Recently I read Walter Kempowski’s novel All For Nothing, set in East Prussia in spring 1945. The Russian army’s arriving soon but a once well-to-do family can’t accept that fact. They temporize, fantasize, lie, betray, hold on pathetically to their disappearing lives. Only one survives. Kempowski’s a powerful writer. His theme of decay and collapse reminds me of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks; readers of both know the end’s coming but the vivid writing won’t let us stop turning pages.
Another Kempowski book, Swan Song (non-fiction), chooses special dates at the end of WWII: Hitler’s birthday, his death day, and that of the German capitulation. For each Kempowski provides documented quotations (short and long) from diaries, letters, newspapers, official statements, autobiographies, interviews. Who are his sources? Children, generals, POWs, telephonists, soldiers, concentration camp survivors, maids, critics, sweethearts, artists. They’re German, Russian, American, French, British, Other. Kempowski arranges all their voices into a kind of symphony that’s very hard to read but even harder to put down.
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