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Only Doubt Endures: Death in Rome, Wolfgang Koeppen


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French publisher’s cover for Death in Rome, Wolfgang Koeppen

Only Doubt Endures Peter Filkins; Published: January 29, 1995 New York Times

Death in Rome,  Wolfgang Koeppen. Translated by Michael Hofmann. 202 pp. New York: Penguin Books, first published in 1954

Wolfgang Koeppen’s 1954 novel, “Death in Rome,”  (is) the third in a set of novels, including “Pigeons in the Grass” and “The Hothouse,” that brought Koeppen to critical fame in postwar Germany, and is also the last novel he published, even though he (wrote) several travel books since. Such silence would kill many a career, and though Koeppen’s star has never completely faded from German letters, clearly his work has never found the international audience enjoyed by Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll.

For in echoing Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” in the book’s title, he undercuts the modernist notion that art can transcend decadence and decay. The last sentence in “Death in Rome” is in fact a purposeful pastiche of the famous ending of the Mann story, just as the two works share the themes of death, music, sex and the chaos that lurks beneath life’s artifice. However, for all of his reluctance to transcend, much less forgive, the force of history, Koeppen is no less the conscious artist …

Wolfgang Koeppen’s principal characters function as mythic caricatures bled into being by the backdrop of history. There is Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS general and still unrepentant Nazi murderer who now trains soldiers for an Arab state. He has agreed to a reunion in Rome with his sister’s family, which is headed by her husband, Friedrich Wilhelm Pfaffrath, a former Nazi bureaucrat turned upstanding German politician. Judejahn’s son, Adolf, is also in town, having betrayed his father’s whole life by studying to be a priest. And Pfaffrath’s son Siegfried has set out on a questionable path as a composer; his work is having its debut in Rome.

Part of the reason rests in the nature of Koeppen’s vision. His voice, cold, defiant and relentless in its fury at the deadly amnesia he saw emerge from Germany’s ruins after World War II, neither transforms nor imbues the world around him, but rather indicts it. Page by page, “Death in Rome” serves warrant not only on Germany’s past but also on its present and future. The result is not a pleasant read, but that is very much Mr. Koeppen’s point.

These four circle and mirror one another like themes in a musical score, their natures representing what Michael Hofmann sees as “the four quarters of the riven German soul: murder, bureaucracy, theology and music.” Judejahn, the murderer, and Siegfried, the musician, strike the most prominent notes, because the struggle for the soul of Koeppen’s novel is between them. Siegfried is the only one to speak in the first person, and it is he who wishes to compose “a new message for the few who were capable of hearing it,” thus making him seem a stand-in for the writer. Judejahn kills again, however, and even Siegfried feels that “my being here is futile, my speaking to these people is futile . . . my music is futile.” The reader closes “Death in Rome” not knowing whether he has just witnessed a murder or the creation of a masterpiece. The answer is: both.

“The unbeliever’s doubt in his unbelief is at least as terrible as the doubt of the believer,” Siegfried tells Adolf in response to Adolf’s assertion that “if I thought as you do, I would kill myself.” This is the high wire that Wolfgang Koeppen walks … Doubt, however, is the final victor in “Death in Rome,” and the silence that befell Wolfgang Koeppen’s career seems the principal, most tragic result.

Malcolm D B Munro
Saturday 25 November, 2017

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Filed under: Arts, Book Review, Media, Music, poetry, songs, stories

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