By Marilyn Macron
There is a mass exodus of refugees fleeing in below-zero weather; ultimately, 300,000 will perish. In their path is Georgenhof manor, where the well-to-do von Globig family goes about its days insulated not only from the cold but also from their imminent doom. MotherKatharina is warned by her husband via telegram from Italy to flee with their son and Auntie, but feeling invincible in the family citadel, she instead spends her days reading, cutting flower silhouettes from black paper and, head in the clouds, gazing out the window in her room. Her bookish son, Peter, is left alone to view what transpires, and he relates what he sees through his unquestioning child’s eye.
The Georgenhof soon becomes a pit-stop for an endless stream of the dispossessed, including a stamp collecting political economist, a Nazi violinist, a painter, a baron, and a Jewish refugee. The violinist even plays while rumbling sounds of fighting can be heard in the distance, recalling Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Vagueness and an inability to connect, however, do not keep danger at bay and reality shatters the von Globig family forever. Peter, the young son, is the only one to escape from the old world to the new.
What makes this book remarkable is the Kempowski’s restraint with emotion; he conveys none, trusting readers to intuit the feelings of the characters from their actions. This opens the story to multitudes of interpretation, as readers with different points of view might have different perceptions. Similar to what could be called The Isherwood I Am A Camera style (although Isherwood never used that phrase and apparently became annoyed when asked about it) facts are presented with almost no embellishment. It might be risky to give readers nothing to interpret but simple facts, albeit presented through his own lens, but trusting readers so implicitly is a rare act of respect by an author. Kempowski exercises this technique to perfection.
Max Frisch is another writer who has occasionally adopted this approach. He described it in an interview, “There are other ways to show them-body language, or silence-that can be very strong. And maybe, too, one has a distrust of words; one fears that they won’t be interpreted correctly. It’s very difficult to describe a feeling and not to lie a little bit, to put it on a higher level or to blind yourself. So I don’t trust myself to describe my feelings, but I like to show them by a piece of art. And as a reader I’m the same, I don’t like it if the author tells me what I have to feel. He has to urge the reader to get a feeling of shame or of hope. So there’s a lot of feeling, there’s a lot of emotion, but . . . not expressed in words.”
Perhaps the reason Kempowski exercised such restraint is that it meant too much to him. According to Kempowski, “Peter,’ obviously, is me – a second, a multiple self-portrait. Without that, I could not have written the book.”