The Magazine

The German Voice

A journey to the source of Martin Walser’s fiction.

Oct 31, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 07 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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The way I got to Martin Walser, Germany’s most German writer and, at age 84, one of its national treasures, was to scrawl three lines on an envelope: Martin Walser, writer, Nussdorf am Bodensee.

Photo of Martin Walser reading a book

Martin Walser at home in Nussdorf (2008)


Nussdorf isn’t Berlin or Frankfurt; it’s a small, suburban-style hamlet on the eastern shore of Lake Constance where Walser has lived for 43 years. I figured the postman would know where to find him. I believe in the German postal service. That Walser bought his exquisite property in 1968 (on credit) for nearly a half-million marks when he was almost penniless and decidedly a man on the left, moving in his sympathies toward the Communist party, was not really a contradiction. Nor was it hypocritical of him. It was an expression both of his extraordinary confidence in himself as a writer—because his writings would have to pay the bills—and of his deep rootedness in the region where he was born and raised.

The eastern shore of Lake Constance is Walser territory in the way Mississippi’s Lafayette County was William Faulkner territory. In two dozen novels Walser created his own Yokna-pa-taw-pha County out of the seemingly idyllic yet blood-and-history-saturated region between the Danube and Lake Constance. If Walser was ever a Communist, he was a Communist in the way Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau were Communists, anchored in a small, rural, but educated community whose economic functionality set them free to think big thoughts and want the well-being of the common man.

But Walser, as a product of the hard-working German south, and scarred by the economic hardships of the 1930s, World War II, and its aftermath, is also eminently more practical. He has always considered writing a profession, and has been hyperconscious that the writer must sell his wares in the marketplace. His heroes, usually versions of himself, are sales reps or brokers or other kinds of middlemen who make a living by persuading people to buy a product they don’t need and don’t want.

Like writers.

If there is a contradiction in Martin Walser, it is the tension between his traditional German idea that a writer should be in touch with his sensibilities (Empfindungen) and make the world more beautiful through language, and his understanding that writing must sell: writing as business. Perhaps that isn’t a contradiction. Does he sell hundreds of thousands of copies because his novels convey that the core of life is love and that love can only be had in one’s longing for it, never in its fulfillment? It’s a product people can want. In Walser’s novels, love is rarely requited and never fulfilled. But in writing and reading about love, the world becomes more radiant—especially since Walser’s portrayals of heroes, plagued continually by a sense of falling short, unfold an array of admirable feelings that plum the depth of what it is to be human on a good day. 

The unfolding of such exquisite sensitivity is the positive side of being German, a side nourished by the poetry of Hölderlin, Heine, and Goethe, and by the idealism of Schiller and Lessing. But of course, in Europe, the memory is still fresh of those times when the Germans had their bad days, when their national sense of insufficiency, of falling short, of humiliation and underachieving, propelled millions to submit willingly to the megalomania of an underachiever who promised easy enrichment by getting rid of their successful competitors. There is a huge swath of Germany that is present only obliquely in Walser’s books, but it’s present for those who look for it.

Walser’s prototypical hero is the aging, sensitive irredeemably middle-class male who loses out to a younger, dynamic rival in business and love. The Halms, Buchs, Zürns, Horns, and Kristleins are empathetically depicted in a powerful, idiosyncratic German of great simplicity, shot through with occasional southernisms but hiding its punch in the pictorial potential and metaphoric magic of a language in which simple nouns with Germanic roots—Aufhebung, Verklärung—require knowledge of theology-turned-philosophy and leave the translator at a loss whether Verklärung should be rendered as transfiguration (as in the assumption of Christ) or as the more modest idealization. In his 2010 novella Mein Jenseits (My World to Come), which constitutes part three of the just-published Muttersohn (Mother’s Son), unrequited love becomes the fuel of faith. Faith is the willingness to believe that something can come into being that cannot possibly come into being: “Believing so that something will be where now there is nothing.” Walser uses the term Verklärungsbereitschaft. What he means is a human’s basic need to believe and make the world (if only in his perception of it) fuller and more beautiful than it is.

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