Rome, sounds the death-knell for the old guard. The ideas are as good as Broch on an off-day, and are better than than Zweig. Koeppen just doesn’t spend as much time on his ideas. The three main characters–a larger-than-life evil Nazi bastard named Judejahn, his son Adolf, who is a priest-in-training, and his nephew, a modern composer–all only have one remotely validated emotion, which is disgust. After making a point about local politics, modern composition, the priesthood, schooling, or any other relevant topic, Koeppen immediately buries it under negative images and recriminations. Koeppen takes pains to paint the three’s only moments of virtue as ones of total inaction.

While they and their fellow Germans aren’t doing anything, for three-quarters of the book, Koeppen’s lyricism sustains a sublime, frozen-in-amber quality, as they all walk through historical Rome. Koeppen is expert at displaying the unmoored thoughts of the most morally culpable people imaginable, Judejahn for being a monster like something out of The Night Porter, and his scions for having anything to do with his legacy. It’s when something does happen that the book falls apart, since no plot can live up to the transcendent monstrousness that Koeppen deals in.

The ideas, very negative ones, do come through, but are dispatched far more quickly than usual, since the characters are so terminal. That isn’t to say that tje ideas are so different than what went before. Like Broch circa The Sleepwalkers, Death in Rome has a vaguely conservative bent. Aside from the characters, its hatred is directed to Nietzsche and Hegel, who removed simple morality/religion/ethics and replaced it with high-minded, poisonous ideas. But Broch had no problem writing a verbose treatise about the breakdown of decency. Koeppen seems to say that the rationalistic style of Broch, Mann, and the rest is an abscess spawned by amoral philosophers, and that it must be dispatched.

This makes Death in Rome intentionally self-defeating, its message being that the big rational style must go underground in German literature. And so it has. But it also suggests that there is still a continuity of content: the rational arguments live on in disguised and more chaotic form in Grass, Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, and many others. So instead of there being such a clean break of content, it’s more a change of style. Koeppen would never write something like this, from near the end of The Sleepwalkers:

Of course the question is not whether Hegel’s interpetation of history has been overthrown by the World War; that had been done already by the stars in their courses; for a reality that had grown autonomous through a development extending over four hundred years would have ceased in any circumstances to be capable of submitting any longer to a deductive system.

The Sleepwalkers, Broch, pp. 559-560.

But Koeppen would agree with the main point, which is that theories of the end of history lead to amoral chaos.

If Koeppen is acknowledging that the change is in style rather than substance, he’s far more pessimistic and nihilistic than he appears. He is condemning any future German culture without knowing what it is. He anticipates and transcends many of Grass’s more particular arguments about German memory decades later.

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