All for Nothing

Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing is nothing short of a tour-de-force, a magnum opus possessed of such power that it has taken me a few days just to process it, and a few more to write anything about it—though in the meantime I have spoken of little else.

The book was published in German in 2006, just before Kempowski’s death in 2007. Kempowski was born in 1929, in Rostock, which the British almost totally obliterated in 1942. He was sent to a penalty unit for his lack of enthusiasm for the Hitler Youth, and was made a courier for the Luftwaffe later in the war. After 1945, Kempowski worked for the Americans in West Germany, for which work the Soviets subsequently sent him to a prison camp for eight years. Anthea Bell translated the work forcefully into English. This, too, is one of her final works, finished in 2014 (she died last year). She was an impressively versatile translator of everything from Asterix to Kafka, Freud, and Stefan Zweig. She renders Kempowski’s tale with stunning directness.

I am glad that I’ve taken time to ruminate, as my impressions have only gotten stronger in the week since I finished it. Though not terribly long, it is epic in scope, and it is the starkest novel written in recent decades that I’ve read. Centred on the evacuation of East Prussia in January 1945, it follows the lives of more than a dozen characters in an old estate, close to the approaching Eastern Front.

Eberhard von Globig, recently ennobled, is the absent master of the Georgenhof estate. Despite the pervasive sense that the war is not going well, he is seen to be safe, managing logistics in Italy (and sending home the odd illicit shipment of sugar) rather than fighting at any of the several fronts. Though his nobility is new, the estate itself is ancient and half-ruined, a dark island in a snow-covered forest. It sits in East Prussia, quite close to the small town of Mitkau, and not far from Kant’s city of Königsberg, as it was then called—now Kaliningrad—in its soon-to-be-former glory.

Eberhard is married to the beautiful, dreamy, and deeply impractical Katharina, whom he has tempted away from her native Berlin, and whose urban relatives burden the estate with their belongings, offering little in exchange—and even less as the war progresses. Peter, their son, is only twelve, too young to fight, and he at first appears to be a curiously blank slate onto which we are tempted to project some of the author’s biography, who was similar in age. But this impression somehow erodes as the novel progresses. Peter’s tales grow taller, his physical and emotional distance from his family increases, and, as pressures mount, his hair seems almost to get blonder, and the age of conscription and rule of law gradually come down in the east, the fear increases that he will be sent to fight.

The majority of the novel, however, takes place at the Georgenhof, focusing first on its internal squabbles, then on the estate’s relations with the residents of nearby Mitkau, and eventually, as the trickle of refugees rises to a torrent, on an increasingly eccentric mix of people fleeing the front. From an unassuming and sleepy start, then, the book builds an enormous and impressive cast. They may think they are hibernating, lying low just as the little town avoided trouble in the First World War. At worst, they think, it will be like the Napoleonic wars, which the town remembers from its resentment of the soldiers billeted upon them. No one has any sense that they are about to sleepwalk into the nightmare of the oncoming Russian army, who are not in a particularly forgiving mood after the loss of some 27 million people.

But the novel begins domestically. On the estate, there are the Ukrainian maids, for example, whom Eberhard liberated—or would it be more accurate to say abducted?—Eberhard would say liberated, for they came willingly, though they had little choice, leaving everything behind, as they would have been abducted by others had he left them any longer in their native Ukraine. There is Auntie, from Silesia, who keeps the house in order, and remains a rather simple-minded supporter of the Party to the end. There is Vladimir, the reliable Pole, who dutifully fixes everything around the house despite being forced to wear a "P" on his arm. There are Czechs and Italians at the nearby Forest Lodge, once a hotel with a nice café—now its rooms are filled with car horns and bicycle bells belonging to the Party, and the rest provide lodging for foreign workers.

There is Drygalski, the jackbooted thug—or would he better be called the bereaved father?—contrasted with the apparently upstanding and aristocratic mayor of Mitkau, Lothar Sarkander, with his dueling scars. But which man is the more dangerous Party member? The schoolmaster, Wagner, at first seems a kind and benign influence, tutoring the isolated but intelligent Peter privately, at no cost. Or is he more interested in instilling in him the Party line—or, more simply, does he just want a bite to eat, or to steal glances at Katharina?

A political economist (and avid stamp collector) drops by, warning them to efface all images of Hitler. A vivacious violinist with bad teeth comes next, arguing exactly the opposite. She drags her instruments behind her in the snow, chastising them for their fear that the Wehrmacht won’t succeed, and questioning their association with Ukrainians and Poles.

Twelve of the book’s twenty-four chapters are devoted to these individual characters, and there are plenty of others introduced in the interims. They are never confusing, however, as Kempowski is a master of repetition. Phrases like "English steel shares, the Romanian rice-flour factory," a "meerschaum pipe," a memory of an afternoon by the seaside, or the watercolour of a white summerhouse individuate the characters. They also become a shorthand for all that has changed over the course of the war, sharply delineating the good times from the bad, their prosperity from their privation. Every phrase makes repeated appearances, reminding the reader of What We Have Lost (the name of a book of German Cathedrals which itself takes on significance).

So too do Peter’s trainset and WWI paper planes, and the family’s good Italian wine hidden away, paintings and shrines to dead children, scenes from old films, or snippets of old romantic music. The characters endlessly reiterate their memories, of estates lost to the economic ruin of the 1930s, memories of "the spring of ’32" or "fried flounders in a little restaurant on the River Pregel." Later they will cling to them, as they cling ever closer to their tenuously kept possessions. The characters’ physical characteristics, verbal tics, and above all their memories become like Wagnerian leitmotifs.

Despite these dozens of characters, not only are they never confusing, but Kempowski manages to weave them all into a surprisingly classical structure, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, turns out to be a tragedy. And it is classical. In its inexorability it rivals the Greeks, and the fates of some of its characters are reminiscent of John Webster. It’s an incredible feat to take so many threads and weave them all together into a perfectly balanced five-act tragedy, and one so perfectly paced. Just as the best of Shakespeare’s tragedies take on a sort of drumbeat, here the mounting snow, forever falling, driving the temperatures more deeply negative, and the artillery drumfire, closer and closer, shaking the foundations, make for a devastatingly effective rhythm.

And still the von Globigs and their entourage wait, as the line of refugees grows darker and denser. It would be disloyal to leave—and anyway, hadn’t the Russians been decent in the last war? Retreat would show cowardice, disloyalty to the Party. And that was heavily punishable. Peer pressure and sheer inertia keep them dangerously rooted. The sense of foreboding builds to a breaking point.

Kempowski is a master, too, of understatement and intimation, including the minutest of details with the flattest of affect. He adheres closely to the principle of Chekhov’s gun, which will reward close reading and (undoubtedly) re-reading. What appear at first to be interesting but irrelevant details, or mere nostalgic miscellany, turn out to reveal crucial aspects of character later on, or become turning points in the riveting action. There is such a slew of anecdotes and details that Kempowski seems to be world-building when he is, in fact, plotting. The coincidences and revelations are intricate, and yet he achieves them with such verve and economy that they never seem contrived.

The omniscient narration hovers close to the characters, a kind of close-up through which their characteristics emerge, and yet rumours of atrocities in the east (even the words "concentration camp") surface in the murkiness of the omniscient voice as well. Its many viewpoints give it a documentarian quality, which makes sense, given that Kempowski compiled the Echolot (or Depth-Sounder), finishing only in 2005. This monumental work compiles interviews and accounts of the war in no fewer than ten volumes, so it is not surprising that the book seems to harbour a boundless depth of detail. What is surprising, even shocking, is the consummate skill with which he entwines the innumerable details into the surprisingly complex—and brutally effective—plot, which I will not spoil.

Some people in my book club criticised the book for its atonality and flatness, but I found its matter-of-factness profoundly moving. The characters’ feelings are left to the imagination. Only their actions are shown, and their actions show a great deal. What is revealed is often damning, but on other occasions, deeply redeeming. The characters are also revealed by which objects they choose to keep—or to steal. "This is the ultimate example of showing over telling," said a friend, and I had written the same observation repeatedly in my notes.

Almost nothing is told, and what is told often turns out to be a lie. And yet the free indirect style brings each character’s voice vividly to life, using next to no dialogue. The effect is strangely dislocating, both incredibly poignant and yet somehow detached, an effect that itself mimics the trauma that will be experienced by the novel’s many characters.

The chapters are short, and each chapter is made up of markedly short passages, some so staccato that the effect is almost pointillistic, building up a disarmingly complete picture of the situation using the smallest daubs of paint. The paragraphs are often too short even to be called scenes, creating something more like snapshots. And yet this stack of snapshots, moving fluidly forward and backward in time, contrasting the ’30s to the ’40s, builds up so complete a world, with such staggering economy, that an offhand sentence sometimes hits one like a blow to the head—or like one of the constantly falling shells. The revelations, too, drop without fanfare, and like the shells they imitate, they are, at times, curiously harmless—and at others, eviscerating.

In its darkness it achieves something like Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, a novel so unrelentingly bleak as to throw its rare acts of kindness into high relief. In a way, the Russians never arrive. Only a few make an appearance in the action of the novel, and they are cruelly killed. Portraying Germans, these specific Germans, with their palpable scorn and racism, as victims, is sometimes morally problematic. But this, morally, is a deep morass. Motives are mixed as the situation becomes increasingly terrifying, increasingly desperate. No one comes out clean, though there are plenty of unexpected sacrifices to match the many betrayals. This is humanity in extremis, and no one is spared its contortions.

Midsommar

Midsommar (2019) was an unexpected delight. I’d heard that the director’s earlier Hereditary (2018) was also good, though I have not yet seen it, so I took a chance on his latest with a few friends. I do not typically read reviews beforehand, so I went in cold, and was not disappointed. There are no spoilers in this review, just a load of comparisons, as any summary would fail to capture most of what is good about this film.

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On listening to albums

For many years I’ve been working on watching all the films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. Not the one linked, with Lady Gaga on the front, but a 2003 version which quickly lost its sleeve, and over long years of consultation its cover, and now sits as a well-loved, half-bound pile of papers on my shelf. My pace in this endeavour has varied considerably, but I’ve seen 717 of the films, and you can see my progress here. At my current rate I won’t finish for decades, but hopefully I’ll be able to accelerate sometime soon. You know, during that vast expanse of free time always just visible on the horizon, across the eternal vale of the near future.

Sitting next to it in a similar state of disrepair is 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, another ambitious undertaking and quite a good list. Although I’ve loved this book too, and found many of my favourite albums in it, I’ve never worked out how to ensure progress through its pages.

The problem seems to be that seeing a film is more binary than listening to an album. Either you’ve seen it or you haven’t. Of course, it’s not quite so simple as that; attention and mood must affect absorption, and the age at one sees a film can profoundly change perception. In an extreme case, I remember watching, when I was 21, La dolce vita, with my 12-year-old sister. After the film finished there was a long pause: I was entering an existential morass, whereas my sister finally said, “That’s it?!”

Nonetheless it is fair to say that a single listen to an album does little justice to its merits, when compared to seeing a film. Why this is is an interesting question, which I’ll consider below.

But first, I’ve come up with a solution for how to track progress with albums. It’s an idea that’s been on my mind for some time, but I’ve only recently put it into practice. It involves spaced repetition. I figured this would be a pain, but it’s actually quite easy.

I’ve just created a “Albums” deck in the Anki flashcards app. The front side of each card has “Artist – Album (Year)” and the back side has nothing at all, at the moment. For a few albums I’ve added track listings on the back side, but I’ve found that the lower overhead of just entering the basic metadata on the front seems to work.

So then I open Anki, it shows me some flashcard with an album, and I’ll listen to that album, and score the card just as if it were a memorisation, based on how well I remember the album. (Really, I score it with something more like how ready I predict I will be to listen to the album in X time, which does seem to vary.) Anki then stays in charge of the order in which I listen to the albums. Eventually I’ll probably feel I’ve “mastered” the album, whatever that means, and I’ll tick the album off from the 1001 list.

Why is music harder to absorb than film?

In terms of length, density, and complexity, a film, ought, by rights, to be harder to absorb than an album. Consider:

  • A classic album can be as short as 30 minutes, with the longest double-albums stretching to about 90. Films are rarely shorter than 90 minutes, and can be substantially longer. To give just examples from the 1001 book, Lawrence of Arabia, Once Upon a Time in America, Gone with the Wind, and La belle noiseuse are each nearly four hours—but the book also sees fit to include Riget, a TV show that comes in at 4 hours 40, and Shoah, a documentary of 9 hours. 
  • More obviously, films require that you look at them. Though it’s possible that this makes it easier to absorb a film, since your full attention is engaged. Still, I think even sitting still with exclusive attention to an album would not result in the same level of familiarity as watching a film for the first time.
  • Digital data requirements confirm this: An album, even in its uncompressed form, is rarely more than a few hundred megabytes. MP3 compression yields <100 megabytes per CD. The blu-ray of Andrei Rublev (technically also compressed) is 41 gigabytes.
  • Given the above constraints, a film could easily contain a whole album in its soundtrack.

So what is it about music that makes it take more time and repetition? I have a few speculations.

  • Rhythm itself. Film is not inherently repetitive. And I virtually never want to watch a film again immediately after seeing it. (The same goes for novels, incidentally.) But a day after hearing a great album for the first time, I can hear it rattling around in my mind in such a way that demands another listen.
  • Poetry. Perhaps film could be likened more broadly to prose, and music to poetry. I’ve noticed that it takes me several reads to really get poetry, which is rarely the case with prose. Music, of course, tends to contain language much closer to poetry than to prose as well. Modern songwriting is, at least in my life, the only form in which I still encounter metre and rhyme, unless I’m deliberately reading old poetry. For whatever reason, metric poetry is no longer practised in mainstream English culture, except in music.
  • Memorisation. Related to the above, I don’t feel I’ve “learned” an album until I can remember most of its lyrics. That is not the case with films. I’ve never been one to memorise dialogue.

I may revisit this list soon, since I’m only a week into this Anki scheme. But so far it’s already expanded my musical horizons, with highlights being Dwight Yoakum‘s Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room (1988), Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (1967), and, perhaps unexpectedly, Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019), all of which are excellent.

I’m probably also going to set up Anki for memorising poems, which I’ve not done enough of since I was a teen.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People

If this is the first review you’ve read, and you can stomach darkness, please stop now and just read Normal People. Most reviews, positive or negative, will probably not lead you to read the book, which I think is a serious and important work.

There is much to dislike about this novel—its bleakness, its tawdriness, its shallowness, its present tense and punctuation. It is painful emotionally, rather too intimate, and the characters can sometimes make themselves hard to like, to say nothing of their half-formed ideas. And yet it cannot be denied that Rooney can write, or that she has written a powerful piece of literature. She has made good use of her considerable talent, to set in aspic certain aspects of this desolate and disconsolate age. What she opts not to evoke from Irish scenery and history is in fact a strength; she describes the contrasts between County Sligo and Dublin, but she could just as easily be writing about the lines dividing Acadiana and New York, or Yorkshire and London.

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An experiment in phonelessness

The plot thus far

In 2017, I lost a new smartphone. In the aftermath of its disappearance I decided not to replace it, a feat which I managed for about a month, with an additional few weeks on an old Nokia phone. During this time I found life more serene, serendipitous, and I was happier. It did somewhat improve my relationship with technology, but when I got a new phone I still resumed most of my mindless habits.

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The Clock, Part 6: Dusk

Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) is an ambitious 24-hour montage stitched together from feature films and TV shows. Each clip, ranging from a split second to a few minutes, takes place during the time of the day at which it plays. Over the next few months, I will attempt to see all twenty-four hours at the Tate Modern in London, documenting the experience in a way as haphazard as the fractured experience of watching the work itself.

Voyage au bout de la nuit

Part 6 of 6 of this series. I wrote this article after viewing 18:39–21:55 (3 hours, 16 minutes) on 11 January 2019. Seen: 18 hours 29 minutes. I will be unable to see the remaining 5 hours and 31 minutes.

Read Part 1: Introduction, in which I discuss my initial excitement about the return of The Clock.

Read Part 2: Matineé, in which I reflect on familiarity, recognition, tension, time’s passage, simultaneity, and death.

Read Part 3: Graveyard Shift, in which I stay up all night and misidentify noir.

Read Part 4: Interstice, in which I ponder the expectations set by Hollywood continuity style.

Read Part 5: Sunrise, in which I link up The Clock‘s morning montages.


It has been nearly a month since I’ve written on The Clock, mostly because I’ve been drafting a novel. Since last I wrote, The Clock itself has left London and found a new home at a museum in Melbourne,

The experience of seeing The Clock, even after all these hours, remains surreal, as perhaps the best cinema always is. The final night that I went, there weren’t such recognisable features as there were in the morning hours, and I found its impressions less distinctive, the sequences more obscure. But maybe that was just my own fading vigour.

As I wrote above, my final tally, for now at least, will remain at the 18.5 hour mark. I think this is a respectable amount of conceptual art to have seen over a few months, though I’m still in awe of Ari Haque who did all 24 hours in one go.

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On writing at speed

Exactly three weeks ago, on 14th January 2019, I began a draft of my first novel. I won’t discuss its contents here, but I thought I’d write about the experience of writing at speed.

Driving that train

First of all, how quickly have I written? As of today, my word count is 42,903 words, written in 21 days. That means I’ve averaged 2,043 words per day. That is above the pace required for National Novel Writing Month (abbreviated NaNoWriMo) which takes place every year in November. To “win” that contest, one must write 50,000 words in 30 days, which works out to 1,667 words per day. I was forgetful (and perhaps fearful) last year so I didn’t participate (I did, however, write a blog post for every day of November on my other blog.). Instead, I set myself a goal to finish 80,000 words in 6 weeks.

My speed is around Stephen King’s, as he describes in his excellent On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which I just finished reading. In it, he reports writing 2,000 words per day. It is a reasonably high rate among writers. Graham Greene and Hemingway, for example, aimed for 500 per day. Michael Crichton, on the other hand, apparently managed 10,000.

I, however, did not set a single daily word count for the period. Instead I’ve used the excellent Pacemaker Planner, which allows varying the pace, and even reducing it at the weekends. Here’s my graph-to-date:

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The Clock, Part 5: Sunrise

Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) is an ambitious 24-hour montage stitched together from feature films and TV shows. Each clip, ranging from a split second to a few minutes, takes place during the time of the day at which it plays. Over the next few months, I will attempt to see all twenty-four hours at the Tate Modern in London, documenting the experience in a way as haphazard as the fractured experience of watching the work itself.

Rosy-fingered Dawn

Part 5 of this series. I wrote this article after viewing 6:02–10:18 (4 hours, 16 minutes) on 2 December 2018. Seen: 15 hours 13 minutes. Remaining: 8 hours 47 minutes.

Read Part 1: Introduction, in which I discuss my initial excitement about the return of The Clock.

Read Part 2: Matineé in which I reflect on familiarity, recognition, tension, time’s passage, simultaneity, and death.

Read Part 3: Graveyard Shift in which I stay up all night and misidentify noir.

Read Part 4: Interstice in which I ponder the expectations set by Hollywood continuity style.


The 2nd of December 2018 marked what I thought was my final opportunity to see the nocturnal hours of The Clock, at least in its current run in London—now, due to popular demand, you can also see it this weekend.

At the start of November I had stayed overnight until 5:35am, so I needed to arrive before that time. So on a cold Sunday morning, at the beginning of December, I dutifully awoke at 3:52, just as one of my flatmates was returning from a night out. I filled a flask with coffee and walked down to the Tate, since my normal transport to the Tate Modern (the 4 bus) doesn’t run at night. The walk was beautiful and surreal. I arrived at 5:03am.

St Paul's Cathedral at night
St Paul’s Cathedral on my walk down, at around 5 am.
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Top 10 Books I read in 2018

I’ve just begun my fiftieth book of the year, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. Like the last book I read, I discovered it via Derek Sivers, who reviewed it on his site. It’s been an interesting read so far, on overcoming one’s own resistance to ambitious endeavours. It’s inspirational, but so far does not promise to be the most inspirational book I read this year (see Sivers’ own, for example, below). I tracked my progress on Goodreads. Here are the ten books I rated five stars from 2018, in reverse order of when I read them.

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