All For Nothing, recently released by The New York Review of Books, takes place in East Prussia in winter of 1945 when the German army is in retreat and the Red Army is rapidly encroaching. There is a mass exodus of refugees fleeing in below zero weather, with over 300,000 perishing. The well-to-do von Globig family goes about its insulated days in its warm and comfortable manor, the Georgenhof, barely registering the imminent doom they face. Although Katharina, the mother with her head in the clouds, is warned by her husband via telegram from Italy to flee, she takes no concrete action, seemingly invincible in the family citadel, reading, cutting flower silhouettes from black paper, window gazing from her room while her bookish son, Peter, is left to view these events from his unquestioning child’s eye. The Georgenhof however, becomes a pit-stop for fleeing refugees, including a stamp collecting pollical 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 restraint with which Kempowski writes in that he leaves the emotion for the reader to fill in on his own. This opens the story to multitudes of interpretation as perceptions of the same event can result in different points of view. Similar 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 given, with, in this case, almost no embellishment. Kempowski exercises this technique to perfection. He shows great respect to the reader by trusting him/her to interpret mere facts, albeit through his own lens.
Max Frisch expressed this technique (though not this book) very well in an interview when he said, “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.”
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