The Nazis, and all that jazz

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The German writer Walter Kempowski’s autobiographical novel An Ordinary Youth (Tadellöser & Wolff, 1971) opens in the Baltic port city of Rostock in 1938. The nine-year-old narrator, also named Walter, is the youngest of three children in a bourgeois family, living a life of comfortable routine. On Sundays the children stroll through the city with their father, who owns a shipping company, while their mother bastes the roast at home. But the veneer of normalcy is thin, with signs of impending war at every turn: the children’s concerts in the city park have a military theme, Walter’s teacher is “always talking about war being glorious and the foxhole being a sacred site”, and Walter’s father broods obsessively on military history. The only counterpoint to this drumbeat comes from Walter’s older brother Robert, a jazz enthusiast who buys banned swing records from second-hand shops and is a part of the rebellious Swingjugend (“swing youth”) counterculture reviled by the Nazis. By the time the book concludes in 1945, more than 400 pages later, the war has eviscerated any trace of the ordinary in Walter’s youth.

Walter Kempowski was born in Rostock in 1929 to a family much like the one described here. He became one of postwar Germany’s most acclaimed writers, drawing on his own experiences in a vast body of work that reckoned with the Nazi past through the lives of everyday Germans. An Ordinary Youth was to become the first book in Kempowski’s Deutsche Chronik (German Chronicle), a nine-volume series published in the 1970s and 1980s. In subsequent volumes he moved backwards from An Ordinary Youth into his family history, and forwards into the postwar era. The series alternated these autobiographical books with what Kempowski called Befragungsbücher, each volume of which comprised a collage of the answers given by hundreds of ordinary Germans to a provocative historical question (“Did you ever see Hitler in person?”, “Did you know what was happening?” – i.e. the Holocaust). Kempowski pushed further into the literary technique of collage in his final major work, Das Echolot (Echo Soundings), published in ten volumes between 1993 and 2005. Conceived as a kaleidoscopic “collective diary”, it compiles a colossal array of material relating to Germans’ experiences during the war, gathered over decades: photographs, journals, letters, memories. Kempowski strikingly eschews any editorial voice, presenting this material without comment.

An Ordinary Youth demonstrates the author’s early interest in collage. It is arranged in small vignettes that feel like a montage of fragments of Walter’s world: advertising slogans and song lyrics mingle with scraps of dialogue, brief descriptions of objects and places, and signs posted in public places (“Swing dancing prohibited!”). Quotes often go unattributed, leaving the impression that they emanate from a sort of collective voice of the grown-up world. While Kempowski never trivializes the gravity of his subject matter, there is a lightness to his narration, a wit in the tension between the child narrator’s keen observations of the world and his limited capacity to interpret them. The book strikes an unusual balance between precise detail and the dreamlike texture of childhood recollected from a great distance.

The world that Walter observes has many varieties of complicity. A few characters are fervent Nazis; most, however, are ambivalent, muddled, grasping for justifications for their choices. These include Walter’s mother, who wants her Danish son-in-law to know that, just because she is German, it doesn’t mean she is a Nazi, yet who reacts defensively to criticism of Hitler. Forced to join the Hitler Youth, Walter rebels against the organization’s expectations and is punitively transferred to its “remedial” wing. A leader lists Walter’s transgressions: “your hair is always too long, you’re never at service, you’ve been sitting in the jazz club and at the café, eating mousse”. Youth jazz culture itself becomes an ambiguous character. At some points the Swingjugend seem genuinely subversive of Nazi ideology, at others as if they are frivolously guzzling desserts while horrors unfold around them.

The jazz music of Kempowski’s youth is also an artistic influence that shows in his writing style: there is the improvisational energy in his narrative collage, his playful weaving of found pieces of language into his own composition. In the original German, the book riffs on language constantly. Even its title, Tadellöser & Wolff, is an invented phrase unique to the private language of Kempowski’s family. Because of its heavy use of such wordplay the book was long considered “untranslatable”; in creating an anglophone version of it, Michael Lipkin has at many points had to act as an interpreter, making the translation itself an additional layer in the collage. Although much of the wordplay has inevitably been lost, Lipkin should be applauded for his suppleness and preparedness to riff on the original rather than sticking slavishly to it.

Walter Kempowski cited Walter Benjamin’s notion of literary montage and Benjamin’s corresponding principle, “I have nothing to say, only to show”, as an inspiration for his work. Throughout An Ordinary Youth the author presents the narrator’s experiences without comment, often to uncomfortable effect. Refusing easy resolution, he leaves readers to dwell in the discomfort of his collage of memory.

Jane Yager is a writer and translator based in Berlin

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