An engagingly callow swain pursues the “actress” of his dreams in this previously untranslated 1934 fiction, the first by the great, underrated German author (1902–96).
Banned in Germany in 1936, Koeppen’s tale is an exuberant satire on romantic hyperbole and carnal imbecility, possibly a partial takeoff on Heinrich Mann’s famous novel of obsession, The Blue Angel. Koeppen’s protagonists are Friedrich, a sometime student of literature who works part-time as a tester in a lightbulb factory (lovely irony), and Sibylle, the gorgeous cabaret performer and would-be serious thespian who intoxicates, ensnares, enrages, and delights the tormented—and self-tormenting—Friedrich. He follows her to an unnamed “foreign city” (identified as Zurich in translator Hofmann’s lucid introduction) where she’s performing at a “variety theater,” and endures disillusioning introductions to the several other men with whom Sibylle disports herself: among them a bilious drama critic, a wounded war hero (amusingly named Bosporus), and a charismatic “young Russian who . . . [sings] songs about hunger and revolution.” The story moves from Zurich to Italy, whence Friedrich had invited Sibylle, who sends another woman in her place; and where she eventually does join him, for a frustratingly chaste idyll. Afterward, “Sibylle remained destined for him; Friedrich was the human being who belonged to her. Nothing had changed.” This potentially hermetic and conventional tale is instead a work of extraordinary freshness: Koeppen’s brisk prose (beautifully translated here) renders operatic emotion with urbane precision (Sibylle’s lovers “craved to lie at the foot of her bed like dogs,” etc.), and he brings real intensity and depth to Friedrich’s slavish deference and Sibylle’s determination to become something more than an object of adoration.
Koeppen (The Hothouse, 2001, etc.), who’s unlike any other writer, produced only five novels in a 60-year career span. But they’re all gems, and A Sad Affair is one of the brightest.