DEATH IN ROME BY WOLFGANG KOEPPEN

I have a reputation in my family for being cold and difficult to be around. I don’t, the consensus is, ‘make any effort’ with them. And that is true. I really don’t. Don’t get me wrong, family can be a wonderful thing, if it is a safe and strong and nurturing unit; but I realised at a very young age that the idea of being tied to a bunch of people who you have nothing in common with, who are, moreover, unpleasant human beings, is absurd. Recently my mother has become involved with her sister again. This sister is, quite frankly, vile. I find the fact that she is back in my life very hard to take, but I find it even harder that she is back in my mother’s, although of course my opinion is irrelevant. The only real blessing is that my Uncle is not around, having died of cancer some years ago. You are not meant to speak ill of the dead, but it’s difficult when someone had almost no redeeming features. I was present at his funeral, when the eulogy was spoken. He liked cats we were told. And, yes, I guess he did, but he was also a violent criminal, with perverse sexual tendencies, who kept a gun behind his sofa.

So I can identify with Seigfried Pfaffrath, one of the major players in Wolfgang Koeppen’s Death in Rome. It is the 1950’s, and he has essentially fled to Rome in order to escape his family, his past, and reinvent himself as a composer. But he finds that, in reality, you can’t escape, because wherever you go you bring your experiences with you. Much of the novel is devoted to internal monologues, and even before he comes to understand that prominent members of his family are also in Rome Seigfried can think of little outside of his childhood, his hated Uncle Judejahn, his father, and the recently ended war. It is significant, I think, that he chose to become a musician, because we generally think of music as being an expression of the creator’s inner life, their soul. Seigfried’s music is described as being frightening, as ‘naked and unworthy despair.’ It especially unnerves Kurenberg’s wife [the husband being a friend of Seigfried’s] who grew up in the same area and whose father was eventually murdered by the Nazis.

“Once upon a time, this city was a home to gods, now there’s only Raphael in the Pantheon, a demigod, a darling of Apollo’s, but the corpses that joined him later are a sorry bunch, a cardinal of dubious merit, a couple of monarchs and their purblind generals, high-flying civil servants, scholars that made it into the reference books, artists of academic distinction. Who gives a damn about them?”

The Nazis, racism, and complicity all play important roles in Death in Rome. At one stage Seigfried dredges up the memory of Kurenberg asking for assistance from his father, in an attempt to save his own father-in-law. The advice that he received from Friedrich Pfaffrath, who at that time was a senior administrator, was to divorce his Jewish wife. A large part of Seigfried’s anguish is related to his not wanting to be associated with his family’s actions during the war and their ongoing Nazi sympathies. Like me, he feels tied to people who do not represent his feelings or opinions, whose behaviour he does not condone, people who, unfortunately, he will always be tied to by blood at least. He has, he states, thought about changing his name, so as to distance himself, but decided that to disappoint his family, who would not be in favour of his vocation, is a nice form of revenge; indeed, he focuses specifically on twelve tone music, which was frowned upon in his youth and was actually considered by the Nazis to be ‘degenerate.’ I found this aspect of the novel to be one of the most engaging; Koeppen did a fine job of capturing the young composer’s understandable shame, disgust, and helplessness, in being related to murders and war criminals [although I would say that he borrowed liberally from William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom in order to achieve it].

“Could I even cope with my own life? And then I thought: If Adolf and I can’t cope with life, then we should at least unite against those unscrupulous people who want to rule because they are unimaginative, against the real Pfaffraths, the real Judejahns, the real Klingspors, and perhaps we could change Germany. But even as I was thinking that, it already seemed to me that Germany was past changing, that one could only change oneself, and everyone had to do that for him or herself.”

The most imposing member of the family and, as noted, the most hated by Seigfried, is Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS officer. He fled Germany due to a death sentence having been placed upon him for his involvement in the war, during which he had ordered the execution, and had himself killed, numerous people. As with Seigfried, a large part of the novel is also given over to Judejahn’s thoughts and feelings, and none of them are pleasant. He is an unrepentant Nazi and racist. He yearns for war, for bloodshed, for a reinvigorated, all-powerful and all-conquering Germany. In Guy de Muapassant’s Bel Ami, Georges Duroy is described as having the attitude of ‘an NCO let loose in a conquered land,’ and I think this suits Judejahn perfectly. Men are to be beaten down or brought to heel, and women [whom he frequently refers to as ‘cunt’] are to be raped or fucked [if willing]. After spending some time with Judejahn not only did I empathise with Siegfried in his hatred, but I started to understand the title of the novel. Death in Rome. It doesn’t mean dying in Rome, it means that Death has come to Rome, and his name is Judejahn, a man who stalks the pages of the book, and the city itself, like a particularly grim Grim Reaper.

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[Rome in the 1950’s]

However, as I progressed through the novel, I struggled to understand what exactly Koeppen was trying to say, specifically in relation to Judejahn. That SS men were psychopaths? Well, yeah. I mean, that’s hardly news is it? Moreover, I felt as though Judejahn is simply too cartoonishly loathsome; I was, in fact, unable to take him seriously as a human being. Yes, he is a Nazi, but I’m not convinced that he had to be so unrelentingly despicable, so much so that at times I expected him to tie a woman to some train tracks and stand to the side twirling his moustache. I am, of course, not defending the Nazis, but would simply have liked this one to be a little more nuanced as a character. Indeed, I don’t actually think it is helpful to portray them as titanically evil [not to mention miserable], without a humane thought in their head or even the merest hint of sensitivity. That, for me, almost excuses them, as though we are saying that they are or were sub-human, or not human at all. They absolutely are and were human, they had families, friends, they laughed and enjoyed themselves. That is what is so horrifying about them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only example of Koeppen losing control of his material. I was also decidedly unimpressed with the melodramatic scene in which Adolf, Judejahn’s son, kind of befriends a starving Jewish boy, and the two swap uniforms and break bread.

In any case, I would laud Koeppen for his bravery in writing, and having published, a novel such as this so soon after the war, for reminding the world that Nazis didn’t just stop being Nazis because Hitler lost; they didn’t simply see the error of their ways, or ‘wake up’ as though coming out of a deep sleep. I think if the book says anything of note, anything really important, then that is it. People like Judejahn, who becomes a kind of Arab arms dealer, or Friedrich Pfaffrath, who becomes a legitimate mayor, may try and reinvent themselves, they may hide or escape, but their old prejudices remain. In this way, the stream of consciousness technique was entirely appropriate, because one might be able to wash the blood off one’s hands, but one’s thoughts, if we have access to them, would always reveal the true nature of the man.

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2 comments

  1. Sounds dark, but as you say, brave to tackle this subject so early and spot on that just because the war is over doesn’t mean that people’s tendencies are going to change. I’d not heard of this but I’ll keep my eye out for it.

  2. Michael Hofmann, who people inexplicably really like, raves about it and translated it. I think it is so-so. I think Koeppen overdid Judejahn, and the whole thing just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. But if you look elsewhere at other reviews of the book most are very positive. And it is certainly an interesting subject.

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