The German author Walter Kempowski (1929-2007) first began collecting personal recollections of the World War II years while imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp in the early 1950s. Upon his release, he expanded his search for WWII letters and diaries, visiting used bookstores, flea markets and archives, and asked for the stories of people he knew had lived through the war. The project consumed Kempowski’s time and money. After collecting documents into the ‘70s and ‘80s, he one day had a self-described “moment of madness,” which he claims followed his suffering from a stroke. In that moment he decided to turn his stockpile into a literary work. “Then after that, from this first thought—as hybrid as it was—emerged the huge collage,” he told the Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche in 2007.
The enormous resulting work, entitled Echolot, fills 10 volumes, one of which has been recently published in translation into English from the original German and titled Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich. Echolot translates to “sonar” or “echo soundings” in English, a pretty good description of the mechanism of the book, which works as if there is an expansive invisible being hovering over Europe during certain days of the war, capturing the voices of forced laborers and concentration camp inmates, Berlin residents, politicians and army commanders alike. In Swansong 1945, each chapter corresponds to a certain date between April 20, 1945, Hitler’s birthday, and May 8, 1945, VE Day. In the April 25, 1925 chapter, a snippet from the diary of Alisah Shek, a Czech laborer at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, detailing her horror at seeing the camp’s prisoners disappear, sits next to an excerpt of a strategy meeting in which Adolf Hitler acknowledges what he terms the “defeatist mood” in southwest Germany.
It’s both the widespread nature of the suffering of the authors of these memories—from the Berlin citizens watching their city crumble in the last days of the war to the prisoners of war waiting for news of their liberation—and the contrast between bottom-up and top-down history that gives Swansong 1945 much of its pathos. Its translator, Shaun Whiteside, says that the contrast is one of the aspects of the original volumes that most attracted him to the project, both because of its historical importance and because it presents a challenge for a translator. “The official documents are all written in a very stern and pared-down style and it does contrast with the visceral experiences of the ordinary people.” It was his job to capture how skillfully Kempowski edited the pieces to create harmony between vastly different voices.
Whiteside describes Swansong 1945 as a chorus; the work, as suggested by its title, embodies ideas from musical composition. In several poignant last sentences and perfectly placed passages, Kempowski’s musical ear is appreciably at work. His accentuation of the differences in the voices’ tone and register creates lovely dissonance in places. His placement of particular voices (such as the Ukrainian forced laborers who write in what Whiteside describes as a “naive, untutored voice”) and ideas (the havoc wrecked by the Russian army on German towns at the end of the war) gradually begin to resemble recurring musical themes. He was a firm believer of the place of music in literature. “You can't write a major novel without having an idea of the language of musical form,” Kempowski told Die Weltwoche. “What's a fugue, what's an invention? I listen to practically nothing other than Bach, I don't have time for anything else.”
You can borrow from other artistic and intellectual practices to try to pin down this work. However, when you read it, you will realize that none of these labels—collage, chorus, sonar, people’s history—even together, fully describes its form. There is a passage near the beginning of the book that stands out because, rather than describing surroundings or personal emotions or war plans, it philosophizes about language. In it, the author Walther Teich writes, “What is a cliché? On the spot, I would define it thus: in a cliché form and content are not congruent. Content is smaller than the form that envelops it. The form wants to simulate a significant content. So a cliche is a piece of dishonesty.” I see this as Kempowski’s clue as to what Swansong 1945 itself is supposed to defy. The memories contained in Swansong 1945 are larger and more complex than any form that could try to contain them. The work acknowledges this truth, gracefully curving around the hard knots of human experience during war.
Alexia Nader is a writer living in San Francisco and a senior editor of The Brooklyn Quarterly.