Ledig, Gert (1999), Vergeltung, Suhrkamp
[English translation: Ledig, Gert (2003), Payback, Granta
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
Gert Ledig’s second novel, Vergeltung, originally published in 1956, is about the destruction that German cities knew at the hands of the Allied bomb squads, about the terrors, the fear and the vast devastation that some of these cities and their inhabitants experienced. It’s an portrayal of senseless destruction and surprisingly devoid of any explicit guilt. This is surprising because in the German and Austrian literature after the Second World War, guilt played an important role, and there was a budding recognition of the horrors that this country’s government had unleashed upon the world, supported by a great deal of the population (actual National Socialists only represented a portion of those who had, in these respects, similar convictions). Jews were largely absent in early post-WWII literature, though, although sometimes they were used as a trope, sometimes as a small curiosity (as in the Tin Drum) in very forthright works of literature. Even as conscientious and careful a writer as the great Uwe Johnson changed Hannah Arendt in his literary homage to her in the Jahrestage into a Prussian noblewoman. While this absence is understandable, it can be odd, and even produce and uncomfortable rhetoric. In some cases, it’s even more understandable, as in books about the bombing of German cities. After all, these cities were judenrein, they didn’t really contain any Jews any more. The inhabitants had made sure of that. But Ledig doesn’t refer to that absence, except in a twisted symbolism, either. Ledig’s world in the book is a world without Jews, a world where senseless destruction reins on a people that, at least according to this book, appears to have done nothing wrong. Invasions of other nations, bombs and rockets aimed and shot at other cities, and genocide, none of this really has a place in the book, which is about the “other” victims, the Germans. The kindest term I’d bestow on this kind of narrative is ‘dishonest’.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Even morally, Ledig’s novel isn’t a bad book by any measure, muddled though it is by Ledig’s odd thinking, but we’ll return to that. Before we dirty the water with morals, however, it’s important to mention and explain that Vergeltung is an incredibly written and impeccably constructed work of art. It was translated into English by Shaun Whiteside as Payback with an introduction by Michael Hofmann. Gert Ledig has only written three novels, the first of which, Stalinorgel (translated as The Stalin Organ by Michael Hofmann (Granta)) is a harrowing look at the war as soldiers at the front experienced it, and must be read in connection with canonical war books like Ernst Jünger’s troubling In Stahlgewittern and Remarque’s Im Westen Nichts Neues. It was universally praised upon publication and quickly translated into several languages, despite the drastic language and the brutal images it contained. Vergeltung, Ledig’s second novel, however, was largely panned by critics and unsuccessful commercially, although it is probably his best book, and, aesthetically, one of the best books of its time. Faustrecht, his third and final novel, was even less successful, and is clearly the weakest of the bunch. It’s also concerned with a time that has been amply explored by German novelists: the situation after the war has been immortalized by countless canonical writers ranging from Siegfried Lenz, Günter Grass to Heinrich Böll and Wolfgang Koeppen. Vergeltung, though, pursues a topic that has not been thoroughly and openly examined, especially not in German literature.
This lack has been mentioned by W.G. Sebald in 1997, in an essay and a lecture (published as Luftkrieg und Literatur) that provoked scholars, critics and writers to seek out and discover bits and pieces of literature about the Allied bombing scattered all over German literary history. Gert Ledig’s book is the most famous re-discovery that emerged from that debate. Ledig’s work had been all but forgotten, and his renaissance, that he barely lived to see (he died before the new edition of Vergeltung was published) was enormous. The book was immediately elevated into the ranks of canonical German literature and its author almost became a household name. Critics in the 1950s were too put off by the gruesome details, and the off-kilter descriptions of carnage to give the fine writing and the meticulous construction its due, and now, with blood and mayhem possessing little shock value to contemporary readers, the work was suddenly accessible, and swamped with critical admiration. Rightly so. Vergeltung follows the stories of a handful of characters in an unnamed German city (several details seem to point to Munich as the model for that city). It’s taking place in all of 69 minutes, between 13.01 and 14.10 CET. Vergeltung‘s narrative, while strictly chronological, is disjointed, with the stories chopped up into small scenes (resulting in ca. 59 scenes)and spliced together anew to form a turbulent, riveting stream of violence. There is no redemption, no hope in the book, which mirrors on the formal level the raw, incoherent experience that allows none of the characters to plan ahead. At the mercy of fate they need to make do with now, to try to live as carefully and as responsibly as possible without being able to overview more than the tiny bubble of time that clings to them. Every second could be their last, and how they react to this limitation, to the imminent danger, this illuminates the characters more aptly and incisively than a sentimental interior monologue ever could.
And the revelations are dire. What looks and feels like a descent into hell from the outside, seems to contain sinners aplenty, but Ledig does not stoop to condemn people. He states what happens, and in which contexts, and leaves us to sort out the connections and meanings. And we can’t help, but feel the fear enveloping every single of these characters. For them, these are the end times, and they all prepare to die, eventually. An older couple declines hiding in the cellar or a bunker. They stay in their house and await what things may come. The description of their relationship reminds the reader of Philemon and Baucis’ mythic marriage, more specifically perhaps of Goethe’s rendering of the myth in his rich Faust II. In what’s almost certainly a direct allusion, Ledig has his couple resist attempts to move them. As they tumble into a darkness at the end of the book, they do so because they chose to. They don’t want to die, but they willingly accept that death is a possible outcome. Something similar happens to a father who leaves the safety of a bunker to walk to the train station in search of his child. He has to fight to be let out on the street and run and elude and resist soldiers repeatedly in order to be allowed to continue his search. In his commitment, he has no thought for his own life or his safety, and the book, in a way, accepts his sacrifice, having his death occur off-screen, suddenly, unceremoniously. We don’t need to see him die, because his death isn’t as important as his indifference to his own fate.
Ledig has created a greedy book that seems to soberly recount events, but, in fact, interweaves its events in a way that creates a symphonic music, with each character serving a purpose, contributing a note; it’s often read as realistic and documentary, when it’s actually not, it’s a recreation of the events by re-constructing the events in a way to enhance the emotional impact. The closer one looks the worthier of admiration the book appears. There’s not one accidental detail, neither as far as the good people of the city are concerned, nor as far as the bad guys are concerned. The difference between the two does not consist in different levels of evilness (or goodness) but in different susceptibilities to fear. There’s one man, who, trapped in a cellar after a portion of the house he hid in breaks down, decides to rape a dying young woman, his only companion. A German critic, inexplicably, talks about “lovemaking that starts as a rape”, but it’s not, it’s straight rape, and the woman cedes to his urge. When he, with the intensity of someone plagued by a bad conscience, starts to pester and bother her afterwards, she tries to get him to relent by trying to relieve his conscience, telling the man that she won’t tell anyone about it, and that it’s fine, really. Since they are both trapped and doomed, as both of them know, this does not reference an actually possible action, it merely demonstrates the two different kinds of behavior, the two different decisions taken in view of the impending death.
Other characters, especially soldiers, faced with the fear of their own extinction, take to drinking, and, drunk, harass civilians. Overall, the portrait of German soldiers is more nuanced and more realistic than that of civilians (or American soldiers). Several kinds of soldiers are depicted, among them, for example, young soldiers, literally shitting their pants, but also captains, ensigns and lieutenants. Questions of obedience, of patriotism and Jingoism are raised within a context that is just as limited as that of the civilian characters’. The soldiers know that they are likely to die soon, especially when and if they show their heads outside, but many of them have joined the army for a reason, and so, an order to assemble a unit of soldiers to hunt for a shot-down US pilot triggers interesting responses. The lieutenant finally manages to corral a group of very young gunners by handing them an Iron Cross. Giving them that cross to bear (it’s one of numerous uses of the cross motif in the book, which is, in general, suffused with religious allusions in general with biblical quotations and references), he convinces them of their duty. With these events, Ledig manages to capture something that happened widely in the last days of the war: young people, some fanatic Nazis, many not, were thrown at the advancing enemy as a last reserve. That many were willing to be thrown doesn’t lessen the magnitude of what happened to a whole generation in 1945, and without an expansive explanation, Ledig condenses that particular moment of history into one of many small stories in what’s a surprisingly short novel. It’s a technique he applies quite a few times. Every event, even though it may be based on reality and even though it is narrated as if in a documentary manner, is actually symbolic of something, or representative of a piece of cultural or historical context. Everything in this highly accomplished book wears a pathos of artifice. Ledig is fond of that pathos, like most of his contemporaries. And it wears it well.
That artifice is also found in Ledig’s language. Although much of it is very in tune with the writing of his time, he manages to make a remarkably original use of much of it, so much, indeed, that the reader can’t help but gasp at some of what Ledig does. Ledig uses very short sentences, a technique that was popular at his time, and that, a few years earlier, was eulogized by Wolfgang Borchert, arguably the greatest writers in the years immediately following the war (in his “Manifesto” (“Das ist unser Manifest”, 1947) he claims, with the pathos of the survivor, and the anger, arrogance and pride of the very young writer, that the time for using hypotaxes was long gone, that now was the time for parataxes). Short, breathless sentences, loaded with ire and theatricality, knew a great popularity in the decade after WWII, but the mastery that Ledig puts on display in Vergeltung is rare. He rapidly slips from focus to focus, subtly but quickly adjusting his lens all the time, so that a brilliant, horrifying dynamic develops that pushes the reader from one brutal image to the next. And another remarkable aspect of Ledig’s language is his off-hand vocabulary, his use of vocabulary that conveys an odd plasticity to the violent events he depicts. His language, both in the vocabulary he uses and in his use of short sentences and swiveling foci, makes the world he created come alive for the reader.
When he tells us about a pilot who has to drag the carcass of a fellow soldier from the turret of his plane, bit by bloody, soaking, squishy bit, or when he shows us a man who is “grilled” in the bubbling tar of the asphalt, we shudder. It’s not the violence that shocks us, its the immediacy of the depiction. And we know that immediacy is an effect that has to be created, it’s not a question of authenticity, it’s a question of craft and artistic commitment. This may perhaps read like a paradox, but this apparent paradox makes the book so readable and re-readable. You can read the book on a purely intellectual level, as well as on an emotional, gut level, and it works equally well on both. On the intellectual level you can’t help but be stunned by Ledig’s meticulous work, most impressively, his use of religion. In the short biographical notes that he sent his first publisher he proclaimed to be a staunch atheist, and the book, including the devastating, sweeping last chapter, can be read like a long theodicy, written by a nonbeliever. There’s however a kind of appreciation of belief as a cultural phenomenon in the book: almost all the good characters are quiet, peaceful Christians, drawing strength from their beliefs. In Ledig’s world, they are still crushed, maimed, and shot, but that’s because in that world God doesn’t exist. It’s a thin line that Ledig walks, between individual beliefs and a denial of God’s existence, but this, too, works reasonably well. Vergeltung depends upon its evocation of (good) individual belief because contrary to general reception, it posits a positive, model society in order to better offset all the things that have become awry in this war. When the American pilot is killed, most of the Germans present try to keep him from harm, it’s just an evil spirit, embodied by a small boy with pimples on his chin, who tries to whip up a lynching mob. The fundamentals are ok, but war, and the bombing have knocked Ledig’s model society over.
And this is what I really take issue with. In a book this artificial, a book which tries to seem documentary but is actually fraught with allusions and references, a book that does not shy away from including explicit references to contexts, literary and historical, a book that tackles more than just the 69 minutes it depicts, if in such a book the attacks are completely de-contextualized, depicted as senseless and “useless”, then there is a problem. Ledig confronts his readers with an unexplained, irrational, sudden explosion of violence, victimizing everyone, mostly white male characters. There is not a smidgen of guilt there, Ledig is loud and clear about his complaints. It may be argued that some images, some plot strands are covert references to the Shoah or Germany’s invasion of its neighboring countries (according to noted historian Frederick Taylor, German air raids on Soviet cities alone accounted for at least as many dead people as were killed in all air raids on German cities), but this is very little. Yes, Sebald was right to complain that German writers glossed over German suffering a lot, but there was a reason why Germans were so uneasy about this. I think that there was an understanding of the danger in talking about German victims: Germany’s actions might be relativized, made less important, seem less of an astonishing, singular, horrific tragedy than they actually were.
And boy were they right. Hacks like German ‘historian’ Jörg Friedrich, and aging writers like former SS member Günter Grass did exactly that, append to every mention of German crimes a “but we also need to consider…”. It’s not a surprise that in this climate, Ledig made a comeback, and it’s not a surprise that it would be his second book that first leaped back into the limelight. It’s not a surprise that this comeback was championed by the likes of Friedrich and Volker Hage. Reading the book made me uneasy and it reminded me of something that Hans Meyer, possibly the best and most important German critic post-WWII wrote in his wonderful, acidic, magisterial history of German post-war literature. He noted that even earnest anti-fascist tracts and texts of the period were suffused by fascist diction and structure. “Man spürt genau, daß hier Neophyten der Demokratie das Wort ergreifen”, he wrote memorably. But this uneasiness is tempered by Ledig’s extraordinary achievement as a writer, and even morally, his denouncement of war and violence is admirable, if dishonest. If we were counting points, Vergeltung would win hands down. But we are not, and I wouldn’t and won’t give or recommend this book to anyone who isn’t reasonably well read on German history. If you are, buy this book. If you are not, stay away from it.