The German Voice
A journey to the source of Martin Walser’s fiction.
Oct 31, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 07 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
This, says Walser, is his program as a writer. Writing and faith are both fueled by an awareness of absence, of loss, of the lack of something. Writing, like faith, is fueled by need. This message, packaged and repackaged by Walser in his dynamic German, has made him a wealthy man. It also helps that Walser is wickedly witty, and that his high sensitivity to slights in the press—no writer is more ardently attacked—and his keen observation of vanity have made him one of the great media satirists of German literature. He has also written a slew of plays that skewer German hypocrisies.
Why is it, then, that unlike Günter Grass or Peter Handke or Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Walser has no presence in America? The last English translation of a Walser novel appeared in 1989. When an Italian journalist came to see him three years ago, Walser asked what Italians were thinking of him. The answer was: troppo tedesco—too German. Wasn’t there a time when Faulkner was troppo Americano? Faulkner wasn’t widely read until he won the Nobel Prize in 1949. Walser is not Faulkner, for sure, but he would have to make the Second World War and the fate of the Jews the subtext of all his novels in the way the Civil War and slavery haunt Faulkner’s decrepit South. That is not where Walser is going.
Walser’s theory is that he isn’t published in America anymore because, following his 1998 acceptance speech for the Peace Prize, Germany’s highest award for intellectuals, the German media created the impression that he wanted to end Holocaust remembrance. And the media, so Walser says, intensified its campaign against him in the wake of his 2002 novel Tod eines Kritikers (Death of a Critic) in which a viciously destructive German star critic—clearly modeled on Germany’s own literary pope, Marcel Reich-Ranicki—appears to have been murdered. But the critic pops up again at the end—after a successful erotic escapade!—to continue his dismissals of toiling German writers. The fact that Reich-Ranicki had survived the Warsaw Ghetto suggested that Walser’s resurrection of the “murdered” critic should be read as intolerable anti-Semitism and set off a witch hunt against him. Long-term friendships were publicly broken. The writer and literary scholar Ruth Klüger, who had survived Auschwitz and had known Walser since their student days in Regensburg in the ’40s, broke her ties to him. Elie Wiesel made it known that future editions of his Holocaust memoir-novel Night would be published without the introduction Walser had written in 1962.
But the half-life of scandal is short. In the nine years since Martin Walser was publicly accused, tried, and found guilty of anti-Semitism, the media found other obsessions. The very paper that threw the first accusatory stone, in 2002, serialized Walser’s 2008 novel about the 74-year-old Goethe’s unrequited love for the 19-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow. And the then-president of the Federal Republic, Horst Köhler, attended Walser’s first official reading, always celebrated at some choice location. This one took place in the castle at Weimar, Goethe’s old haunt, now famously near Buchenwald; surely a German president would not attend a reading by an anti-Semite?
Walser believes that his reputation in America has been irreparably damaged and speculates that because of the accusations of 1998 and 2002, no American publisher would touch him. But in fact, translation ceased after the publication of No Man’s Land (1989), an exceptionally weak novel about the division of Germany into two countries and Walser’s Empfindung that the two parts belong together. The German original, Dorle und Wolf, was published in the spring of 1987, two and a half years before the fall of the Wall. By that time Walser had completed his gradual move from left-wing social critic to enthusiast for rootedness in German landscapes, the German language and its regional varieties, German poetry, German history. He had sharpened his profile as a man who sees himself as part of the German nation understood as a community bound by shared experience (Schicksalsgemeinschaft). In Germany this marked him as a nationalist, and the connector between his leanings to the left and his leanings to the right was the loaded term Volk, suggesting Walser’s pretend anti-intellectual identification with ordinary, regionally rooted people living frustrated lives.
Yet those Jews whom Walser not only likes but esteems most highly as intellectual companions—Viktor Klemperer and Rudolf Borchardt foremost among them—were Jews who felt tied to Germany precisely in Walser’s ways, as well as through language and thought.