Imagine, for a moment, a German novel about the final months of the Second World War, an epic tale of national collapse and shameful private defeat, the ruined landscape ribboned with refugees. Now imagine such a book written by a German who lived through those bitter months as a teen-ager, but written with a light touch, almost quizzically, the entire story suffused with an air of speculative detachment. I wouldn’t have thought it could be done. Then I encountered Walter Kempowski’s extraordinary novel “All for Nothing” (New York Review Books), first published in German in 2006, and now available in Anthea Bell’s vital translation.

That light touch is evident from the beginning. An opening paragraph sets a leisurely scene, like something out of Fontane or Turgenev: “The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.” It is January, 1945. We think we know how this confident narrative will proceed, in ample furlongs of classic realism: the imperilled gentry, the advancing Red Army, the wintry trek westward. Kempowski’s novel does contain those elements, but the anticipated stability of the storytelling is impishly subverted on the first page, when the author switches from his description of the house to the people who pass it on the road:

All that strangers driving along the road saw of the place was the main house. They wondered who lived there: why don’t we just stop and say hello? And then with a touch of envy they wondered: why don’t we live in a house like that ourselves, a place that must be full of stories? Life is unfair, thought the passers-by.

NO THROUGH ROAD, said a notice on the big barn: no one was allowed to go into the park. Peace reigned behind the house and in the little park and the wood beyond it. There has to be a place where you feel you belong.

The simplicity—“why don’t we just stop and say hello?”—is disarming, and also feels a bit dangerous, like a child’s interrogative curiosity. Then there’s the question of perspective, and its ironies. Kempowski’s prose has quickly moved from the house to those people who cannot gain access to it. But are these outsiders the implied speakers of “There has to be a place where you feel you belong,” or might this truism just as easily have been voiced by the Georgenhof’s owners? Since we can’t really decide who is speaking, we also feel the presence of an implied third speaker—the author, ambiguous, watchful, wry.

There is intense foreboding everywhere, and little resembling peace reigns inside or outside the Georgenhof. We are in East Prussia (an area that is now mostly in Poland); the victorious and understandably vengeful Russian Army is expected at any moment from the eastern border. Better to be captured by the Americans, one character says, than to “fall into the hands of those subhuman Russians.” Later, someone else nervously asks: But didn’t the Russians behave quite well at the end of the First World War? Bombs fall, not far away, on the Mitkau railway station. Tanks and trucks rumble past the big house. The Georgenhof’s matriarch thinks that their old world now resembles a refrain from that Hans Christian Andersen story: “Oh my dearest Augustin, all’s gone, gone, gone.” For German civilians, there are, or soon will be, two unpleasantly overlapping options: surrender here to the invading forces, or journey westward toward the Reich, and surrender there. “There has to be a place where you feel you belong,” but outside the Georgenhof the catastrophe of homelessness has been set in motion, as ordinary Germans begin the westward exodus, while, inside the big house, bags are already packed, and preparations to leave are being discussed. Should the family join relatives in Berlin, or Uncle Josef in Albertsdorf?

In the book’s opening chapters, at least, life inside the Georgenhof retains many of its customary rhythms. Kempowski patiently introduces us to a privileged, insulated, and politically apathetic world. History will infect this family like a virus, but it is a slow-incubating one. When the air-raid siren sounds over Mitkau, the owners of the Georgenhof never react: “What were they supposed to do? . . . Run into the woods? Yes, but not every night.” The Georgenhof has been inhabited since before the First World War by the Globig family, recently ennobled gentry. The patriarch, Eberhard von Globig, is serving in Italy, an officer in charge of supplies. Left in the house are his beautiful, languorous, and withdrawn wife, Katharina, and their fair-haired, inquisitive twelve-year-old son, Peter. Katharina spends much of her time in what is known as the refuge, a private apartment in the mansion where she smokes, lounges on her bed, and listens to the radio—sometimes to the BBC news, which she finds “both alarming and encouraging.” The household is run by an efficient and eccentric fifty-nine-year-old woman from Silesia, known as Auntie. Her bedroom smells of ripe apples and dead mice, and contains a portrait of Hitler. Working under Auntie are two Ukrainian maids, Vera and Sonya, and a Pole named Vladimir, who has the letter “P” embroidered on his uniform.

Life in this little universe stumbles on. An aged schoolmaster, Dr. Wagner, sweet-natured and a bit of a bore, comes every day to tutor young Peter. (“His beard made him look like someone you felt you knew.”) Katharina takes the carriage into Mitkau, to get some new books, and to spend time with her friend Felicitas, who is pregnant. Peter builds a snowman, which “bore a certain resemblance to the Führer and Chancellor of the Third Reich.” Opposite the Georgenhof is a new housing development, built in 1936, whose unofficial deputy mayor is a man named Drygalski, a jackbooted Party member with a Hitler mustache. Bitter, full of petit-bourgeois resentment and genuine grief (his son died fighting in Poland), Drygalski is suspicious of the entitled and aloof Globig clan, and has been watching them for years. The Globigs, in turn, laugh at him, as a jumped-up local tyrant. And there is the politically defiant Mitkau priest, Pastor Brahms, who is revealed to be part of an underground resistance group: “The pastor . . . was a doctrinarian who sometimes, when something like extra sausage was being considered, unexpectedly came out with very old-fashioned principles.”

A dark finale is building, barometrically. A series of unexpected visitors jolt the Georgenhof world; they are harbingers of a general exodus that will eventually include the Globigs. A political economist (and avid stamp collector) is on his way to Mitkau, and takes shelter for the night. He asks his hosts if they saw the fires burning last night. (He also steals a stamp.) He’s a liberal; a more conservative guest is a violinist who has been entertaining the troops, and is trying to get to Danzig, where her father lives. She disapproves of Vladimir’s bringing in firewood—haven’t we been forbidden to get too familiar with people like this?—and thinks the strength of the German people is “inexhaustible.” Still, she asks her hosts if they possess hunting guns, in order to defend themselves when the time comes. When the members of the household warily discuss the “incautious” Pastor Brahms, they mention the words “concentration camp,” but in hushed tones.

Kempowski gives us a hundred pages of this steady pressure-building—delicately achieved, with a constantly flickering humor—until the barometer breaks. The event that bundles the Globig family out of their house and into the general German experience is precipitated by Pastor Brahms. He asks Katharina if she will house, for a single night, a political refugee, a man on the run. Kempowski’s handling of this episode displays all his deep talents as a novelist—his impartial hospitality to many different perspectives, his shrewd comprehension of his characters’ solipsism, the impurity of their heroism. Katharina, elegant, passive, drifting through an unhappy marriage, is far from heroic. She doesn’t give the pastor an immediate response but goes home and struggles with her hesitancy and fear. When she finally agrees to do it, she is not sure why, and feels that “for a few seconds she became another person.” A vaguely felt moral imperative conspires with her craving for excitement. “I felt a hot thrill of alarm run down my spine” are the words she imagines she’ll use about her adventure once it is over.

The refugee, Erwin Hirsch, is a Jew from Berlin, and has been hiding from his persecutors for four years. Katharina tells no one else in the house; Hirsch spends the night, and most of the next day, safely ensconced inside the refuge. Kempowski treats the encounter with an almost uncanny neutrality. Katharina listens to Hirsch’s stories, and is by turns curious, sympathetic, defensive, perhaps even bored by his repetitiousness. At one moment, she and Hirsch look at a map to see how close the Russians are:

What kept the Red Army from striking a blow? They bent over a map, and realized that the Red Army was less than a hundred kilometres away, ready for the final leap.

Should he wait for them or go to meet them? That was the question. But in this cold weather?

“If I’d stayed in Berlin . . . ”

Go to meet the Russians? Put his hands up, saying, “I’m a Jew!” But suppose they made short work of him, called him a spy and shot him. Or said, “A Jew? So what? Anyone can say that, and we have enough Jews of our own.”

One reason that Kempowski’s interrogative prose has a strange air of detachment is that the words have indeed detached themselves from the characters. Two people bend over the map, each with different anxieties, but who is thinking these thoughts about the Russians? Hirsch, Katharina, Kempowski, or all three? Most of “All for Nothing” is written in free indirect discourse, which is to say that the novelist’s prose closely identifies itself with the perspective and the language of a particular character. But here the questions appear to be voiced by a chorus. The effect is a kind of uncertain omniscience, which allows the novelist not only to move easily among his characters but to blend their thoughts, when need be, into a collective anxiety. It’s a modern epic style. (The Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare uses a similar method in his great Second World War epic, “Chronicle in Stone,” which is set in a city under bombardment, in order to do the same thing: to voice a general anxiety.)

Katharina gambles—for the sake of excitement, really—and loses. Hirsch is later picked up by the authorities, and incriminates her. The police arrive; Drygalski gets to stomp around the Georgenhof, the fine old house having confirmed all his blackest suspicions. And Katharina, beautiful and blank, is taken off to prison. But notice how calmly, with what cold-eyed generosity, Kempowski studies his characters’ very different responses to this disaster. Any event, he seems to say, is always radically privatized by those it strikes. We all hoard our own investments in reality; those investments are generally ignoble, but always particular and individual. Katharina is, at first, dazed, unhurried, and appears not to take her arrest very seriously. The detective who shows up at the Georgenhof finds the whole thing a little awkward, because he’s married to Katharina’s friend Felicitas (who sends her love). The Hesse family, guests who have been staying with the Globigs, care only about their own survival: they ask Drygalski if their official travel permit has arrived. “I wish we hadn’t come here,” Frau Hesse says.

And the two Ukrainian maids? They are impressed by Katharina’s bravery; they didn’t think she had it in her. “But fancy running such risks for a lousy Jew. The women cried, and kept telling stories of all the things that had happened to them. It was a long time since they’d had chocolate to eat.” Monstrous, we think, that chocolate could be more important to them than Katharina’s fate, let alone Hirsch’s. But they are crying because the mistress of the house has been arrested, and now they surely see the homelessness that lies ahead for them: “There has to be a place where you feel you belong.” Kempowski is doing nothing more than showing us that most people quite reasonably think of themselves first. Chocolate is just the novelistic detail that beautifully concentrates this truth.

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