#RivetingReviews: John Munch reviews AN ORDINARY YOUTH by Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski’s emergence late in life as a creditable — though perhaps not the stand-out — member of the European literary elite was a long time coming. Neglect of his work, the author once said, caused “a cancer to grow in my soul”. It also left him with an unyielding resentment that a fellow German, the Nobel prize-winning Günter Grass, was perceived as the conscience of the nation while Kempowski was hobbled by “people’s disregard and silence.”

Both writers, whose life spans closely overlapped, were drawn unswervingly toward the theme of Third Reich atrocities. Their strategies in confronting this awesome subject could hardly have been more different. Grass addressed it in a symbolic and ironic form in his master-work, The Tin Drum, a work of startling creativity.

Kempowski in contrast adopted a thinly veiled autobiographical stance in his novels focused on a mix of gritty, downbeat realism and understatement. His father was a comfortably-off ship owner and shipping agent in the industrial port city of Rostock. On his writing desk at home was a cobblestone he used as a paperweight. “On the wall: Hitler, Hindenburg and Bismarck,” a pictorial roll call of fearsome Teutonic Ordnung.

The family, encased in an environment of bourgeois rectitude, lived out an eerily ‘ordinary’ quotidian routine. Life in his fictive (and presumably actual) world proceeded for the most part impassively even in the war years while mayhem ruled on the blood-soaked fringes of the Hitlerian regime.

Since Kempowski’s death in 2007 there has been an upswing in his international reputation triggered in part by translations of three of his works for the first time from the original German into English. These have widened the reach of his oeuvre on the world stage while in the process burnishing his reputation. An Ordinary Youth, just published by Granta which has taken Kempowski translations under its wing in the Anglosphere, benefits not only from an excellent translation by Michael Lipkin, but also his identification and annotation of folk songs, propaganda snippets and literary references that are threaded through the text.

On the surface, it is a droll and disconcerting coming-of-age account in an age where barbaric dystopia reigns elsewhere in the world. Rostock and its inhabitants are seen through the eyes of a jazz-loving, piano-playing teenager more engaged by the prodigal genius of the blind US phenomenon Art Tatum and other American jazz idols than in bowing to the gruff dictates of the HitlerJugend hierarchy.

For young Kempowski Rostock is “a city that terrible architects botched for hundreds of years. It was amazing that despite everything the city still had certain charms”. An Ordinary Youth charts his gradual and imperfect awakening to the demons that underlie his birthplace. Manfred, a quiet school friend, shows him a house near a burnt-out synagogue with a broken star of David on the wrought-iron gate where the “real Jews live” and where a severed finger had been found. “They murdered Christians, dismembered them and chucked them out,” Manfred assures him. 

At school he is told he should be proud to be living through such trying times. “We were supposed to study twice as hard now; whoever didn’t work was a saboteur.” The pace of narration is langourous, almost fractured, led by someone striving to come to terms with momentous events he is not fully equipped to comprehend. Family members make fragmentary references to Hitler. “A fabulous man. What is a country in our position supposed to do without him?” Kempowski’s grandfather asks.

It is said that one reason the book was only translated into English after a half-century gap was that to recreate the idiosyncratic tone of the original in a different language would be impossible. Take for instance the book’s mystifying title in German, Tadellöser & Wolff, a phrase young Walter utters periodically through the years. It is a play on a well-known cigar brand, Löser & Wolff. ‘Tadellos’ is German for flawless. Hence Walter’s nonsense phrase signifying positivity, a quality he and his generation in Rostock necessarily crave.

Reviewed by John Munch

AN ORDINARY YOUTH

by Walter Kempowski

translated by Michael Lipkin

published by Granta (2023)

March 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


John Munch started his career as a reporter and editor on the Cambridge News. He then worked for the Sheffield Morning Telegraph, the Guardian and the London Evening Standard. In the 1970s, he reported for the Toronto Star, before spending twenty-five years on the Financial Times.

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