Thursday, February 26, 2009

Koeppen Redux

Death in Rome
by Wolfgang Koeppen

I am once again reading Wolfgang Koeppen's masterpiece, Death in Rome. I am impressed even more, as I reread it, with the way Koeppen uses every line and page to build the tension that explodes at the end of the novel. Death permeates this book in a way that few other novels rival. I think of Death in Venice, another twentieth century masterpiece, but Mann's enterprise is more Nietzschean than Koeppen's. While Tolstoy comes to mind also, in The Death of Ivan Ilych he seems a nineteenth-century precursor to the existentialism that would blossom a few decades later.
No, Koeppen is more at home in the post-war dilemma of Europe and Germany in particular. And the world he depicts is brutal and dark. It is as if, at least for some of the characters, the war has not ended. This is particularly true of Gottlieb "Gotz" Judejahn who is at the center of the novel. Having disappeared he is tried in abstentia at Nuremberg and is effectively a ghost (as is his wife Eva) who haunts Germany, not directly but from a distance - in Rome. The other theme that haunts this reader is the 'new' music of Siegfried Pfaffrath - best described as a latecomer to the atonal style whose priest was Arnold Schoenberg. Late in the novel Siegfried meditates on the nature of music:

Music was an enigmatic construction to which there was no longer any access, or just a narrow gate that admits only a few people. Whoever sat inside couldn't communicate to those on the outside, and yet they felt that this enigmatic, invisible construction, built by magic formulae, was important to them.

The structure of this novel and the thoughts of the characters, their communication or lack thereof, seems to mirror this image of music and its relation to those who hear and do not understand. Perhaps the only answer is to act out your lack of understanding - to end the dark, unbearable world with death.

Death in Rome by Wolfgang Koeppen. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 2001 (1954).

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