All for Nothing was published in 2006 and was the last novel by Walter Kempowski, an author considered to be one of postwar Germany’s most acclaimed writers.
Here’s an excerpt from the introduction in my NYRB Classics edition:
Kempowski used autobiographical material in his work from the very beginning of his literary career, believing his own experience might be a source of historical understanding.
Kempowski was fifteen years old when the Soviets began advancing toward East Prussia and desperate German refugees looked to escape on ships departing from the East Prussian coast. His father was killed in battle during the final days of the war. In 1948, in East Germany, Kempowski, his brother and their mother were arrested for espionage.
All for Nothing is set in the winter of 1945 in East Prussia at a time when the Soviets are advancing upon Germany.
A German defeat is imminent and yet the war serves as a backdrop; it is the inhabitants of the Georgenhof estate – the von Globig family – who form the focal point of the novel.
The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.
The husband Eberhad is away, in Italy, but rumoured to be in a cushy job rather than fighting on the front line. Occasionally, he sends exotic wine, chocolates, tobacco which his wife Katharina stows away at the estate in a cubbyhole.
Katharina, meanwhile, is shown to be a placid beauty, always in a world of her own. She prefers to spend her time in the couple’s private apartment in the estate and read her books.
Anyone who ever spoke to Katharina found her a total blank. She had never heard of anything at all, she hadn’t even guessed at it. ‘She hasn’t the faintest idea,’ people said of her, ‘but she’s beautiful…very beautiful.’ She was the most striking person present at any social gathering, although she hardly ever said a word.
What else could you say about her? She shut herself up in her own rooms, and heaven only knew what she did there. She read a lot, or rather she made her way through a great many mediocre books.
Their twelve-year-old son Peter, is mostly left to his own devices. He is spared from joining the Hitler Youth because of a tonsil problem.
Katharina never spent a long time standing beside the boy. She left him alone, just as she herself liked to be.
The only practical member of the Georgenhof estate is Auntie, ‘a sinewy old spinster with a wart on her chin.’ She keeps the estate running and takes a hands-on-approach to situations. She is in charge of the Ukrainian maids in the kitchen – Sonya and Vera – as well as Vladimir, the Pole, who helps around in the estate.
Since Eberhard had become a special officer ‘in the field’, she made sure everything went smoothly at the Georgenhof. Nothing would have functioned without her. ‘Nothing’s easy,’ she would say, and with that attitude she ran the whole show.
The von Globigs largely appear to be cut off from reality. Their only way of getting a grasp of what is happening out in the world is through the myriad of people who pass through the estate. These are people seeking temporary refuge for a day or two, but always on their way to somewhere else.
These people are more in touch with the realities of the war. So they are surprised that a place like Georgenhof even exists; a place offering them wholesome food and drink and warm hospitality.
At the beginning there is a political economist who finds his way into the estate and is surprised at the luxurious existence of the von Globigs.
Silver? Fine china? The political economist was astonished to find all these precious things still in use, not hidden away long ago, or sent to Berlin or somewhere else. ‘Suppose the Russians come?’ And with all those foreigners just down the road.
Afterwards, many others halt at Georgenhof – a Nazi violinist, a dissident painter, a Baltic Baron, and so on.
Then there’s Drygalksi, a staunch Nazi, who distrusts the motives of the von Globigs believing that they need to be brought down a peg or two.
As the advance of the Soviets seems more real than ever, there is a growing sense of uncertainty in Georgenhof – should they adopt a wait and watch policy, or should they pack their belongings and be on their way?
Meanwhile, moments of the past insinuate upon the present at least where Katharina is concerned. Not involving herself in the present day to day affairs, Katharina’s thoughts keep shifting back to the past. A trip to a seaside town with Lothar Sarkander (mayor of Mitkau) when Eberhad is away in Berlin, is especially a recurring recollection and gives the impression that Katharina is unhappy in her marriage. We are also given a glimpse of Katharina’s daughter Elsie, who dies of yellow fever two years ago. But her room is kept intact the way it was.
While Katharina appears largely passive and content with her own privacy and thoughts, at a pivotal moment in the novel she is asked to undertake a task at the insistence of Pastor Brahms; a task that fills her with a daring sense of adventure. Even then, Katharina is clueless about the implications of what she has agreed to do.
At the same time, a persistent rumbling in the background only highlights the inevitability of the Soviets approaching. A slew of people with carts and trucks packed with belongings begin to flee towards the West. As the urgency mounts, the von Globigs cannot stay in isolation for long and are compelled into action.
At around 350 pages, Kempowski takes his time in fleshing out the characters and building up the drama and tension. There is a rhythmic, fable-like quality to his story telling that accentuates the solitary world of the von Globigs. Like the chorus in a piece of music, certain points are often repeated for greater effect throughout the novel. As the harsh realities of Soviet occupation force their way into the private lives of the von Globigs, Kempowsi chalks out their fates with compassion and grace.
All for Nothing then is an elegy to a lost world, a world that has disintegrated upon the intrusion of war. The last many chapters are particularly poignant as they highlight the difficulties that ordinary people face when the treat of enemy occupation is imminent – the nostalgia for a way of life that is surely lost, the extreme anxiety of being displaced, of fleeing, of leaving things behind, of venturing into the unknown. Could it ever be the same again?
The first cartloads of old people arrived from Mitkau. They were being evacuated from the monastery. The old people were transported in open horse-drawn carts, sitting on straw [packed well round them. They were nodding their heads, as if in time to cheerful tunes played on a concertina. They had never thought they would have to go on the road again in their old age…
This was an excellent and absorbing novel. Highly recommended!
The New Yorker has published an interesting piece on this book and Walter Kempowski’s life here.