It is unfortunate that virtually nothing of Walter Kempowski, who died this October, has been translated into English. This prolific writer wrote novels in a highly entertaining and accessible style about the German middle class during and after the war. I'm sure he would find a wide audience in America. But Kempowski has been ignored by the literary establishment both here and, until recently, in Germany precisely because of his accessibility. He was not "literary" enough for the arbiters of taste, and the fact that his books were adored by millions of (mostly older) Germans only confirmed his inferiority as a serious writer.
If an American publishing house were to take on translating and publishing Kempowski's novels, it could do worse than to start with Letzte Grüße, Kempowski's penultimate novel, which holds a mirror up to America in a funny and bittersweet way. Letzte Grüße is in the tradition of Max Frisch's Montauk and Martin Walser's Die Brandung, novels of Old Europe confronting the New World. As in those novels, Letzte Grüße portrays an aging German escaping old, gray Germany for a revitalizing adventure in America with unforeseen and unintended consequences.
Letzte Grüße takes place in the fall of 1989. The German novelist Alexander Sowtschick is invited by a German cultural institute to make a tour of America as part of the German Weeks organized by the institute to showcase German - both east and west - culture. Sowtschick is approaching his 70th birthday and has a serious case of writer's block. His marriage is strained, he is being sued by a colleague, so Sowtschick figures a trip to America is just the thing to jolt him out of his professional and private funk.
From the moment he lands at JFK in New York the trip turns out to be a hilarious nightmare: nothing goes as planned. Although famous and successful in Germany, Sowtschick is unknown in America. He travels from university to university giving lectures and speeches to German departments, but no one has read any of his books. He realizes that the institute had branded him as "too conservative". Students and faculty flock to events featuring the East German (GDR) writers - considered exotic and modern - and avoid Sowtschick like the plague. Meanwhile, in the background Sowtschick is dimly aware of the tumultuous events back home as masses march in the streets of Dresden, Leipzig and East Berlin.
There are some wonderful and extremely funny descriptions of America and American Way of Life as Sowtschick makes side trips to Disney World, the Arizona Desert, the Mormon Tabernacle and a Native American reservation. Sowtschick is intrigued by the Amish, but somehow manages to offend them. The Native Americans he encounters are mostly drunk, the Mormons absurdly prudish. Every stereotype and cliché comes to the fore: the Americans are for the most part totally ignorant of Germany; Sowtschick is constantly asked if he was Nazi and served in the SS. For his part, the grumpy Sowtschick offends by asking to meet an American bomber pilot who participated in the destruction of Germany's Baroque churches.
I laughed out loud while reading Kempowski's send-up of the both the "literature business" and the petty academic establishment at American universities that feed on it. Sowtschick was preceded in his "German Weeks" tour by the famous poet of horse lyrics Ellen Butt-Prömse, who caused a scandal by showing a bit too much interest in the girls at a well-known women's college. Then Sowtschick is forced to spend time with a professor who achieved fame as an expert on the cloud imagery of Goethe's poetry.
The subplot in Letzte Grüße involves Sowtschick's relationship with Adolf Schätzing, a poet from East Germany who fled to the West. Sowtschick and Schätzing are apparent opposites: Schätzing is young and glamorous, Sowtschick is old and definitely unglamorous; Schätzing writes short hermetic lines of poetry, Sowtshick writes accessible novels; Schätzing is adored by the audiences, Sowtschick is ignored. Sowtschick always arrives at the various colleges and universities just a few days after Schätzing has departed, often staying in the same room where his rival had stayed. Sowtschick finds pieces of clothing and notes that Schätzing had left behind, giving him subtle clues about the poet. As the novel progresses, Sowtschick comes to realize that Schätzing are somehow connected with each other. that Schätzing is in fact his Doppelgaenger. He longs to see the death-worshiping Schätzing, who finally arrives just as Sowtschick lays dying in a shabby New York hotel room. The television in the room is broadcasting live scenes of jubilant crowds dancing on the Berlin Wall. A new era has begun for Germany.
Sowtschick's time has passed, but Kempowski lived to write one more novel: Alles Umsont - next on my list.