Re-Reading Tadellöser & Wolff in 2007
Reading this work 15 years after writing my M.A. thesis on aspects of ordinary life in the Third Reich, I note that the author, Walter Kempowski, b. 1929, is now terminally ill and is suffering a good deal. I am sad to hear this. Over the time since I made his acquaintance and read and thought quite a bit about him and his work, my perspective has changed. Here, with some corrections and revisions, is what I thought then, at a time when figures like Walter Jens and the Misterlichs were commenting with fury about the "recalcitrance" of "ordinary" Germans regarding the truth of life and death in the Third Reich. I shared their indignation.
These days I have trouble convincing myself that I would have behaved any better than most Germans at that time. As well, my claim that Tadellöser & Wolff was a kind of clever lie is, I have decided, wrongheaded.
As I re-read Tadellöser & Wolff after all this time, the family sprang to life, no longer seeming to me stilted and mechanical as they had in previous readings. The incidents I had waved aside as trivia (how could they have been worrying about table manners, long hair and such when millions were dying) became prominent in my mind. I also believe that Walter's personal rebellion became more important eventually. It was getting impossible for local Führers and gang bosses to keep their subordinates under control, and toward the end of the war, all order broke down as the result of myriad individual decisions not to comply.
Overall, the Kempowskis were smart, somewhat odd, not outstanding in any way, not even clever at getting by, not especially moral, but they were determined enough to survive the war. And with the exception of the father, they all did.
Kempowski in his later years has made an industry out of his attempt to catalogue the German past, including the Third Reich as he and others experienced it. My impatient feeling about this once was, "Why bother. Let's move on." Now I understand the unfairness of my attitude. One reason I have changed my outlook in this regard is that it is characteristic of all of us to create the story of our lives. Most of us want to look as good as possible. There are plenty of liars and apologists among the ranks of the German survivors of WW II, but Kempowski is not one of them. In Tadellöser & Wolff he spares no one, least of all himself. As life stories go, Kempowski's is more honest than most. It's not a cover up for crimes but rather a story told from the limited perspective of the young Walter, a person who did not choose to live when and where he did.
Tadellöser & Wolff is a great novel, one with hands and feet, and as such unendingly fascinating. Kempowski returns something to life, leading me to an evaluation that is the exact opposite of my initial one.
Now Kempowski's reputation is assured. His novels will live on. He is the direct heir of Theodor Fontana and Thomas Mann. His realism appeals to me far more than the "psychological" work of Christa Wolf and her struggles with memory. This, by the way, is exactly the opposite of my comparative evaluation of Kempowski and Wolf back in '92. I have never cared for Günther Grass. In that line, Vonnegut is far better.
Kempowski's paradoxical gift was to give us a good old fashioned novel, square in the grand German tradition, about the Nazi years.
As a footnote: as long as this novel remains untranslated it will be, as the Germans say, "unter uns." Meaning, for German eyes only. I wish I had the skill to translate it!