Monday, July 9, 2012

Death in Rome

Death in Rome first appeared in Germany in 1954 under the title Der Tod in Rom, and follows a German family gathering in Rome for the for the first time since the end of the war. The opening narrative is from Siegfried Pfaffrath the son of Friedrich Wilhelm Pfaffrath, Siegfried, a composer is in Rome with friend Kurenberg and his wife, they too are in the city on a conducting tour, (conducting one of Siegfrieds pieces), as the narrative continues it becomes apparent that Siegfried's and Kurenberg's wife come from the some town, but with markedly differing family backgrounds, the novel is built up of explorations of the characters pasts. The figure that looms largest in the book is that of Siegfried's Uncle Judejahn, a senior figure in the Nazi regime, although absent at Nuremburg he was sentenced to death, in fragments his escape is told and his slow re-emergence from hiding and of being on the run, his false name and papers, in a cafe he comes across some soldiers from a regiment he once commanded, to see Rome and to live in Judejahn's worldview is unsettling. As the book progresses the connections between the two sides of the family, (Pfaffrath and Judejahn), is revealed, the Klingspor sisters, Anna married to Frederich, Eva to Judejahn, the narrative is picked up through Adolf, Judejahn's son, a deacon - a calling much despised by his father, who makes contact with Siegfried who is unaware of the family gathering but is not in a hurry to participate, both men seem to be trying to escape from the legacies of their families. Judejahn travels through Rome, at a bar frequented mainly by homosexuals he meets the cashier Laura whom he begins to lust after. The novel conveys the differing traverses of the lives of its characters, the prose at times seems clipped but captures in unerring exactness the disolution of the family. The presence of Judejahn is a penetrating one, at times his portrait could be seen as being tinged with an acidic satire, but this barely conceals the horror that he carries with him, despite the defeat he battles on with the old ideology. Adolf and Siegfried although both trying to escape find themselves testing each other out, after being given money by Judejahn to spend on a woman, Adolf finds himself being goaded by Siegfried, the exercise ends in an ironic episode that once again turns against Judejahn.

The above is the Hamish Hamilton edition, the novel has most recently been published by Granta, I'm not too sure on the availability of this novel but it would be a major disdemnour if it were to ever slip out of print, the book rightly deserves to be regarded as a classic, Koeppens control over his prose and characterization is masterly, episodes end leaving the reader to ponder bigger questions, although the prose does read slightly clipped at times, it also has moments which could be described as cinematic, the moment when Adolf covers his eyes to avert seeing his father, cutting to Eva shielding her eyes from the sun can easily be envisioned as being one played out on the biggest of screens. The translation is by Michael Hofmann, who also gives an informative introduction to the novel, explaining the idiosyncrasies of the names of the characters in the novel. The cover is Late Visitors to Pompeii by Carel Willink

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