The German Voice
A journey to the source of Martin Walser’s fiction.
Oct 31, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 07 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
In 1979 Walser wrote that “not a day has passed since Auschwitz.” Time and again his speeches declare that the murder of the European Jews is an ineradicable and insurmountable part of German history, and one that pains him deeply. What he objected to in 1998 was the instrumentalization of German guilt for political ends. Holocaust remembrance rituals had taken on a religious significance in German public life and required politically correct behavior. That was clear to all. Walser objected to ritualized remembrance and its uses, and was ostracized for his objection. His punishment was an illustration of a media mechanism that Walser had already described as long ago as 1957, in his acceptance speech for the Hermann Hesse Prize. Criticism, he said, serves to elevate the critic morally at the expense of the criticized. It’s an old technique, and Jesus had exposed it by asking him who was without guilt to cast the first stone.
Yet despite Walser’s rehabilitation and reintegration into the German intellectual elite—which has always regarded itself as a moral elite—his bad reputation abroad clearly rankles him. So it was no surprise that, in response to my note in which I said I was a Jew visiting from America, a postcard arrived the next day: Would I please come see him? The postal service had delivered, and Walser had taken the bait.
You take a train to get to Nussdorf from Wasserburg. It’s an easy 50-minute ride with a change in Friedrichshafen, bombed to smithereens during 1943-45 because it was a center of the armament industry. The train courses swiftly through green farmland: Hops, apples, pears, cherries, plums, and, above all, green grapes for the smooth white wines of the region are the main crops. The train rushes west, away from Austria and toward France. The Swiss Alps are clearly visible across the lake. The placid, shimmering surface of the giant lake is almost always in sight, and the highlight is the moment when the train sweeps past the Birnau, a massive pink baroque church that looms large above a steep vine-yard. From far out on the lake it looks like a tiny crown atop a sweet crest of hills, an experience more eerie in the train. The few hundred yards that separate the vineyard on the right and the lake on the left create the sensation of a narrow funnel through which the train is sucked into Walser territory. Three minutes later we stop in Nussdorf, where there is only one track. The eastbound train has to wait in Überlingen, the next stop, for the westbound train to pass.
Walser waits on the platform: gracious, pleasant, welcoming. A white-haired gentleman, slightly stooped, bright blue eyes hidden under his trademark wild eyebrows. It is a short ride in his small Mercedes to his house, heading back toward the magnificent Birnau, in the midst of Walser territory. The region between the Danube and Lake Constance is dotted with churches and monasteries, secularized when Napoleon vanquished the German aristocrats. The clerical wealth disappeared into secular coffers; the worldly rulers benefited from the elimination of their religious rivals. But the beautiful buildings remained, and some now are schools, some museums, some mental hospitals. Walser’s novella Mein Jenseits is set in Schussenried, called Scherblingen (Shardsville) in the text, a monastery secularized in 1803 and used as a psychiatric hospital until 1997. The novella was a great critical success—although the usual mockers complained that, having exhausted sex in two novels about intensely horny old men who fear their decrepitude (Angstblüte, 2006, Ein liebender Mann, 2008), Walser had now found religion and renunciation as a cure.
In the stony foyer of Walser’s house, a venerable black dog guards an enormous pile of boxes. Three hundred copies of Muttersohn, Walser says with a shrug. A short set of stairs leads down into a living room dominated by books and his wife’s Steinway and a window front looking out over a lawn sloping down to the lake, which is half concealed by old trees as well as a generous growth of reeds. Visitors are customarily seated at a table on the terrace, served coffee and tea and a cake made with apricots, peaches, or plums, depending on the season. Käthe Walser, his wife of 61 years and mother of their four daughters (three writers, one actress), has typed every word of Walser’s that ever appeared in print. Of course she sits down with us, and it’s only now that I present my offering. It’s not the slim, 60-page sheaf I have in my bag, an English translation of Mein Jenseits; what I offer is my willingness to listen, to argue, to understand.
“I am totally dependent on being understood,” says Walser, and for several hours we talk, about the enthralling power of Catholicism to let the word become flesh, about the intellectual elegance of Judaism to let the word be the mediator between immanence and transcendence, about love as magical connector, about art as an invitation to idolatry or Verklärung, about the task of literature to make the world more beautiful than it is. I balk at this. And we could go around the block again. But it is late, and a call comes announcing the death of an acquaintance, and Walser has to sit down to write words of praise about the dead man for the next day’s paper.
As the train sweeps past the looming majesty of the Birnau, her Barbie-pink now dulled to gray by the night, and I am swooning at the thought of the church’s seductive interior, I become aware of the cultural distance separating the Birnau from Boston, and Nussdorf from Chicago, the two cities Walser will visit next month to explain himself to Americans. If he is right, his literary art, his novels about the longing for love, will function as the connector. It is only the décor of his works that appears troppo tedesco. Their core is familiar to all who have failed in love.
Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.