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Wolfgang Koeppen’s “The Hothouse”

Proud that he had survived the Second World War in his homeland of Germany without somehow having to serve in Hitler’s military, the German writer Wolfgang Koeppen once said “I asked myself what I had been waiting for all those years, why I had been a witness and why I had survived.” (From his obituary in The Independent.) The question I kept asking myself as I read the triptych of novels that Koeppen wrote in the early 1950s was: What did Koeppen’s role as a “witness” play in the outcome of these novels? What might we, as readers turning the pages of Koeppen’s novels, identify as evidence of “witnessing” Hitler’s rise to power, propelling the Nazi movement, and turning the German nation into sheep while he and his generals pursued the Final Solution against the Jews and a World War that killed tens of millions of people? Were these novels really different from those of someone who had not lived through what Koeppen had experienced, someone who might observed the Nazi years from Canada, say?

The first book in his trilogy, Pigeons on the Grass, set in postwar Munich (reviewed here), involves some ordinary German citizens—along with a handful of Americans. At most, this novel suggests that we don’t actually listen to other people very well. The final novel in the series, Death in Rome (reviewed here), involves several truly heinous Germans, including an SS officer who has been found guilty and condemned to death in absentia at the Nuremberg Trials. This novel, which I think is the best of the three, provides the most serious indictment of German mindset and German civilization through its critique of Teutonic ideals that extol dangerous hypermasculine traditions. The Hothouse, on the other hand, which is the series’ middle novel, is about bureaucracy of the postwar West German government in Bonn. It deals exclusively with postwar life and its main character, Herr Keetenheuve, was not in Germany at all from 1933 through 1949, but was in self-imposed exile in Canada.

Let’s look at The Hothouse, then we’ll ask ourselves what Koeppen has accomplished across the course of his three novels. This book follows a few days in the life of Herr Keetenheuve, a member of the postwar Bundestag. When we first see him he is returning to Bonn on the Nibelungen Express having just buried his wife, Elke. The first pages are dotted with references to Richard Wagner’s multi-opera known as the Ring Cycle. As the train travels alongside the Rhine, Koeppen invokes the dwarf Alberich, the “twilight of the gods,” the Rhine Maidens, and the “Wagalaweia” sound of the train’s wheels, which alludes to the Wagalaweia songs of the Ring Cycle. All of these references signal that we are in the land of the grand Teutonic myths of which Hitler was so fond. In 1936, the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote a prescient piece called “Essay on Wotan,” in which he clearly identified the mythology of the Ring Cycle as an integral part of the Nazi program:

The emphasis on the Germanic race—commonly called “Aryan” — the Germanic heritage, blood and soil, the Wagalaweia songs, the ride of the Valkyries, Jesus as a blond and blue-eyed hero, the Greek mother of St. Paul, the devil as an international Alberich in Jewish or Masonic guise, the Nordic aurora borealis as the light of civilization, the inferior Mediterranean races—all this is the indispensable scenery for the drama that is taking place and at the bottom they all mean the same thing: a god has taken possession of the Germans and their house is filled with a “mighty rushing wind.”

In 1933, just as Hitler rose to power, Keetenheuve, who describes himself as an ascetic, a Buddhist, a disciple of Zen, and a pacifist, fled Germany to Canada. He then returned at the end of the war, optimistic and “eager to reinvent the nation as a liberal democracy.” Elke, the woman who is half his age and who will become his wife, seems to symbolize his dedication to the future. He literally rescued her from the rubble when she was only sixteen, after her father (a high-ranking Gauleiter) and her mother committed suicide by swallowing cyanide as the war came to an end. But now, with Elke’s death, he feels “he had failed. Failed at every one of life’s crossroads. . . He had failed in his profession. He couldn’t cope with existence. . .”

Many of Keetenheuve’s positions make him a thorn in the side of his own political party, which, along with the German Chancellor, is pushing for significant German rearmament after the war. The party even attempts to buy Keetenheuve off by offering him the ambassadorship to Guatemala, but he refuses. “The knives are out for you,” he is warned. Repeatedly, Keetenheuve finds his political ambitions for postwar Germany thwarted because so many of the leaders of government, industry, the military, and even the press are tainted by the roles they played during the Nazi era, and their goals are now the opposite of his. They are building “careers,” they have expensive cars, chauffeurs, and the most desirable apartments. Many of them want to revive the National Socialist party and rearm the German military. Only Keetenheuve is clean—and therefore doomed.

Koeppen positions Keetenheuve’s “failure” as a two-part problem. He is continually losing at politics and he has lost his marriage. At the Bundestag, being “the permanent opposition was no fun.” As a liberal, he felt like “a foolish knight, crusading against a power that was so entwined with all the old power that it could afford to laugh at the knight who sallied out to challenge her, and sometimes, in a spirit almost of kindness, she tossed a windmill his way, good enough for that old-fashioned Don Quixote.” Nevertheless, he worked so hard at the office that he “forgot that a sun was shining on him, that a miracle had befallen him, that a woman loved him, that Elke, with her smooth young skin, loved him.” Keetenheuve was absent so often, at the office or on business trips, that Elke had fallen for another woman, who is known as “la Wanowski.”

Eventually, Keetenheuve falls into a kind of despairing madness in language that seems like it is trying to be a “stream of conscious,” but by any literary standard falls short. Every now and then it feels like Koeppen tries to get a little too “literary” (a little too Virginia Woolf-y, say), and it doesn’t come off well.

He saw the weepy immortelles of the graveyard in the pale flicker of the lightning. He breathed in the smell of moldy, damp yew hedges, the sweet corruption of rotting roses in funereal wreaths. The graveyard wall seemed to flinch in the lightning. Fear and trembling. Kierkegaard. Nursemaid consolation for intellectuals. Silence. Night. Keetenheuve timid night bird Keetenheuve night owl at the end of its tether Keetenheuve pathetic wanderer down cemetery avenues, ambassador to Guatemala lemurs accompany him.

But here’s the rub. From the moment we meet Keetenheuve on the train, returning from his wife’s funeral, he has been dreaming of murdering la Wanowski with an ax to the tune of Rosemary Clooney singing “Botch-a-Me.” (Yes, you read that right.)

Bee-oo, bye-oh, bee-oo, boo
Won’t you botch-a-, botch-a-me
Bee-oo, bye-oh, bee-oo, boo
When you botch-a-me
I a-botcha you and ev’rything goes crazy

Why? Well, la Wanowski happens to be a “bull dyke” who rules over “the tribades” (Google it). Her “square padded shoulders were a metaphor for penis envy.” She’s the “invert from the National Socialist Women’s Association” who has lured Elke away from “the ghastly, oppressive, voluble, swarming, frothy intellectualism of Keetenheuve” with a voice that reminds her of her Gauleiter father’s “low imperious voice.” Keetenheuve wants revenge. Later, toward the end of the novel, Keetenheuve will encounter a pair of young girls who are soliciting funds for the Salvation Army, which Koeppen likens to the Winterhelfswerk, which translator Michael Hofmann identifies as a Nazi Christmas charitable collection. Keetenheuve is sure that one of the girls, Gerda, is another National Socialist “dyke,” while the younger girl, Lena, becomes the object of his obsession. In the book’s final scene, which is one of the most wonderfully operatic, outrageous scenes I have ever read in a novel, complete with “Negro drums,” devils and vermin that are creating a homunculus, and “chimneys [that] popped up like erect penises,” Keetenheuve will take (or rape) Lena while he demands that Gerda sing a heavenly bridegroom song. Koeppen, it seems, has a thing about lesbians.

Despite being a self-described “witness” to the Hitler years and World War II from his vantage point in Munich, Koeppen’s three novels don’t provide any real in-depth analysis of what led the German people into the catastrophe of a world war or why Hitler’s machine why free to pursue unfettered by opposition the Final Solution that succeeded in murdering more than six million Jews. At most, Koeppen identifies the German love of Teutonic mythology and a tendency toward hypermasculinity as the primary elements that led Germans astray. And, as we have seen with la Wanowski in The Hothouse and with Judejahn in Death in Rome, Koeppen wants to hypersexualize the worst of his characters as a way of making them repellent and tainted by their Nazi backgrounds or connections. Certain Teutonic men have too much testosterone and certain Teutonic women, well, they become lesbian “bull dykes,” apparently. Pretty much every critical action taken by any character in this triptych of novels is motivated by sex. I’ll let the Freudians take it from here.

In the end, I would posit that there are few, if any, observations or conclusions that Koeppen puts forth in these novels that resulted from his having lived as a “witness” in Germany throughout the Hitler years and World War II. More likely, his wartime experiences compelled him into writing these three vital, sometimes angry novels. Wolfgang Koeppen may be not have been a Hannah Arendt, but that is not to say that he isn’t an important, occasionally innovative writer. He knew that a fast-paced novel will keep the reader engaged. Scenes rarely last more than a few pages, and are sometimes much shorter, and he tends to quickly shift from character to character, the way so many contemporary television shows do. These books also play with time and space cinematically, sometimes moving the reader from one character to the next—characters who may not even be in physical proximity to each other—while keeping time synchronous, like a baton hand-off in a virtual relay race.

Koeppen was also a bit prescient about modern politics.

“We know it’s a lie, a completely baseless story. But one day a newspaper decides to print it, for the hell of it. If you’re lucky, it’s forgotten again. But then someone else runs it. You know Hitler knew a thing or two about black propaganda, and what is it he says in his book? You repeat the lie over and over again. A man’s name is Bernhard. You call him Isaac. You do it again. You keep on doing it. Never fails.”
“We’re not at that stage again”
“You’re right. Not yet.”

I highly recommend all three of these novels. They can each be read independently of the others.

The Hothouse. NY: W.W. Norton, 2001. Translated from the 1953 original German by Michael Hofmann. See my reviews of Pigeons on the Grass and Death in Rome.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I very much appreciate your detailed comments. I don’t know these texts, but I soon will. I just want to say how much I value the depth of your commentary and the question with which you start, i.e., what makes these texts unique because of Koeppen’s role as a witness? As one who studies the literary representation of trauma, this seems a terribly significant question. Thanks to you, I shall pursue it. Again, thank you.

    January 15, 2021

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