Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Story of Atonal Mortality

Death in RomeDeath in Rome 
by Wolfgang Koeppen

The Council of Trent has accepted Palestrina's music.  The congress of Rome would reject Siegfried's.  That too depressed Siegfried, depressed him while still rehearsing, depressed him even though he'd come to Rome expecting to be rejected, telling himself he didn't care." (p 9)

Wolfgang Koeppen is one of the least well known literary giants of the twentieth century. While his output consists of only five novels they all are at least minor masterpieces and his final novel, Death in Rome, ranks as a major one. In this subtle and spare novel Koeppen creates a vision of the German postwar experience that is at once bleak and devastating. The four main characters of the novel meet in Rome and in small pieces of their thoughts and their lives the anxiety and sordidness of their world is laid bare for the reader. The death motif is perhaps the strongest from title through to the end of the book, but Koeppen also uses symbolism and unique metaphors, particularly animals and insects, to heighten the impact of his story. None of the characters are likable, but like a Kafka novel I found myself fascinated with them and the world inside their heads.

Of particular interest to me was the use of music and the representation of the composer, Siegfried Pfaffrath, as a modern serial composer in the mold of Schoenberg. His music is described as like the "degenerate art" that the Nazis rejected while in its modernism it is not approved by the Catholic Church either. Some readers have made the comparison of the structure of the novel itself with a twelve tone musical composition. Perhaps--but whether the comparison is apt the novel certainly seems surrealistic, especially in the use of time in the movement and activities of the characters. 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 haunting theme mentioned above 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.

Overall the effect is impressive with the result being a novel that challenges the reader with its taut presence. I found the challenge invigorating and it encouraged further meditation on the ideas raised by the author.

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Brian Joseph said...

Superb commentary on this book James.

So many things sound good about it.

I tend to like it when a novelist ties the themes of a book to other art forms such as music. It helps clarify and unify a work's themes. I am currently reading The Mill on the Floss. George Eliot does this a lot.

I also very much "like", unlikable characters.

James said...


Thanks for the comment. This is indeed a good (challenging) novel to read and think about. That is one reason I also like the novels of George Eliot - look forward to your thoughts about The Mill on the Floss.

R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

Thank you for your superb posting and for introducing me to this author and novel; I hope my library will have a copy.