Towards Better Democracy

Good words, well written, better the world. Good literature betters the world immeasurably.

Only Doubt Endures: Death in Rome, Wolfgang Koeppen

Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 13.06.53

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


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

I exist, don’t I?

Periods of great turbulence often lead to rash encounters, with the result that I’ve never felt like a legitimate son, much less an heir.

Patrick Modiano, Pedigree, a Memoir.


“Who am I, Dad?”

“Well, you’re a boy.”

“But suppose I were a girl?”

“Strictly speaking, you can’t be.”

“But suppose I were?”

“You would have to be like your sister.”

“Suppose I were neither.”

“You would likely have troubles ahead, were that true.”

“I better stay a boy, then.”

“That’s right, son. That’s best.”

The above dialogue of mine captures within a few sentences the essence of what many of the novels and short stories I have read in recent times concern themselves with. The question of identity All of them have been European. The phenomena is worth exploring in greater depths than the present essay attempts to do. In brief  there are many aspects to this question of identity and of the questioning by a speaker of their existence.

I suppose that those of us who have had troubled childhoods, like Modiano, find that the experiences from those childhoods stay with us life long and set us apart from others who do not have the knowledge of what is to be the product of an unhappy childhood. There is merit in this, though. Just as Patrick Modiano illustrates in the quotation at the head of this essay, those us with such a background have stories to tell. The book that this particular quotation comes from is, as his title states, a memoir. Nevertheless, Modiano has told mostly stories. In fact, he as spent his life writing them.

As he says of this particular book, he couldn’t write an autobiography. (It is episodic rather than a continuous narrative.) I don’t think I could either. My memory blocks both the pain of childhood and of the accompanying difficulty, or impossibility, of functioning properly as an adult since that time .

I have not known of Modiano’s work previously. His books have not much over the years been translated into English. I understand, though, he has had a coterie who have read him assiduously despite that. For some reason he is now hitting the book shops, not unconnected, no doubt, with the fact that, in 2014, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. There are four titles of his on the shelves of my local independent bookstore, from no less than three publishers. This particular title is seeing the light of day in English ten years after being published in French.

I had recently purchased a book of Guatier’s poetry, bilingual thankfully, published in a series by Yale, The Margellos World Republic of Letters, and somewhat desultorily was searching their site to find other books in this particular series and stumbled over this memoir of Modiano’s,  with its startling observation on the first page, quoted above. You can’t possibly read such a quotation without going out right away to get the book.

Modiano and I have a similar background by way of childhood experience. Only the incidentals differ from any kind of accordance. He was born, as I was, in 1945. His parents met during the war which leads him to make the observation he does. He began writing in 1968, four years after I left high school. Our backgrounds could not be more different though, quite apart from him being French and me English, or British, whatever that means.

What drives me to write is the realisation, something along the lines of what Tolstoy wrote, that all happy families have the same story to tell, and unhappy families each have a different story to relate. I think of Dirk Bogart’s memoirs (A Postillion Struck by Lightning, 1977, among others) which appears to be filled with a happy upbringing, and a largely happy life. Kenneth Clark, based on his biographies (Another Part of the Wood (1974) and The Other Half, 1977) seems to me to have also had such a life. With no disrespect to either individual, they each appear to have only one story to tell.

Writers such as Modiano have a host of stories to tell as witness his large output; some thirty works. What propels this ability to tell other people’s stories I can’t say without some reflection. Of course, these stories are fictional. But they have to be based on what the writer has observed. Perhaps the humility which comes from the very experiences they have had as children shapes their outlook on life; to see others, to see the suffering of others, from whatever perspective they choose.

In reviewing and reflecting, on the lives of the writers I have known through my reading of them, I am struck by the extraordinary number of them who have led troubled lives and, perhaps more importantly, the sheer number of them who committed suicide. This appears to be true whether one looks at US, UK or European authors. How such writers wrote from the depth of pain that they clearly felt on a daily basis quite eludes me. The psychology of the drive to express their lives through the written word and through the doings and peccadilloes of the characters they created is certainly worth studying. And driven to write the overwhelming majority of them clearly were.

This is not to say that only troubled people write, though, truth to tell, most people who are troubled don’t write.

Do we ever know the lives of others? Of those around us who patently lead distressed lives? However much we listen to such people, what comes out of their mouths or is emoted by their behaviour, does in no way lead us to have any insight to their internal selves. Those lives are remote and removed from us. We, each of us, is only aware of our own inner landscape.

I cannot report other kinds of creative artists. I can only speak of writers because it is they whom I know best.

The value to us in our modern age is reading of the inner lives of others. I guess that, among other reasons for valuing the work of writers, is their ability, unique ability, to write so authentically on the inner life the characters they create. No other medium does this. This might be termed the preoccupation of the angst that appears to be attendant to our times, at least since the end of the First World War, if not slightly before that.

Modiano’s particular preoccupation appears to be with identity. This is surely a vexed phenomena, this question of who we are in relation to the external world. Certainly, writers in previous eras have given us internal monologues. But these almost always were, or are, running commentaries on what that character observed or heard. This device was supposed to tell of the character of mostly the protagonist. Even that approach to writing has been relatively recent given the aeons over which the writing of people on the page has existed. The greatest part of the history of fiction, and one would also have to include tales such as those written by Homer and his like, have been external to the characters. One does not have access to their inner lives, other than what they say. I mean it is unlikely that, whoever the original story teller was, witnessed what he or she wrote of.

Throughout that long history the greatest concern has been with plot. Who did what to whom. And many writers continue to write in this mode.

However, the writers most venerated in our time are those whose works are all  but plotless. Those books that might have no other character than some invisible speaker, or simply a stream of consciousness reported by an omniscient observer. An interminable river of thoughts, if that is what they are. One wonders if such works would be possible were it not for Freud. It has to be said, that were we to go sit on a mountain top and to live away from what we laughingly call society in a sort of backwoodsman’s kind of life, I doubt that we would have any identity crisis at all. One does not read of such people taking their own lives. Perhaps such lives force externalisation. In cities though, especially the major cities, this existential crisis seems to be something of a common occurrence.

So how is that writers such as Patrick Modiano can write so successfully of the internal lives of their characters? Is it a matter of projection of their own internal lives? But that can’t be. Those of us who live in maelstroms have little insight into ourselves. We simply try to survive each day. Some more successfully than others. And stay at home, lying in bed when it gets too bad. It is said that writing is a gift. That you can either write or you can’t. There is nothing in between. I suppose there are bad writers. Heaven knows I have read enough of them. Or, at least, tried to stay away from them most of the time.

Writing often speaks of a felt sense. How this can be taught to others?. Perhaps writing courses are sort of feel good communities. An Alcoholic’s Anonymous for those addicted to the vain and difficult world of trying to write. And it is difficult. Writers such as Modiano only make it appear easy. It is said to be a craft. And that may be the best that can be said of it. What drives a writer like our subject will likely remain a mystery. One thinks of Colette who knew from the age of eight that she would be a writer.

Much that fascinates us cannot be answered: the why, the how. So, the product of writers like Patrick Modiano may fascinate. Understanding how that world is created may always elude us. That doesn’t stop us trying. Whole industries of academics exist to attempt to answer such questions and churn out endlessly, year after year, turgid, impenetrable tracts read only by their fellow industrialists.

The rest of us prefer to read the real thing. The work itself rather that essays about the book, like this one. We would rather continue to be fascinated. After all, I exist, don’t I?

Malcolm D B Munro
Thursday 10 November, 2015

Filed under: Arts, Book Review, Current Events, history, Media, Memoir, Music, poetry, songs, stories

Invitation to Guest Write on this Blog

I would like to extend an invitation to readers and followers of Towards Better Democracy to guest write on the blog. The problem is that few will read this post so I may have to repeat this invitation in future posts.

The topic can be anything within the ambit of what the blog posts. The exchange between a potential guest and the writer would take place on Drop Box which is easy to use. The folder containing guest writer and myself would be locked with access only to the two parties. 

The writer retains the right to edit the piece or refuse the piece but would not change the spirit of it. The guest piece can be of any length within reason. The guest will retain copyright of the piece and it can be something already posted on the guest’s blog. The guest may call for anonymity but should provide, whether identified or not, a short three to four line bio on themselves where they reside, country only.

Starting point will be the comments column where a potential guest can express interest.

Malcolm D B Munro
Saturday 12 August, 2017





Filed under: Arts, Book Review, Current Events, history, Internet threats, Media, Memoir, Music, poetry, politics, songs, stories

Take the writer

The writer emerging into the profession of writing, in all its many forms of interest to him, with ambitions to make a living from his efforts, wishes to find his voice, that which is distinctive, authentic, and is of his true self. The writer, as a starting point where we explore this topic of emergent artists into their chosen field, written of in previous posts, cannot write at all unless, and until, he has knowledge of himself, and of how he might express it. He is going to make errors, write less successful pieces, some of which are going to jar him and his intended audience alike. You might say this is akin to relearning to play the piano after many years of little or no practice in public. Of course, no one in their right mind would tolerate such a situation. How awful  would be the experience. But a blog is different. Is a public arena where mistakes and fumblings are par for the course. It is the nature of the medium. No one expects every blog writer to be superb and widely sought after, gains a huge and wonderful audience all but overnight. Some write in a manner which appals certain audiences and they will never go near such blog. They may be self serving, written by people who have never grown up and do not wish to do so. Such people cannot be called writers and never will be such. Such people lack self awareness, the first prerequisite of a writer, as noted above.

In writing one learns by doing. No writing school on this earth is going to teach you how to be a writer, far less a good one, never mind a successful one. One does that on one’s own. Should you have the skills and knowledge for writing got from any of those workshops and classes, such tedious things, filled largely by those who want to write but who have no talent nor drive to do so, those rudiments will serve you well. The rudiments of writing, the skills required are hard earned, and workshops and classes serve well to equip a person desiring to write, seriously write: If you have the patience for them and they are led by someone who is competent to do so. You cannot learn this craft from the web, nor from books for dummies. No writer of whatever kind is a dummy.

For writing, like any field of human endeavour, worthwhile activity, is hard work, and the basic knowledge of it, to gain a real footing in it.

One learns by practice just as the pianists. The writing skills are practiced every day. Every day without fail. The nature of the human requires this. Any professional runner, as an example, will tell you this. Now, one does not to be an obsessive driven with a kind of manic insanity, though it may, heaven help such people, but a reasoned, thoughtful approach where one is conscious of what one is doing.

This finding of the voice is not easy. No examples of other writings efforts can serve. They may act as influences but too readily and anxiously taken aboard will result in the newly emerging writing in him or her being derivative, an imitator. This suits some and not others. If such a writer is not ambitious and does not or is willing not, to strive for higher levels, will be content and accept the results of his labour. He sells and that is what matters to him. For no professional writer, let us be clear about this, wish to not gain an income. It may be little and may supplement other income. But no writer, a professional writer worth the name, works for free, or seldom does, only with specific non monetary gain in mind.

As in the mastery of music writing and reading, for the composition of music spoken of in an earlier post, so for the writer. At the very least the use of commas, and all punctuation and the like have to be mastered. No editor is going to tolerate a writer careless or unschooled in such things. Editing any and every writer is already hard enough. Editors work against deadlines, usually with an overabundance of writer with whom to contend. They simply do not have time nor patience for the incompetent. No judge in a full session court would tolerate an incoherent lawyer unable to represent his client. His client would not be pleased either.

One does not wish to extend the length of any post unduly. After all, future posts can carry extensions of the topic. Let us consider the case of a writer who wishes to develop as a fiction writer. Rare would be the case where that writer wrote the equivalent of War and Peace as a first work. Writers usually start small, short stories. The would be fiction writer, if he is realistic, will recognise that the first efforts will be risible and editors will return manuscripts or not at all. Either way the attitude of the seasoned publisher and editors behind them will be, “Don’t waste my time.” They may say, if you are lucky, “Try again later when you have developed your craft.”

Those of who write blogs are lucky, perhaps the word is fortunate. We do not have to write in small, cramped rooms, with little heating, and little food to put upon the table. We can have jobs and live in comfort while we sweat and labour to meet the requirements of that publisher, that editor, who know what sells and what does not.

Every writer wishes to write successful books, books that sell and make a lot of money. For a writer with such goals and aims who does not, I wonder what he is.

Here, in front of you and me, is a remarkable medium. Look at the Huffington Post.

Oh, and patience; the writer learning to write, needs patience, as in any of the arts.

Malcolm D B Munro
Thursday 10 August, 2017

Filed under: Arts, Book Review, Current Events, Media, Memoir, Music, poetry, politics, stories

For a long time I kept my mouth shut

For a long time I kept my mouth shut
For I did not know how to speak my mind
Without using offensive, abusive
Or emotionally loaded language.

Can I speak my mind, now
You bet I can.

Malcolm D B Munro
Saturday 29 July, 2017

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

Chase Bank phishing

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am of a mind to use this platform to inform and warn on Web activity that threatens us.

Tuesday morning I started work early. About 4.00 am CST. Checking the mail in Spam was a thing that looked the spitting image of a Chase email.

“Due to unusual logging in activity your current account has be shut down.”

I read no further. I checked More Details and, loh, the email address looked as if it had come from Mars.

Checking my account, everything was fine and dandy. I hang on the line for a real person. A woman in the Philippines answered. Very pleasant.

“We are so pleased when customers take the trouble to report this kind of activity. This is phishing. (funny name for fraud). Please forward it to:”

As I said in the previous post, please share this email with others. I am certain that Chase is far from the only bank that suffers from this kind of thing.

Malcolm D B Munro
Thursday 27 July, 2017

Filed under: Arts, Book Review, Current Events, history, Internet threats, Media, Memoir, Music, poetry, politics, songs, stories

The Post Scientific Age

The Post Scientific Age

The human species has always exhibited a hubris, enamoured of their gifts and abilities that appear to make us so superior to any other form of life on the planet which we, with them, inhabit. Our hubris extents to our making ourselves in the image of the gods we create and have created back into our deep past.

To be fair, those earlier gods and the mythology we created associated with them was, and is, an expression of the awareness of there being powers far beyond us, far beyond who we are and what we are.

As a corollary to that, we posited, and still posit, the existence of life after death. The view held by many throughout our history right up to the present, is that our lives, as living beings in this world, constitute an existence whose purpose is to prepare for that afterlife. This has been interpreted differently at various points of time and geography, But is a universal. Those who see themselves as godless are mistaken.

With the rise of science and subsequently technology as disciplines in the sixteenth century that hubris has magnified to the point where we imagine that we can know everything and do anything. Our efforts in this direction know no bounds. We have spend vast amounts of money, and effort, as witnessed by the space program to place men on the moon, have built machines like the Large Hadron Collider, have huge qualities of scientists whose sole purpose is to endlessly, extend the bounds of our knowledge and, hopefully, our understanding of the phenomena of which we are aware. Or think we are.

There appear at present to us that there are no limits to what we think we are capable of.

But there are.

Reading Peter Watkins book, Galleos Finger, and impressed what he says, a confirmation was made of thoughts and awarenesses I have always had; that we are bound, that there are limits. We are bound by the space in which we occupy, by gravity and time, and by forces of which we are barely aware. And the fact that we cannot be divorced from the planet on which we live. We need food, water and air in order to survive. In addition, we need some form of protection. Those limits are finite.

As we look out from our planet what we see seems infinite. When we look down through the mechanisms that constitutes the matter and substances of existence, that, too, seems endless. That uncovering one level, no matter how small, has yet another level below that, and so on, ad infinitum.

We posit a Theory of Everything. This is nonsense. We can never propose such a theory for we do not know what everything is. And life is not based on theories. We imagine that we can grasp and hold all knowledge, to understand the totality of existence. This too is nonsense. The Post Scientific Age is that age where we come to acknowledge these truths. The Post Scientif Age emerges as we come to build and share this awareness.

At present we have come to inhabit a world, self created, which is abstract. Whose links, connections, to reality becomes more and divorced from it. The world, that Everything, is not abstract, however invisible some forces seem: weak gravity, etc. Reality is real. That is what the world means. At present we are losing our sense of reality. The sense that we cannot continue as we are presently doing.

Each age, Enlightenment, Renaissance, Scientific, Post Colonial (so called) we ourselves have created. They have emerged from our continually developing awareness and efforts that stem directly from those awarenesses.

But we are sentient beings. The abstract does not constitute the whole of us. What we lack at present is a fuller sense of our humanity in all the dimensions which this might, or does, take.

The centrality of this, this humanity, is humility. An acceptance that we are part of a larger whole, that we coinhabit, we share this home of ours with much else besides ourselves. Such a view, such developing awarenesses do not constitute nihilism as generally understood but an acceptance of a greater reality.

At present, we do not recognise this fact. That there are limits to who and what we are, and what we are capable of, of what we currently think we are capable of.

We are, in fact, in denial of them.

In essence we, for the time being, behave as if we were a disease, a plague, a pandemic upon the planet, our house, our home, heedless of the destruction we wreak.

We are not at peace with ourselves. This relentless manic drive that has us rush ever onwards is a pathology out of sync with life itself. We are a very sick species. Will we recognise this and seek a cure?

In reading this, and those many who will not admit for now the situation , but were to, many will scoff. The man, the writer, speaks, writes, nonsense. Here itself is the denial I speak of. Denial itself is a sickness as any medical person will tell you. Denial makes for unhealthy individuals and peoples. Unless reverted leads to a breakdown and a serious diminishment of the individual ability to function. So, should we as a species continue in our present course will likewise breakdown, lose functionality as generally understood.

This not to say that I am any better than any other, any of you.  I am not. I do not seek to make false claims. Not would I seek to be a self appointed prophet.

Yet what I say is prophetic. It springs from an awareness of where we are headed and the dreadful results that will accrue should we, the larger part, or whole, of humanity, come to share this realisation, each their own way. To become responsible beings in all the senses that that word contains.

Perhaps that awareness will come with the recognition that we will never know everything, cannot know everything. Such a view is false and, ultimately , is impossible to hold. Should we continue to hold this view, we will mentally breakdown. As a species, we will lose our way, will lose our very will, our awareness and become, like those inhabitants of mental asylums, mad. A planet of full of mad people who lack sense of who they are, where they are, and what they are doing from one moment to the next.

Perhaps though, a body sufficient to draw the attention of others and bring us to our senses will, is, emerging.

This article is titled The Post Scientific Age. This age will be characterised by the simple recognition that we cannot continue as we are doing. That science (and technology) has a place in world, but only a place. That it cannot consume us. That there are sides of life, our lives, our ways of being, which we have long neglected.

Finally, I leave it to the reader, and to those whom they share their views with, to reflect for themselves what this Post Scientific Age may be like, of how it may be. Each reader, if indeed they find any sense contained herein, will reflect and develop their own ideas and comprehension of the impacts of what I speak. They will make these their own. Different from mine, but similar. For surely, we , willy nilly, are entering this new world. This transference to a Post Scientific Age cannot stop. It will simply be, as the Ages before that, including the present, be our world.

Malcolm D B Munro
Friday 21 July, 2017

Filed under: Arts, Book Review, history, Media, Memoir, politics, stories

Thank you, again

I make these little notes of acknowledgement infrequently because, said too often, they lack authenticity.

However, I am so encouraged by the number of visitors and number of those of you who have chosen to follow the blog that I feel compelled to express that. The geographic spread of where visitors originate from is staggering. It would not be fair to mention any set of countries because, why mention some and leave out others. Suffice it to say that the Internet is truly global in its reach.

So, ‘nough said. Thank you. Know, each of you, followers and visitors alike, that your presence  is heartening.

Malcolm D B Munro
Wednesday 19 July, 2017


Filed under: Arts, Book Review, Current Events, history, Media, Memoir, Music, poetry, politics, songs, stories

Hölderlin – Requiem für einen Wicht

Hölderlin – 1972 – Requiem für einen Wicht

Malcolm D B Munro
Tuesday 18 July, 2017

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

Works for Imaginary Book Covers, number 7

Letters from My Son in Exile

Available at Saatchi Art

The point of political art is to draw attention to injustices and intolerable situations. A call for attention, action.

This work does not do that. Here the call is to draw awareness to the human dimension. Here the work asks you to put yourself in the position where you feel for this mother’s plight, all mothers who have sons and daughters incarcerated by those who pursue the cause of serious harm and death of those whom they feel are a threat.

The suggestion is that these letters may not have come from the woman’s son; even the name is redacted.

The suggestion too is that she is fearful of using her real name in publishing these letters.

The mother lives in hope of being united with her son, of seeing him again. But that hope may never be fulfilled.

He may be dead and she may never learn of his death.

Malcolm D B Munro
Tuesday 2 May, 2017

Filed under: Arts, Book Review, Current Events, history, Media, Memoir, poetry, politics, songs, stories

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