By Walter Kempowski
Translated by Anthea Bell
GL Rating: 9.5
I’d recommend All For Nothing without much in the way of reservations, but it’s best read cold. Do not read the introduction or any reviews prior to reading the book itself. I think I came across AFN in the New Yorker, an rave by James Wood, which prompted me to buy the book. Wood has some smart things to say about All For Nothing (link to his piece below) but again I’m puzzled by certain critics’ fondness for plot summary when it serves no real purpose, and when it sort of wrecks the experience of reading the book.
The story is about an aristocratic German family, the Von Globigs, living on an estate in East Prussia just before the area gets steam-rolled by the Red Army in the final phase of World War II.
I don’t have many negative things to say about the book. It may have benefited (maybe) from a tighter edit; maybe it would have been best at 325 pages, but, who knows. He is Kempowski, while I am merely Kosloff. (I don’t even have any regalia.) I did get a bit impatient in the middle section with the pacing, but the plot’s somewhat bucolic velocities are intentional, and ultimately the pacing is used to devastating effect.
It’s largely not a novel of gorgeous sentences, although they do pop up with some regularity. Nor is it an ostentatiously visual novel, although again, Kempowski is no slouch in this regard.
Like many great novels, Kempowski’s story comes to life in its details. The world Kempowski creates is not just plausible, it shimmers, breathes, and surprises in ways that are a testament to his talents. It is, as the critics like to say, keenly observed.
All For Nothing is worth reading for its detached tone, the beguiling affection for but distance from his characters. Writing a book about characters who had drawings of Adolf Hitler in their bedroom, without whitewashing them or making them seem like two-dimensional villains is not an easy task. The full scope of the Nazi barbarities are located mostly on the periphery. The novel’s depiction off-handed and misdemeanor-level local cruelties are suggestive of the crimes that made the Nazis famous.
It’s a novel that gives you the sense that it would stand up to repeat readings, and, who knows, maybe one day I’ll revisit it.
A final point before signing off: Kempowski published this book when he was about 76 years old. Maybe it’s wrong to be amazed that someone at that age can produce fiction of this caliber, but I’m kind of amazed. His biography is just as interesting, if not more so, than the events depicted in the story, elements of which are drawn from his own life.
I’m slotting it in one position below Austerlitz (another WWII novel!) and above The Sun Also Rises.
Here is Woods’ take in the New Yorker.