Kempowski, Walter 1929-
KEMPOWSKI, Walter 1929-
PERSONAL: Born April 29, 1929, in Rostock, Germany; son of Karl-Georg (in shipping) and Margarethe (a teacher and homemaker; maiden name, Collasius) Kempowski; married Hildegard Janssen (a teacher), April 20, 1960; children: Karl-Friedrich, Renate. Ethnicity: "Norddeutscher." Education: Graduated from Padagogische Hochschule (teaching college), Göttingen, West Germany (now Germany), 1960.
ADDRESSES: Home—Haus Kreienhoop, 27404 Nartum, Germany; fax: 04288-600. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House, Neumarkterstraße 17, 81673 Munich, Germany.
CAREER: Teacher and archivist in Nartum, Germany, 1960-80; freelance writer, 1969—. University of Oldenburg, professor of literature and pedagogy, 1980-90. Military service: German Army, Luftwaffe, 1945.
MEMBER: PEN International, Freie Akademie Hamburg.
AWARDS, HONORS: Prize for Developing Writers under auspices of Lessing Prize, City of Hamburg, 1971; Prize for Developing Writers under auspices of Gryphius Prize, 1972; Karl Szuka Prize, 1977; Lower Saxony Prize, 1979; Federal Service Cross, First Class, German government, 1979; Bambi Prize, 1980; Jakob Kaiser Prize (with Eberhard Fechner), 1980; Radio Play Prize of the War-Blinded, 1981, for Moin Vaddr læbt; Konrad Adenauer Prize, 1994, and Uwe-Johnson-Prize, 1995, both for Das Echolot: ein kollektives Tagebuch, Januar und Februar 1943; Großes Bundesverdienst-kreuz du Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1996; Heimito-von-Dodever Preis, 2000.
Tadellöser & Wolff: ein bürgerlicher Roman, C. Hanser (Munich, Germany), 1971.
Uns geht's ja noch gold: Roman einer Familie (title means "We're Still Doing Well"), C. Hanser (Munich, Germany), 1972.
Ein Kapitel für Sich (title means "A Chapter in Itself"), C. Hanser (Munich, Germany), 1975.
Aus grosser Zeit A. Knaus (Munich, Germany), 1978, translation by Leila Vennewitz published as Days of Greatness, Knopf (New York, NY), 1981.
Schöne Aussicht (title means "Beautiful View"), A. Knaus (Hamburg, Germany), 1981.
Herzlich willkommen (title means "Hearty Welcome"), A. Knaus (Hamburg, Germany), 1984.
Hundstage, A. Knaus (Munich, Germany), 1988, translation by Norma S., Garold N. Davis, and Alan F. Keele published as Dog Days, Camden House (Columbia, SC), 1991.
Mark und Bein: eine Episode, A. Knaus (Munich, Germany), 1992.
Weltschmerz: kinderszenen fast zu ernst, A. Knaus (Munich, Germany), 1995.
Heile Welt, A. Knaus (Munich, Germany), 1998.
Letzte Grüsse, A. Knaus (Munich, Germany), 2003.
Im Block: ein Haftbericht (autobiography; title means "In the Block"), Rowohlt (Reinbeck, Germany), 1969.
Der Hahn im Nacken: Mini-Geschichten, Rowohlt (Reinbeck, Germany), 1973.
(Compiler) Haben Sie Hitler gesehen? Deutsche Antworten, C. Hanser (Munich, Germany), 1973, translation by Michael Roloff published as Did You Ever See Hitler? German Answers, Avon (New York, NY), 1975.
(Compiler) Immer so durchgemogelt: Erinnerungen an unsere Schulzeit (nonfiction; title means "Always Tricked My Way Through"), C. Hanser (Munich, Germany), 1974.
Walter Kempowskis Harzreise erläutert (travel; title means "Walter Kempowski's Trip to the Harz Mountains"), C. Hanser (Munich, Germany), 1975. Alle unter einem Hut: Über 179 Witzige und Amüsante
Alltags-Minimini-Geshicten in Großdruckschrift, Loewe Verlag (Bayreuth, Germany), 1976.
Wer will unter die Soldaten?, photographs by Rolf Betyna and Jürgen Stahf, C. Hanser (Munich, Germany), 1976.
Schnoor: Bremen zwischen Stavendamm und Balge, photographs by Hansgerhard Westphal, Schmalfeldt (Bremen, Germany), 1978.
Unser Herr Böckelmann, illustrated by Roswitha Quadflieg, A. Knaus (Hamburg, Germany), 1979.
(Compiler) Haben Sie davon gewusst? Deutsche Antworten (nonfiction; title means "Did You Know about It? German Answers"), A. Knaus (Hamburg, Germany), 1979.
(Compiler) Mein Lesebuch, Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag (Frankfurt, Germany), 1979.
Kempowskis einfache Fibel, Westermann (Brunswick, Germany), 1980.
Beethovens Fünfte und Moin Vaddr læbt (manuscripts and notes for two radio plays), Knaus, 1982.
Herrn Böckelmanns Schoenste Tafelgeschichten nach dem ABC Geordnet, Knaus, 1983.
(With others) 105 Jahre Bertelsmann, 1835-1985: dieGeschichte des Verlagsunternehmens in Texten, Bildern, und Dokumenten, C. Bertelsmann Verlag (Munich, Germany), 1985.
Haumiblau: Kindergeschichten, Bertelsmann (Munich, Germany), 1986.
(Editor) Christian Morgenstern, Ein Knie geht einsam durch die Welt: mein liebstes Morgenstern-Gedicht, Piper (Munich, Germany), 1989.
Sirius: eine art Tagebuch, A. Knaus (Munich, Germany), 2nd edition, 1990.
(Compiler) Das Echolot: ein kollektives Tagebuch,Januar und Februar 1943 (diaries; title means "The Echo-Sounder"), four volumes, A. Knaus (Munich, Germany), 2nd edition, 1993.
(Compiler) Bloomsday '97, A. Knaus (Munich, Germany), 1997. (Compiler) Das Echolot: fuga furiosa; ein kollektivesTagebuch, Winter 1945, four volumes, A. Knaus (Munich, Germany), 1999.
(Compiler) Alkor: Tagebuch 1989, A. Knaus (Munich, Germany), 2001.
(Compiler) Das Echolot: Barbarossa '41; ein kollektives Tagebuch, A. Knaus (Munich, Germany), 2002.
ADAPTATIONS: Many of Kempowski's novels have been adapted for German television and radio.
SIDELIGHTS: German author, playwright, and teacher Walter Kempowski is perhaps best known for his semi-autobiographical novels about a family which bears the same name as his own. Through these novels, he not only discusses things which actually happened to himself and his parents and siblings, but provides a fictional portrait of Germany's history from the turn of the century through its division following World War II. Kempowski did not pen these stories in chronological order; the first in terms of chronological setting was translated as Days of Greatness for English-speaking readers in 1981. Kempowski is also notable in his own country for his radio plays. One, titled "Moin Vaddr läbt," uses a made-up language based on Yiddish and garnered him a Radio Play Prize of the War-Blinded. He has won several other German literary awards. One of the author's nonfiction works has also been translated into English; he compiled Haben Sie Hitler gesehen? Deutsche Antworten, which became available in the United States as Did You Ever See Hitler? German Answers in 1975.
Kempowski was born in the German city of Rostock in 1929, to a family of shipping merchants. He was the youngest child, and his early days were fairly untroubled, except for a struggle against scarlet fever during the year 1940. As Patricia H. Stanley reported in her entry on Kempowski for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, he "was not an athletic child" but instead "inherited the parents' artistic interests: he played the piano and the organ, went to concerts with his mother, and read voraciously."
Like many boys of his time and place, Kempowski was a member of the Hitler Youth organization, starting in 1939. In Stanley's words, this meant that "he wore a uniform on required occasions, learned to march, went on camping trips, and spent some vacation time working on a farm." Within the Hitler Youth, Kempowski was valued for his musical talent and often helped provide entertainment at the group's larger events. When Germany became actively engaged in World War II, however, both Kempowski's father and older brother Robert were sent to fight. In early 1945, as war fortunes grew increasingly worse for Germany, the Nazi army drafted Kempowski himself as a courier, though he was not yet sixteen years old. His father died in combat.
For the rest of the Kempowski family, the war ended when the forces of the Soviet Union took Rostock. Walter Kempowski temporarily relocated to the part of Germany occupied by the United States, but only three years later, he returned to Rostock because of homesickness. Not long afterwards, the Kempowski brothers were arrested by the Soviets as spies; not long after that, their mother was also arrested. She spent a little under six years in a women's work camp; Walter and Robert spent eight years in a similar facility for men.
Upon his release, Walter Kempowski determined he would become both a teacher and a writer, and enrolled in a teachers' college in Göttingen. By 1960 he had married a fellow student, Hildegard Janssen, and obtained his first school position. His first book, Im Block: ein Haftbericht, was a factual account of his years in the Soviet prison camp, published in 1969. The book did not do well commercially; Stanley explained this phenomenon thus: "That was not . . . a good time to bring out revelations of East German prison life; the public was more interested in the political consequences of the student movement of the past year."
Kempowski's next book, though based on factual events in his family's history, was fictionalized into novel form. Tadellöser & Wolff: ein bürgerlicher Roman takes its title from an untranslatable yet joyous exclamation habitual to Kempowski's father, and the story begins in 1939, when Kempowski was ten years old. For the most part, he gives the characters the real names of the family members who inspired them, including himself. The tale stems from the Kempowskis' celebratory move into a larger apartment to the end of World War II when Rostock is invaded by the Soviets. As Stanley explained, "The reader sees a mixture of trivial and significant moments so representative of life in that traumatic wartime period that Germans who read the book recaptured part of their own past." As a result, she continued, "the novel immediately became popular, and in the same year several passages were dramatized for radio."
The fictionalized Kempowski family chronicle continues with Uns geht's ja noch gold: Roman einer Familie, which comes from another family colloquialism meaning "we're still doing well." This title is somewhat ironic, because the novel deals with the time between the end of the war and Kempowski's imprisonment, a time in which the family learned of the father's death and in which the mother had to work very hard to ensure the family's survival. Following that was Ein Kapitel für Sich, which means "a chapter in itself," the novelization of the life events he had already chronicled in Im Block. Of this version, Stanley observed that "Walter's chapters occupy most of the novel and show his development to manhood in the unusual environment of prison. The book is thus a bildungsroman of sorts"; she added, "Even the negative impact of the delicately described homosexual episodes and the periods of solitary confinement contribute to Walter's education."
For the next book in his family saga, Kempowski goes back to what would prove the beginning. In Aus grosser Zeit, readers see the upbringing of the parental characters from the other books; the novel opens in the year 1900. "The reader, who has already met the family, will find here the origin of many sayings and incidents alluded to in the other novels," Stanley reported. "He knows already that the grandparents' coldness, rigidity, and even cruelty did not repeat themselves in Karl-Georg and Margarethe's parental roles but produced the opposite effect." Idris Parry, reviewing the English-language version, Days of Greatness, in the Times Literary Supplement, noted that the author "seems to have deliberately muted the plot in order to emphasize that human destiny is . . . only part of the total scene. His concern is not merely human character but the character of an age, and this he establishes forcefully and convincingly."
Kempowski's novel Schöne Aussicht bridges the gap between Aus grosser Zeit and Tadellöser & Wolff. The "beautiful view" of the title is that of the splendid apartment Karl-Georg decides to rent for his family at the end of the novel—the apartment in which Tadellöser & Wolff begins. One of Schöne Aussicht 's highlights, according to Stanley, is the section in which the mother and her siblings have a family reunion at the seashore. "Whether or not this episode actually happened, it is charmingly portrayed," she remarked. Kempowski ended his long family saga with Herzlich willkommen, which means "hearty welcome." In this volume, his semi-autobiographical protagonist returns to his family after being released from prison, goes to teaching college, and acquires a bride. Wes Blomster, reviewing the saga's end in World Literature Today, compared Kempowski to famed German novelist Thomas Mann, and concluded that "the superb quality of Kempowski's writing—and this is perhaps stronger and more touching here than in any of the earlier volumes—is the authenticity of sentiment encountered in it."
Another Kempowski novel, Hundstage, unrelated to his family saga, and published in his native land in 1988, was translated into English as Dog Days in 1991. In the novel, protagonist Alexander Sovtschick, in his late fifties, is trying to work on his next novel while his wife is away on vacation. The matter is complicated when a mentally retarded girl he has always been kind to is murdered, and he becomes the chief suspect. Critical opinion of the work was somewhat divided; a Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that the combination of serious literature with murder mystery did not mix well, and added that "Sovtschick's interminable musings make this lengthy novel . . . a slow read." R. Swenson in Choice, however, described it as "a lively, readable story with an unending variety of literary pleasures." Similarly, Wes Blomster in World Literature Today declared it an "exceedingly enjoyable and well-written novel. Kempowski's honesty about the nature of human sensuality makes the narrative especially compelling."
Kempowski's efforts in the capacity of editor or compiler are also worthy of attention. In Haben Sie Hitler gesehen?, Kempowski collected the anonymous answers and anecdotes of 230 people with whom he talked during his travels throughout Germany. In Immer so durchgemogelt: Erinnerungen an unsere Schulzeit, which means "Always Tricked My Way Through," Kempowski records similar recollections from anonymous German interviewees about their primary schooling. A later project, Das Echolot: ein kollektives Tagebuch, Januar und Februar 1943, provides readers with letters and diary entries about how the first two months of the year 1943 were perceived by various German participants in World War II. Kempowski's selected sources range from a female inmate of the concentration camp Auschwitz to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's physician. Denis Stauton gave high praise to Das Echolot in the Observer, concluding that "in bringing together all these memories Kempowski has undoubtedly created an important work of art but, more significantly, he has produced a profound and moving monument to national shame, spoken by the individual, authentic voices of the German nation."
Kempowski has continued his work with additional publications related to Das Echelot.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 75: Contemporary German Fiction Writers, Second Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.
Hacken, Richard, and Bernd Hagenau, compilers, Walter Kempowski zum sechzigsten Geburtstag, A. Knaus (Munich, Germany), 1989.
Choice, March, 1992, R. Swenson, review of DogDays, p. 1083.
Journal of European Studies, March, 2002, Richard Aston, "Amnesia and Anamnesis in the Works of Walter Kempowski: Language, History, and Evasion of Guilt," p. 27.
New York Times Book Review, August 25, 1991, p. 14.
Observer, January 16, 1994, Denis Stauton, review of Das Echolot: ein kollektives Tagebuch, Januar und Februar 1943.
Publishers Weekly, April 5, 1991, review of Dog Days, p. 136.
Times Literary Supplement, January 22, 1982, Idris Parry, review of Days of Greatness, p. 76.
World Literature Today, spring, 1985, Wes Blomster, review of Herzlich willkommen, p. 262; autumn, 1989, pp. 671-672; summer, 1991, Wes Blomster, review of Dog Days, p. 484; autumn, 1992, pp. 710-711.