Koeppen, Wolfgang

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KOEPPEN, Wolfgang

Nationality: German. Born: Greifswald, 23 June 1906. Career: Actor, volunteer director, and dramaturgist, Wurzburg, Germany, 1926-27; editor and theater critic, Berliner Borsen Courier, Berlin, 1931-33; went into exile in Holland, 1934-38; scriptwriter for various German film studios, 1938-45; program director, South German Broadcasting Network, Munich, ca. 1950s. Awards: Georg Büchner prize, German Academy in Darmstadt, 1962; literature prize, Bavarian Academy of the Arts, 1965; Immermann prize, City of Düsseldorf, 1967; Andreas Gryphius prize, Artists' Guild, 1971; elected honorary Stadtschreiber (city writer), city of Bergen-Enkheim, 1974-75; Munich Kulturpreis, 1982; Arno Schmidt Preis, 1984. Honorary doctorate: Greifswald University, 1990. Honorary citizen, City of Greifswald, 1994. Died: 15 March 1996.



Gesammelte Werke in sechs Bänden (6 vols.). 1986.


Eine unglückliche Liebe [An Unhappy Love]. 1934.

Die Mauer schwankt [The Wall Is Shaking]. 1935; as Die Pflicht, 1939.

Jakob Littners Aufzeichnungen aus einem Erdloch: Roman. 1948.

Tauben im Gras. 1951; as Pigeons on the Grass, 1988.

Das Treibhaus. 1953; as The Hothouse, 2001.

Der Tod in Rom. 1954; as Death in Rome: A Novel, 1956; as Death in Rome, 1992.

Short Stories

Romanisches Café: Erzählende Prosa. 1972.


Erleben und Streben: Dichtungen. 1929.


Nach Rußland und anderswohin: Empfindsame Reisen. 1958.

Amerikafahrt. 1958.

New York: Mit einem autobiographischen Nachwort. 1959.

Reisen nach Frankreich. 1961.

Jugend [Youth] (autobiographical piece). 1976.

Morgenrot. 1978.

Die elenden Skribenten [The Miserable Scribblers] (essays and criticism). 1981.

Ich bin gern in Venedig warum. 1994.


Critical Studies:

"Wolfgang Koeppen and the Human Condition" by S. Craven, in German Life and Letters (London), 29, 1976, pp. 201-15; "Melancholy and Enchantment: Wolfgang Koeppen's Anamnesis" by Dagmar Barnouw, in Mosaic, 14(3), Summer 1981, pp. 31-48; Art and Politics in Wolfgang Koeppen's Postwar Trilogy by Richard L. Gunn, 1983; The Transformation of Failure: A Critical Analysis of Character Presentation in the Novels of Wolfgang Koeppen by Carole Hanbridge, 1983; "From a Death in Venice to a Death in Rome: On Wolfgang Koeppen's Critical Ironization of Thomas Mann" by John Pizer, in Germanic Review, 68(3), Summer 1993, pp. 98-107; Chaos, Control, and Consistency: The Narrative Vision of Wolfgang Koeppen, 1993, and "The Author As Victim: Wolfgang Koeppen, Jakob Littners Aufzeichnungen aus einem Erdloch, " in Modern Language Review, 92(4), 1997, both by David Basker; "Wolfgang Koeppen and the Bridge of Memory," in German Life and Letters, 52(1), 1999, and "Border Negotiations in the Works of Wolfgang Koeppen," in Modern Language Review, 95(3), 2000, both by Simon Ward.

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Wolfgang Koeppen, born in 1906 in Greifswald, Germany, began his literary career in the late 1920s as a modern writer within the boundaries of the culture of the Weimar Republic. He was the feature editor of the Berliner Börsen Courier from 1931 to 1933. His first two novels, Eine unglückliche Liebe (1934) and Die Mauer schwankt (1935), were written in emulation of the so-called classical modernity of the turn of the century. Both can be considered as replies to works of the Mann brothers, namely, Heinrich Mann's Die Jagd nach Liebe ("The Pursuit of Love") and Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice ). Die Mauer schwankt, however, also takes the conservative stylistic turn that was characteristic of nonfascist German literature of the time. In 1934, after a short phase of enthusiasm for the new movement developing in Germany, Koeppen voluntarily went into exile in Holland. In 1938 material necessity drove him back to Germany, and he lived there under difficult circumstances until the end of the war.

In the 1950s Koeppen published the trilogy of works that established his reputation. Tauben im Gras (1951; Pigeons on the Grass, 1988) shows the fate of people in postwar Munich on a day in 1948 through the characters of the "nigger soldier" Odysseus Cotton, the German writer Philipp, and the celebrated Anglo-Saxon author Edwin. On this day each will become a victim of the still violent society. In Das Treibhaus (1953; "The Hothouse") Koeppen portrays the death of the former exile Keetenheuve. As an intellectual and a Social Democrat in the parliament, Keetenheuve recognizes his position as an outsider in Bonn, the provisional capital of the German "restoration" period of the 1950s. The novel ends with his suicide.

The third novel in the trilogy is Der Tod in Rom (1954; Death in Rome, 1956), a parody of Mann's novella Death in Venice. The book gives a caricature of the German nationalistic artist and satirizes the German yearning for Italian culture, which had earlier been perverted by the alliance with the fascist rule of Mussolini. According to Ernestine Schlant in The Language of Silence, the character Ilse Kürenberg is "a Jewish protagonist who was driven into exile and who is marked by the Holocaust" and as such belongs to the outsiders. She is shot to death by a former Nazi general, Judejahn, who is now training Arab fighters against Israel. Schlant says that "Ilse's death is a bitterly ironic comment on the unrepentant fanaticism of Nazi racists, and it also expresses Koeppen's refusal to engage in philo-Semitic amends." Those of the younger generation who admit to German guilt are marginalized in this society as well. Adolf, a priest, and Siegfried, an avantgarde composer, are both outside the genealogical line; their lives are dignified but sterile. Bold in its subject matter and dedicated to modernity in its form, Koeppen's trilogy shows the collapse of Western culture and the bankruptcy of its models for explaining the world in the face of wordless brutality. In characters such as Philipp, Keetenheuve and Siegfried, the novels also reflect Koeppen's own desperate role as an artist and intellectual.

Koeppen never completed another novel. He did, however, publish travel writings and later, in an effort to resolve his writer's trauma, the autobiographical fragment Jugend (1976). According to Martin Hielscher in Zitierte Moderne: Poetische Erfahrung und Reflexion in Wolfgang Koeppens Nachkriegsromanen und in "Jugend," this latter work is an apocalyptic "lament for both the socially destroyed life and the already lost aesthetic existence, embedded in the lament for the lost paradise." Koeppen searches for elements of guilt in twentieth-century Germany, and the narrator finds himself in a paradoxical situation as both an "offender" and a "victim": " … I am Cain, however, I am also Abel." In 1948 Jakob Littners Aufzeichnungen aus einem Erdloch , a work the critic Bernhard Fetz called a "substitute for the novel about his own history of the Third Reich," was published under Koeppen's name. As a representative of outsiders, Koeppen can justly be considered one of the best-known postwar German authors.

—Walter Schmitz

See the essay on Jakob Littners Aufzeichnungen aus einem Erdloch.