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.
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.
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.
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.
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.