When the editors of the Süddeutsche Zeitung planned out their 20-book set “Selected Munich,” Siegfried Sommer must have seemed a natural to kick off the series. He had been born in the city in 1914, died there in 1996, lived practically all of his life in Munich except for his time in the army during World War II. After the war, the occupation authorities deemed him sufficiently non-Nazi that he was allowed to work for the newly founded Süddeutsche. Although he had published a small amount before the war, he came into his own with the newspaper work. In 1949, he switched to a competing Munich paper, the Abendzeitung (Evening Newspaper, often called AZ) and in December of that year he started a local column titled “Blasius the Pedestrian.” He continued writing Blasius for nearly 40 years and almost 3500 pieces, ending on January 2, 1987.
Two years after Sommer’s death, and about six months after I moved to the city, Munich honored him with a life-sized statue on the south side of the downtown pedestrian zone. Set not on a pedestal but on a mount only about an inch high, the statue depicts a slightly rumpled man in a half-zipped jacket, newspaper under his arm, walking the city and observing, as Sommer must have done to gather the material for his column. The statue appears on the cover of Und keiner weint mir nach, with a bit of the view towards Munich’s central square.
The book, first published in 1954, takes place in and around the house at Mondstrasse 46, which is a real enough address in contemporary Munich but not as Sommer depicts it. The building that Sommer describes is a cheaply built set of apartments five stories tall, including the set of three up under the roof. All the other floors have five apartments, except the ground floor that is divided between the Hausmeister‘s (superintendent’s) rooms and those of the Steins, a family so proud that no one has seen the interior of their apartment. Sommer sketches each of the families or persons in the building’s 20 apartments, building up a portrait of lower middle-class Munich life.
On the one hand, this approach allows Sommer to introduce the complete ensemble, to show readers how closely involved the tenants are with each other’s lives, and to begin to portray the dynamics among the different people in the house. On the other hand, for a casual reader it is a lot of characters to keep track of all at once, and I was not always certain whose job was sharpening scissors, who drank and who abstained, who was barely hanging on to a job, and who was determined to come up in the world. Fairly soon, though, Sommer devotes more attention to the group of kids who live together in Mondstrasse and play in the street out front or in the various yards and construction sites nearby.
The book begins in the the mid-1920s, after the tumults and hyperinflation of Weimar Germany’s early years (in particular, the first Nazi putsch in Munich), but before the Great Depression. The timing is not immediately clear — or at least it wasn’t to me, perhaps there are more subtle signs that I missed — but that is also an effect of Sommer’s extremely close focus on events in and around the Mondstrasse. The characters are not interested in the wider world (although one is very casually nicknamed “Nazi” Kastl); most of them have difficulties enough getting by day to day.
In time, Sommer brings Leonhard Knie, generally called Leo, to the book’s main focus. Leo lives alone with his half-blind grandmother. He’s a sensitive youth, at pains to hide that from his male peers. None of the kids from the Mondstrasse are headed for higher education. Sommer is generally non-judgemental in his descriptions, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions, but occasional he shows his fierce views about the shortcomings of pre-war Germany. “Bubi Rupp sat there. Fear sat with him. The fear would have been easy for a good person to take away, because it was a silly fear. But the head teacher and the teacher and the other instructors deliberately left it there because with fear you can train entire peoples and also because the teachers were fearful enough themselves, so that they were pleased if they could share some of that fear, even though it did not lessen their own at all.” (p. 87)
They all finish school at age 14 and look for an apprenticeship of one sort or another. The childhood friendships that have been shown over the first third of the book begin to drift apart as the young people are pulled into the world of work. One is an apprentice barber, another an office boy; Leo, like Siegfried Sommer, is apprenticed to an electrician.
The firm, led by a master, supported by a secretary and staffed by two more apprentices, is not in good shape. The two older apprentices are quick to show Leo the various systems they have developed for slacking off. The master is having an affair with the secretary, and it is a tumultuous one. Nevertheless, Leo likes all of the people in the firm. It is his first taste of responsibility and earning money, and he feels loyal to the people who are teaching him.
On weekends, Leo and his friends go dancing, mostly at a place — club would be too fine a word — called “Maskottchen,” the Little Mascot. They try to impress each other and girls; Leo knows the tricks for paying as little as possible, and he builds something of a friendship with the house band’s trumpeter. The one girl they don’t take dancing with them is Marilli Kosemund, who likewise lives in Mondstrasse 46 and is a bit of a free spirit. She’s very sweet on Leo, and he returns the interest but can’t quite summon the nerve to make her really his girlfriend. After a few attempts to spur him on, Marilli basically shrugs and finds other, somewhat older, men as recipients of her affection.
Leo’s fortunes start to fall when the firm he is apprenticed with goes bankrupt. The master may have been congenial to Leo, but he was hardly the model of a successful businessman. By this time, too, the Depression has arrived, although Sommer never names it as such. Leo keeps going to the shop, even when it eventually moves to the master’s apartment because he can no longer pay for a separate workshop, because at least a little money comes in from time to time that way. In the meantime, there is unemployment insurance, and Sommer describes acutely how the unemployed are made to wait and subject to further indignities in collecting their relief money. “Friday was payday. However, before the unemployed could receive their relief money, which they had paid in double or triple with their contributions, and which they were unwillingly and graciously paid, after deductions for the bureaucrats and ministers, for the administrative costs and gasoline payments for the official cars…” (p. 207)
Leo has never had very much initiative — he missed opportunities with Marilli and other girls, he more or less fell into his apprenticeship — though on the other hand he is just a teenager, and Sommer shows very well that state between child and adult, partaking of both.
A man that Leo has met in the local soup kitchen takes him to a dive bar, and Leo sees some of Munich’s down and out. “Nobody is crying for them,” he thinks, and in a mood of teen drama he feels he belongs with them. He’s also lost his best childhood friend in a dispute concerning a girl. To make matters worse, Leo basically brought that dispute on himself through a combination of poor judgement, putting on air, and being economical with the truth. Other friends are drifting further, called to northern Germany as part of their training programs, or too taken with work to hang out anymore. Increasingly isolated, he finds some solace with a prostitute named Fanny. When she says she is pregnant by him, Leo’s world collapses and he takes 28 of his grandmother’s sleeping pills at one go. One of Leo’s last thoughts is “Nobody will cry for me,” “Und keiner weint mir nach.”
Like a real loss, it is sudden and terribly sad. In the remaining fifth of the book, Sommer pulls back out of the tight focus he had established and shows more of the fates of the building’s residents as the Depression turns into the Nazi era and then to the war. One family inherits a big house, only to return a few years later when the money has run out. The proud residents of the ground floor never do unbend. The majority of Leo’s male friends from school do not survive the war. The army reports heroic deaths, but afterward one commanding officer returns to bring some effects home and tells the dead soldier’s father about a death that was far more horrific than heroic. Another bereaved father had been a civil servant and kept a portrait of the Leader (who is not named in the text) prominently displayed in the family’s apartment. After their son’s death, the civil servant throws the portrait into the courtyard, cursing the leader for a dog.
Although the ending is very sad, the book itself is full of life, people being good to each other, people sometimes being horrible to each other. The kids bustle with energy, as adolescents they are exploring and trying to one-up each other; the adults around them contend with their own tasks and issues, some more eccentric than others. These are not stories that change the world, and yet they mean the world to the people living them. Und keiner weint mir nach was made into a film that got modest reviews, but it has not to my knowledge been translated into English.