Walter Kempowski: Last Greetings . Knaus Verlag (Hardcover, Literary Fiction)

Last Greetings

Original Title: Letzte Grüße

original edition

Hardcover with jacket, 432 pages, 13.5 x 21.5 cm, 5.3 x 8.5 in.
ISBN: 978-3-8135-0195-7
€ 22.90 [D] | € 23.60 [A] | CHF 32.50 * (* rec. retail price) recommended retail price

Publishing House: Knaus

Date of publication: September 18, 2003
This title is available.

 

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Walter  Kempowski - Last Greetings
 
 
 

 

The writer Alexander Sovtchik, hero of Kempowski’s Hundstage [Dog-Days], is in trouble. He has described a colleague, a man “amiable enough in himself”, as someone who is always ready to take the line of least resistance, and now he is threatened by a libel action. The novel he is writing is stuck at page 63, and for months now the manuscript has refused to move on, although he has had an enormous advance from his publisher and the publication date is already announced. His marriage is jogging along peacefully if rather tediously, but Alexander’s wife Marianne seems frustrated, and shows it by buying more and more Oriental rugs.
So the invitation from a German-American institute comes at just the right time. Travelling all over the States, up and down the highways, giving readings to interested audiences, and a lecture now and then: it’s a really enticing prospect. All expenses paid by the institute, and good fees for the readings, too? Maybe even a reception at the Embassy? Salmon-fishing in Canada?
So Sovtchik decides to go, although he can easily think of a thousand reasons not to, among them the fact that the Americans reduced German Baroque churches to rubble and ashes, and Sovtchik hasn’t forgiven them for it. And what about GIs whistling after German girls – is that any way to behave abroad?
Is it all the clichés in Sovtchik’s head that make him stumble from one misfortune to the next in the New World? A kind of self-fulfilling prophecy? He waits at the airport as arranged, and no one meets him. Nor is his temper improved by the way people in every institute he visits are raving about the wonderful recent performance by his colleague Schätzing, an East German poet, with his famous “Definitions I, II and III”. Then there’s Ellen Butt-Prömse from Wuppertal with her texts of social criticism
Sovtchik, on the other hand, finds that he is preceded by a reputation for being behind the times (“Silly old sod! You can see the chalk on his trousers!”), and he is suspected of being politically reactionary. Furthermore, wasn’t he involved in a criminal case at home in Sassenholz years ago? They heard of it in America, and they haven’t forgotten. His works, on the other hand, are not in the institute libraries.
Sovtchik travels America and its cities like an ethnologist studying the curious customs and usages of exotic tribes. But he doesn’t understand the ways of this “ridiculous world”, even the food nauseates him (literally), and so do most of the people he meets. He dislikes the institute directors with their cultural airs and graces as much as the ever-present Germanists who take an interest in anything and everything except Sovtchik’s works. Not a German newspaper in sight, and nothing about Germany on TV, although interesting things seem to be going on in the eastern part of the Fatherland; there has been word of protest meetings in churches and large-scale demonstrations …
Sovtchik, whom we should picture as an elderly gentleman in gold-rimmed glasses, does his best to rein in his choleric temper and keep calm. He doesn’t succeed. His misanthropic leanings find plenty of nourishment on this trip. And many human attractions that suddenly flare up get nowhere: the student Jennifer, who takes him round the towers of the World Trade Center, does not seem interested in any closer contact, and Muriel, that ardent supporter of the rights of American Indians, proves unforthcoming by the roaring waterfalls of the Athabasca. On the other hand, Sovtchik has his work cut out to ward off the amorous advances of a lady archivist from Yale.
Now and then he notices little moments of fugue, sudden feelings of dizziness, and for the sixth time a jagged formation on his retina. Symptoms of old age and decay – there’s no denying it. Sovtchik is afflicted by elegiac moods (Western culture is finally going downhill!) and feelings of world-weariness: it is all for nothing, he thinks, yet he cannot give himself up entirely to such moods, whether because of a toaster that doesn’t work or the malice of some other inanimate object. In the end Sovtchik feels as if the ground were swaying beneath his feet and a grey mist is rising before his eyes. Is this the end? The death of a travelling lecturer in a gloomy New York hotel? Was that it? He has seen his programme through, and anyway Marianne has told him over the phone that the annoying matter of the man who took the line of least resistance has finally been dealt with.

This is a delightfully light prose comedy, more reminiscent of works written in English than of the German humorous tradition, which is not particularly strong anyway. It switches skilfully between irony and melancholy, grief and a hunger for life.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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