cover image All for Nothing

All for Nothing

Walter Kempowski, trans. from the German by Anthea Bell. New York Review Books, $17.95 trade paper (372p) ISBN 978-168137-205-1

Kempowski’s atmospheric novel opens on the decaying Georgenhof estate, which lies on the East Prussian border, in 1945, as the Red Army approaches. The vestiges of a family whose paterfamilias and uniting figure is serving in Italy bide their time and try to go about life in the mansion, where Hitler’s likeness still adorns paintings, stamps, and banknotes, not fully aware of the danger of the approaching Red Army. At the story’s center is young Peter, sincere and bookish, who studies his microscope in a bedroom adjacent to that of his dead sister, Elfie, and is taught by the foppish schoolmaster Dr. Wagner. Peter’s father, Eberhard von Globig, has gone to the Italian Front; Peter’s mother, the “languorous beauty” Katharina, perhaps already a widow, waits in vain for news of Eberhard’s fate. “Auntie, a sinewy old spinster,” keeps a lookout for the influx of refugees that—originally confined to the surrounding buildings—soon mobs the courtyard. A change is coming to their way of life, heralded by a series of guests—a disabled “political economist,” an unreconstructed Nazi violinist, a painter, a debauched Baltic baron, and, fatefully, a Jewish fugitive. Gothic and haunting, the novel asks what things will be like “if things turn out bad,” knowing the answer will come too soon. (Feb.)