Since 1945, the top echelon of German literature has been dominated by a cadre of writers and critics who were children when Hitler came to power and on the brink of adulthood when the war was over. After two years in limbo, it fell to them, as members of the fabled literary Group 47, to restore the moral credibility of Germany’s high culture. And they executed this task in a tense pas de deux with the man who had been appointed Germany’s literary pope: Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a Polish Jew born in 1920 who had survived the Warsaw ghetto.
The Siegfried Lenz/Günter Grass/Martin Walser/Walter Kempowski set succeeded beyond expectation and cornered the literary market. So strong was their dominance that, as late as 2006, two writers in their 40s, in a despairing but ill-timed manifesto, called for an uprising against the “intellectual gerontocracy.” Since then, many of the old actors, among them Kempowski, Lenz, and Reich-Ranicki, have quit the stage. Grass died on April 13.
The legacy of the LGWK set is not only the creation of the quicksilver-sleek modern German they used in their political essays to lance their foes, but also its opposite—the creation of memoirs employing the baroque riches of the German spoken in the various landscapes of their childhoods, before these linguistic ecosystems were ruined by the Nazis and modernity: the East Prussia of Lenz, the Eastern Pomerania of Grass, the Rostock of Kempowski, the Upper Swabia of Walser. The regional varieties of German also reflect specific cultural mindsets—and drive translators to despair in their searches for English equivalents.
We are fortunate that the gifted translator David Dollenmayer has tackled one of the most important and historically challenging of these memoirs, Martin Walser’s 1998 narrative Ein springender Brunnen (A Gushing Fountain). This is Walser’s first book to be translated into English since his 1989 novel No Man’s Land, and its publication is an extraordinary opportunity to reencounter Walser at a high point in his career. The book, rendered in Dollenmayer’s variously robust and supple English, is a dazzling feat of literary craftsmanship, unmatched in German memoir writing—even if Walser makes the point, pace Proust, that the past is irretrievably lost, and that what can be regained is a figment of the imagination shaped by the writer’s needs in the present. While any psychoanalyst would probably agree with this, in Germany, where the moral restoration project is predicated on a precise retrievability of the past, this is not a politically correct position to take.
A Gushing Fountain covers three slices of history: the fall of 1932 to January 1933, when Walser’s mother, a deeply Catholic and anxiety-prone young woman, joined the Nazi party; the spring following the death of Walser’s father in January 1938; and the fall of 1944 to the summer 1945, when news arrived that his brother’s tank had been blown to bits and Martin, aged 17, was drafted into the mountain troops to defend Germany’s Alpine Fortress.
The title is derived from a poem in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which the soul is called “a gushing fountain.” Of course, this book’s true subject is a young man’s path to authorship, his decision to opt out of the coercive, uncouth language used by his peers (especially for sexual matters), and to develop a language authentically his own to express his evolving soul. It’s an utterly conventional romantic desire, as well as a glaring contradiction in terms, since language is purely a matter of social agreement. Similarly, the narrator’s desire to be totally free to write at the very moment that he ties himself emotionally and sexually to the girl who would become his lifelong, all-supportive wife is an instance of having one’s cake and eating it.
Contradictions and extremes that balance each other constitute the structural principle here. Walser tells us in the opening chapter that “nothing is true without its opposite.” This is clever as a creative device, but it is unnerving in what it obscures. The memoir, which Walser insists on calling a novel, is such a precise re-creation of the spatial and social topography of Wasserburg (the village on Lake Constance where Walser grew up) that, to this day, you can use it as a map to find your way around the place: “Nothing may appear as vividly [deutlich] as a village that no longer exists,” he quips, stressing the re-creative capacity of the emotionally engaged brain.