Daring and fearless in its subject matter and outlook, All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski is a sublime historical fiction, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, and appearing in English paperback for the first time last year. Set in East Prussia, in January 1945, Kempowski’s novel details the lives contained within the Georgenhof, an isolated manor house owned by the wealthy von Globig family. As the political situation becomes ever more fraught, and refugees are fleeing the occupied territories en masse, the safety of the family and their servants becomes compromised, with increasing numbers of unknown people passing by their home. When Katharina von Globig then agrees to shelter one such stranger for the night, their splendid isolation slowly starts to deteriorate. What begins as a view of the tumult of war told from the periphery descends into an immersive consideration of the status of wartime refugee, from the point of view of those vulnerable individuals, caught between the vying tensions of conflict.
The emphasis is first placed on people rather than politics, a winning approach to preoccupy readers with familial individual narratives, rather than on the appropriation of the provocative historical location. Even before readers are really invited to get to know the characters contained within the Georgenhof, what is immediately striking is the prevalence of friendship over suspicion, and the subtle anxiety that is still simultaneously harboured beneath the surface. From the outset, Kempowski captures perfectly the mood of unease, utilising freak weather conditions, and unusual behaviour of animals in the surrounding land to build a melancholic tension that is quietly intensifying. Similarly effective in this regard is the disruption of the family through minute attention to detail, such as the Christmas tree that awkwardly remains long past its time. Conveyed is a real sense of the struggle for normality in extreme situations, all the more disquieting because this is a privileged household, and one only on the outskirts of the real conflict, at a remove from the greater magnitude of warfare. The expert handling of characters and viewpoints also contributes to this discomforting effect; shift in narrative focus is far more common when alternating between different narrators, but here the interchanging focus on various characters is pivotal in demonstrating the discord, as well as unity, that exists between the inhabitants of the household, capturing the essence of wartime where union and division coalesce.
It is this experience of the child that everyone eventually faces in the environment of war, for all are naive in the face of extraordinary fascism.
Particularly outstanding is the perspective of Auntie, a peripheral figure in terms of character, but one quickly revealed to be intrinsic to the successful running of the household. Her mournful, reflective tone in her continual fight to forge order from the manifest disarray is moving, even in her attempts to manage wayward servants and calm the enthusiasms of young Peter von Globig. Indeed, this is just one aspect of the superb juxtaposition between the homely and the violent warfare: while Mitkau railway stations is engulfed in flames, Auntie downs her peppermint liquor, and is asleep by the time the tanks roll past the Georgenhof. Here the reader is dealt splendid isolation from the Axis Powers side, but always accompanied by the unnerving sense of encroaching chaos. Such merging of ordinary lives and political danger is best seen in descriptions of Katharina’s voyages into Mitkau, where the SA and Hitler Youth merge, virtually unremarked, with families and couples. Apparent ordinariness is stressed throughout, a fact perhaps worth bearing in mind as the likes of Trump try to normalise, and mobilise, fringe prejudices.
As the novel hurtles towards it close and the panic becomes realised, the reader’s own knowledge of history is in danger of spurring on the encroaching tragedy, yet Kempowski remains firmly in control. As ever, focus on the minutiae, the ordinary house, the ordinary town, keeps the emphasis on the narratives, and not on histories. From the early, mystical foreboding, ethereal description of rural landscapes is cunningly interspersed with the frantic familiar imagery of town life, made more urgent by war. The steady flow of visiting characters to the Georgenhof just as the narrative force threatens to plateau ups the pace in the middle, and renders the disappearance of characters again all the more noticeable and uncomfortable. Through this later thinning-down of characters, readers are also positioned to receive the displaced narrative of the child refugee, left vulnerable and alone as his family and friends disperse from around him. Surely, it is this experience of the child that everyone eventually faces in the environment of war, for all are naive in the face of extraordinary fascism.
In a setting first established as unexpectedly ‘normal’, readers quickly enter a threatening world of violence and radicalisation, the growing frequency, and intensity, of ‘Heil Hitler’s just one symptom of the building danger that pervades. Kempowski’s powerful and thoughtful narrative ends, appropriately, with uncertainty, the final lines posing questions rather than answers. And so, his readers are left with questions, not least: can we afford to read such historical fiction and ignore the worrying parallels with our own world?