BOOKS JANUARY 7, 2013
by Wolfgang Koeppen
Berghahn Books, 159 pp., $29.95
IN THE SPRING of 1958, the West German novelist Wolfgang Koeppen came to see America. His sightseeing tour took him from New York to Los Angeles and back, with stops along the way in New Orleans, Salt Like City, Chicago, Boston, and other cities and towns. And like so many European writers before him—from Tocqueville on down—he sought to turn his hastily gathered impressions into a book that would do nothing less than explain the essence of America, that envied, admired, feared, and hated civilization, to the Old World. Now his moody travelogue, Amerikafahrt, has been translated into English for the first time, by the wide-ranging scholar Michael Kimmage, as “Journey through America.” To an American, reading it is like being plunged into a fever dream, in which recognizable places and people are distorted into demons—and also, sometimes, into angels. For the fascination of Koeppen’s book is that these two visions of America, as a peaceable, multicultural Heaven and an acquisitive, conformist Hell, never quite manage to cancel one another out.
The greatest difference between those earlier travel writers (Tocqueville, Frances Trollope, Dickens, etc.) and Koeppen is that he is visiting America not as a disdainful visitor from a self-declared higher civilization, but as an emissary of a defeated and occupied country. The opening pages of Journey through America are a little prose poem of postwar Europe, where American hegemony is benevolent yet inescapable, and therefore inevitably a little menacing:
Four-star generals on the Champs Elysees, radio reports from the Pentagon, the banner of the Atlantic alliance in the friendly forest of Marly-le-Roi, dead the Christian Kings, magisterial the speeches from the President in the White House; urbi et orbi; speeches broadcasting from towers, fear and hope disseminated in the radio news hours, the Marshall Plan's good money, the solid dollar for undeveloped regions...
Koeppen had come to fame a few years earlier as the author of a series of novels excoriating Germany, in both its Nazi and Federal Republic incarnations; he was no apologist for his country, and in principle he finds much to admire in America. But he is weighed down by a long tradition of European fantasy about America—above all, by Franz Kafka’s Amerika, in which the Statue of Liberty’s torch is replaced with a menacing sword. Koeppen is constantly on the lookout for the Kafkaesque, and so of course he always finds it: stepping off the boat into a customs hall, he feels “the hall was America and it was as if Franz Kafka from Prague had imagined it, a room with such a swinging ceiling, with such a wide vastness that it dissolved into itself and seemed entirely unreal.”
This sense of unreality haunts Koeppen throughout his journey. America is massively, undeniably there, yet in what seems like an act of psychological revenge or resistance, he is forever wishing it away, seeing its presence as an illusion, a foretaste of absence: “The city of New York, as it stretched itself out in the morning mist, a theater prop made from steel, cement and glass and old stone walls as well, suggested a house of cards and inspired thoughts of storms which might be brewing far away.” The reality underlying this fantasy is, of course, the Cold War, then at its height, and Koeppen—who had previously written a travelogue about the Soviet Union—is haunted in Chicago by fleeting visions of nuclear apocalypse:
An excited police siren sounded far away from me, then it was everywhere, I was surrounded by them, and planes invisible from my standpoint howled and buzzed overhead; the great air parade had begun, and on this street, belonging to dead things that till now had been quiet, I was in the middle of the coming war. I gathered that no fire escape, no firewall, no police car would save me ... I knew I was powerless, I could do nothing to prevent this destiny. No man could have. Man had been condemned from the beginning, and the little, holiday-quiet street in Chicago shouted out this truth to me.
Is there, in such a vision, some desire to inflict on America, in imagination, the kind of devastation it had actually inflicted on Germany? Certainly there is a kind of aggression in the way Koeppen describes Americans, which frequently involves attributing to them feelings of nullity and angst on what seems like no concrete grounds. In a small southwestern town, for instance, Koeppen muses, “What else could one do on an evening in Winslow other than be afraid of oneself?” Washington D.C. is said to be “no solid homeland, it was accidentally jumbled together and damned by God.” In a burlesque theater, Koeppen gets “a heavy sense of loneliness here, the special American loneliness, which Americans feared and which they hated.”
All these judgments are not based on any conversation with actual Americans; as a fast-moving tourist, Koeppen seems to have had few chances to cultivate such relationships. They are, transparently, projections of the America he brought with him, a land of mistrust and alienation, too big for its people. The strange thing is that they are being projected onto a country which is actually, when Koeppen lets his observations peek through his projections, full of friendly abundance. Never is this clearer than when he visits Los Angeles, the favorite butt of European (and American) visitors. Koeppen rehearses some of the familiar tropes: the kitsch architecture, the spiritual fads, the cult of healthy living. Yet he is also deeply struck by the multiculturalism of the city, the way white and black and Mexican and Japanese Americans seem to live peacefully together:
The eternal sunshine, the warm air, which wasn’t damp, the desire for mixing and perhaps the forefathers’ efforts to reach these happy coasts as well, had brought forth a new race, which was only to be recognized still as black, yellow, or white in origin, but no longer distinguished from one another in their life’s joy; they had all grown bigger, more straight, more self-confident than their ancestors in the distant, forgotten or damned homeland, and what most amazed and delighted me was that they tolerated one another, they looked at each other in friendship.
This idyll is perhaps as superficial as Koeppen’s nightmare visions, but for a man who had lived through Nazism, the spectacle of racial harmony had a powerful, almost magical allure. Everywhere he goes in the United States, Koeppen is drawn to black neighborhoods, and writes about African Americans with a kind of friendly exoticism. (He is more ambivalent about American women, who he tends to divide into two classes: the young and beautiful, for whom he has an appreciative eye, and the primly respectable, who he mocks as “flowerbed women,” after their decorated hats.) Jazz music and black churches are among the high points of his trip, as are the University of California in Berkeley—astonishing in its wealth and resources—and the Capitol Building—guilelessly open to all citizens who want to visit. Practically the only truly frightening thing Koeppen finds in the United States is, oddly enough, Billy Graham, whose revival-meeting antics remind him of Hitler's demagogy. It is another reminder that Koeppen is seeing America through German and European eyes, and that “Journey through America” is less significant as a document of reality than as a major writer’s running fantasia on American themes.
Adam Kirsch is a Senior Editor at The New Republic.