Wolfgang Koeppen was born in 1906 and thus grew up in Germany’s Weimar years. He published his first two novels after the Nazi takeover but before the war began. At first, his work as a scriptwriter for film studios in Munich made him exempt from the draft. Following a bomb attack, he went underground and made it through the rest of the war without attracting official notice.
He made his mark with three post-war novels, published in the first half of the 1950s: Tauben im Gras (Pigeons in the Grass, 1951), Das Treibhaus (The Hothouse, 1953), and Der Tod im Rom (Death in Rome, 1954). I read Treibhaus when it was re-published in the early 2000s as part of the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s first set of 50 great novels from the 20th century. It’s a terrific book that captures the political atmosphere of Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder years. The new capital of Bonn was often called a hothouse because it was so small compared to Berlin, and because in its overheated atmosphere some species grew that wouldn’t have survived colder climes.
Pigeons in the Grass is a much rawer book, with all of its action taking place on one day early in Munich’s years under American occupation. It’s written in near stream-of-consciousness, with occasional interjections of NEWSPAPER HEADLINES in the middle of Koeppen’s long sentences. He follows several people as they make their way through the day, writing in the third person and moving in and out of their thoughts, sometimes showing what they do, sometimes relating their internal monologues, sometimes depicting the action only through what they see and here. There is Alexander, the famous actor who is playing the title role in a luxurious production about a Grand Duke; the people are tired of seeing their own privations on the big screen and want to escape into a gilded fantasy world. There is his young daughter Hillegonda who has been given over to the not so tender care of a nanny from the countryside who is convinced that the show-biz parents are horrible sinners. She drags Hillegonda to early mass, telling her to repent; Hillegonda is mostly puzzled by the idea of God, but she knows she doesn’t like the nanny.
Struggling author Philipp is very close to Koeppen’s own background; he published books before the war that have been utterly forgotten in the meantime. His much younger wife, the last of a wealthy family, keeps them afloat by selling heirlooms. In contrast to Philipp, who runs away from commissions from newspapers and Alexander’s film company, and who does not set down a single word during the course of Pigeons in the Grass (and indeed seems not to have written for quite some time), Koeppen wrote the novel in just three months.
His cast grows as the day goes on. There is an American poet who has been invited to Munich to talk about culture; there is a group of school teachers from Massachusetts who are touring Germany, one of them winds up getting quite tipsy with Philipp’s wife and then late in the evening nearly seduced by Philipp himself. There are two different African-American soldiers, one of whom is living with Carla, a German woman, scandalizing the neighborhood. There is Heinz, 13, Carla’s son from her marriage to a man who went off to war on the Eastern Front and has not been heard from since. There is an old porter who has handled baggage all his working life and never taken a trip himself, except for one expedition as a soldier when he went to kill or be killed. There is Carla’s mother, who is even more scandalized than the neighborhood and nearly starts a riot at the beer hall where she has gone to meet Richard, an American pilot and distant relative, who is just briefly in Munich. There is Messalina, Alexander’s wife, also a show-biz person, given to sparkling parties that often slide into affairs and excess.
Koeppen’s characters cycle through the city, sometimes intersecting with each other, sometimes merely passing nearby. He captures a time when Germany was still poor and rebuilding. The seeds of the economic miracle have been planted, but are still far from blooming. The weeds of the previous era are still quite visible, from the literal ruins to the people widely known to have been enthusiastic Nazis (and who have not changed their views, though maybe they speak them quietly) to people who would happily take up the call to run out the foreigners if only someone would start something, to people really just wanting to start something, anything. There’s an enormous amount of PTSD depicted in Pigeons in the Grass, though of course it’s not called that.
Despite his revival in the Süddeutsche’s lovely edition, Koeppen is probably not much read these days. That’s too bad; he shows many of the nasty undercurrents of the Wirtschaftwunder years, that not everyone was keen on the democratic turn that Germany took, much less of the mixed army of conquerors who were not only victorious but incomparably wealthy. Those currents are still present in Germany, as in any modern society, and recognizing that the economic miracle wasn’t all economics and wasn’t all miracles helps keep present developments in perspective. Koeppen captures the era by showing people from many different levels of Munich and bringing them to life (his imagination of 1950s Baton Rouge, however, looks very off to someone who grew up there a couple of decades later), particularly how they interact with the occupiers.
Pigeons in the Grass is not the kind of book that offers much in the way of resolution. The day ends; some people are changed by the day’s events (one even dies), but the next one will dawn on Munich all too soon. Alexander will be back on the set, Philipp will probably not be writing, Messalina will be trying to improve her next guest list, and so forth. Germany will still be in the middle, uneasy between East and West, catching its breath between one war and the next one that seemed so likely in 1953.