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.

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