Tuesday, 6 October 2020

A modernist jigsaw in 110 pieces

Wolfgang Koeppen’s novel Pigeons on the Grass, first published in 1951 as Tauben im Gras, is among the earliest, grandest, and most poetically satisfying reckonings in fiction with the postwar state of the world. What have we done to ourselves? What may we hope for? 

Is life from now on going to be different? Is it even going to be possible? These are the unasked and unanswerable questions that hover around this great novel composed in bite-size chunks, a cross section of a damaged society presented—natch!—in cutup. I once described it as a “Modernist jigsaw in 110 pieces,” but it is as compulsively readable as Dickens or Elmore Leonard. The form catches the eye, but the content is no slouch either. It must be one of the shortest of the universal books, the ones of which you think, If it isn’t in here, it doesn’t exist.


The setting is Munich, a place to which Koeppen had first come toward the end of the war. It is where, in his own words, he “lay low and made himself small,” where he met Marion Ulrich, his much younger wife (they were married in 1948), and where he lived until his death in 1996, at the age of almost ninety. More to the point, it is “the little town out of which death sprawled over the classroom map,” as Joseph Brodsky calls it, the epicenter of the developments that an Austrian corporal and failed watercolorist had initially set in train with the Munich Putsch of 1923, developments that, it is calmly suggested near the end of the novel, might be on the point of getting going again. Amid the destruction and the rebuilding, the novel, set in that same 1948, is looking for early signs of a pattern. 


AERIAL VIEW OF THE MUNICH RESIDENZ AFTER BOMBINGS, 1945. PUBLIC DOMAIN, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.


Is the cycle of violence, exhaustion, and resentment about to get going again, as happened after World War I (as Koeppen, born in 1906, knew very well from personal experience); or is there some higher meaning in it, as Mr. Edwin the visiting poet-intellectual would have us believe; or is there perhaps no meaning at all, is it all random patternlessness, “pigeons on the grass,” as Gertrude Stein wrote, or, as she is ignorantly—and rather well—paraphrased by Miss Burnett, the visiting Massachusetts schoolmistress: “the birds are here by chance, we are here by chance, and maybe the Nazis were here by chance, Hitler was a chance, his politics were a dreadful and stupid chance, maybe the world is a dreadful and stupid chance of God’s, no one knows why we are here, the birds will fly off and we will walk on”?


Into this place and this time, caught as we have been almost entirely since—with the small exception of the nineties, when the world briefly promised to be “unipolar” and history to have “ended” (with whatever different hellish consequences that might have had)—between hope and despair, divided in two or more armed camps, enduring or soliciting occupation of one kind or another, engaged in small-scale conflicts or preparing for the Big One, blithely or grimly minding our own business or sleepless with fear and disgust, Koeppen introduces his dramatis personae of Germans and Americans, of soldiers and civilians, white people and Black people, women and men, young and old, celebrities and nonentities, greater and lesser villains. (Who is “good” here? Maybe Hillegonda, maybe Washington, maybe Philipp? But nothing is made of it—it’s not an interesting category. We are crooked timbers. We crash singly, we crash together, and we crash en masse.) Elsewhere, Koeppen writes of the same period and the same atmosphere:


In those days, war and peace hung in the balance, only we didn’t know. We didn’t hear about the cataclysm that threatened us until much later, in newspapers that hadn’t yet been printed. Whoever could, ate well. We sipped our coffee and our brandy; we worked hard to earn money, and if the circumstances were favorable, we slept with one another.


Recollecting London at much the same time and in much the same condition, the painter Frank Auerbach has remarked: “There may be some feeling of that turmoil and freedom in those pictures that there was in London after the war. There was a curious feeling of liberty about because everybody who was living there had escaped death in some way. It was sexy in a way, this semi-destroyed London. There was a scavenging feeling of living in a ruined town.” 


Metaphorically, or in microcosm—and, coincidentally or not, there is just such a scene in Pigeons on the Grass—we are standing at a set of lights—probably, come to think of it, a rather recent development for 1948—waiting for it to be “our turn.” “Fates, conspire,” says John Berryman.


After that, it is just a matter of threading and linking incident, cueing the pieces, plotting the entanglements, devising the superconducting phrases or tropes that will end a passage and—via a misunderstanding, it has been pointed out, in some different sense, almost homonymically—begin the next one. People live their lives, confront or ignore their difficulties, head off toward—another phrase from Koeppen’s later novel Death in Rome—“the next fraudulent little transaction.” (The condition of civilization is too rudimentary for honesty to be a policy at all.) Some of these have more carry, more scale, more applicability, some less; but to the characters, and to the book, they are all there is, they all come alike, and they are all the same size. 


There is not a central plot and flanking subplots, a principal figure and subsidiaries; everything is in equal measure major, everyone gets their moment in the book’s light and dark, its night and day. In their sum, they are the totality of existence. Everything teeters and winks, dangling its binary yes/no. It is in the balance. It will come about, or it won’t. Fates, conspire: Frau Behrend wanting her coffee and her groceries; Ezra the stray dog; Alexander the “great actor” a little peace; Washington a life somewhere with Carla and their baby carried to term; Hillegonda salvation; Emilia a sale; Susanne a night to remember, or at least not to forget; the astonishing narcopathic Schnakenbach his magic formula; Josef the price of a drink; Mr. Edwin (who seems maybe three parts T. S. Eliot and one part Auden or Spender) the success of his talk and a piece of rough trade afterward. And so on, and so on.


The book is a panopticon (much like Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood from 1953), and it tells the stories of people in all their myriad circumstances wanting love, or maybe to be comforted. Koeppen is effortlessly all-seeing, all-knowing. Nothing human is alien, et cetera. Everyone is an everyman (or everywoman). Love and death stand at the exits. The future shyly intimates, the past unpredictably looms. Back in the day, Amerika Haus is a Fascist building, the American visitors are beguiled by the Nazis’ favorite Badenweiler March, the Hofbräuhaus takes all comers, Odysseus Cotton and Susanne (“since she was Circe and the Sirens and maybe also Nausicaa”) fall into their timeless, mythic roles. The book is full of repurposed locations, make-do-and-mend, second acts, moving parts, old situations, old signals.


*


A great mystery to me, and maybe what draws me to Koeppen more than anything else, is how he can write some sentences that are verbless stubs, and others that go on for dozens or scores of lines, and it all sounds like him, and it all is him. It is not style because style changes, and he comes in different styles—but it is perhaps distance or tone, compounded from coldness, information, certitude, indifference, a certain propensity to label, to repeat, to talk up or slang down. 


Susanne, who in this book successively appears in a lesbian floor show, steals some perfume, possibly kills Josef, picks up, robs, and rescues Odysseus, is likened to a Homeric figure; the boy Ezra sees everything from the vantage point of his own personal fighter bomber; Philipp, shy and ineffectual as he is, is indestructible; Emilia’s groping pawnbroker Unverlacht is styled as a frog. The prose is sumptuous and cadenced, built to be read aloud; the sentences begin briskly, purposefully, then they are distractible, suddenly ferocious, briefly learned, encounter a mantra, loop and repeat, work themselves free. Then a run of nothing but curt blurts. It is as though Koeppen unites in himself the virtues of wildness and sleekness. These are not books the reader makes; they are written with uncommon decisiveness.


*


Koeppen was himself far too impulsive and unorthodox a character to have done such a thing on purpose, or to have planned it thus far in advance, but Pigeons on the Grass turned out to have been the first part of a novel trilogy. In 1953, he published a second part called The Hothouse, in 1954, the third called Death in Rome. All three books are set at the time they were written—they are all “live.” 


Together, they are known as the “postwar trilogy.” They were the last novels he wrote in his life. He lived another forty years and wrote no others. Now, you may say, nothing easier than to have written three novels and then call them a trilogy, or five and a quincunx, or ten and a decalogue. “What’s that when it’s at home?” my skeptical friend Paul Muldoon might quip; I would probably once have been dubious, too. I don’t like poems in parts, or paintings in parts either. But having long been inside all three books myself, I have to say I am positively in awe of their parallelisms and congruencies.


First, there are no major overlaps among the books: no shared characters, no internal references, nothing like that. The first is set in Munich, the second in Bonn, the small town on the Rhine that had recently pipped Frankfurt to become the capital of the Western half of the divided Germany, the third in the Eternal City, Rome. Pigeons on the Grass is a polynarrative, numerous turning cogs and wheels, like a piece of clockwork; The Hothouse is a monodrama, the story of a Social Democrat member of the Reichstag on the day of a big rearmament debate; Death in Rome brings the four members of a German family, two brothers-in-law and their respective sons (representatives of four great German trades: murder, bureaucracy, theology, and music), to an unintended reunion. 


The first book is impersonal (we guess Philipp is our point of identification, but we’re not told, and he certainly has no privileges); the second is all personal, with Keetenheuve imagining his decisions and actions reflected in headlines, in italics; in the third, the artist figure, Siegfried Pfaffrath, is given a monopoly on the first person, but only in his sections. So it’s not the setting or the conception or the machinery of the books that are shared. What is it? First, it’s that in each book a public event is trailed, and built up to, and takes place: in Pigeons on the Grass, it’s Mr. Edwin’s talk; in The Hothouse, Keetenheuve’s speech in the debate; in Death in Rome, it’s the concert of new serial music composed by Siegfried. Each book observes the unities of time and place; the first two happen within twenty-four hours, Death in Rome in the space of two days and a night.


But what I am talking about is more inward than that. Each novel seems to be rendered from the postwar atmosphere; it is as though impalpable things—as I say, atmosphere—have concretized themselves or been precipitated against cold glass. (Hence, in part, I think, the title The Hothouse.) Either that, or three different mosaics have been assembled—bricolaged—from the same rubble. The same ingredients make three dishes; the same breakage makes three different books. Everything is real, but we are having three go-arounds on a ghost train as well, which means they are metaphysical, and devices. A bewildering number of the same things, properties, Maguffins, recur in all three: Cars, big luxury cars. Showers—for Alexander, for Frost-Forestier, for Judejahn. 


Newspaper criers and newspapers. Newspapers, magazines, and radio. Dictaphones or recorders for Philipp, for Frost-Forestier, for Siegfried. Onions. Beer. The books kill off and pair off, bring unexpected deaths and asymmetrical loves. Fast food: Weisswürste in one—“white veal sausages. Klett the hairdresser peeled the skin off the whitish filling with his fingers and popped it in his mouth. 


Candy-I-call-my-sugar-candy. Klett smacked his lips and grunted contentedly”—meatballs in another—“there was Helen, envied, reviled, eating her meatballs and mashed potatoes with the head of the working group on agricultural land degradation”—hamburgers in the third—“The waiter brought food. The men must have ordered it. Fried onions sizzled on large meat patties. They ate. They stuffed themselves. The men liked the onions. Judejahn liked the onions.”

Cheese. Wine. Buildings. Tunnels and bridges. Cats and dogs. A room above the city, for sex. Ruins. Male prostitutes. Gangs of children. Tribades. The cinema. The German forest. History. 


Mythology. Literary references, ringing the horizon of all the books: Gertrude Stein (the title of Pigeons in the Grass), Kafka (the ending of The Hothouse from The Judgment), Thomas Mann (title and ending of Death in Rome from Death in Venice). Fish. “How much Edwin would have liked otherwise to discuss the Physiologie-du-gout with the chef and watch the pretty kitchen boys shucking gentle gold-gleaming fish.”—“The matjes was a longtime inmate of salt barrels.”— “They brought him a plate of sea creatures fried in oil and batter. 


He gulped them down; they tasted like fried earthworms to him, and he felt nauseated. He felt his heavy body turning into worms, he felt his guts squirming with putrescence, and in order to fight off his disintegration, and in spite of his nausea, he polished off everything on the plate.” These things—and I have no doubt there are dozens of others—are deliberately deployed. They have a deteriorating tendency that suggests forward planning—I don’t know how Koeppen did it. 


He had never been to Rome before a chance invitation in 1954; his Bonn book he wrote in Stuttgart. They don’t deplete or detract from the realism of the books, they are merely a further formal challenge for the author, and a complicating, delaying, enriching thing for the reader. After all, everything that resists limits extends the life of a book, toward infinity, where it belongs.


(Source: The Paris Review)

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