The Hothouse

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Though long considered a major, if elusive, figure in German literature, Wolfgang Koeppen (1906-1996) is only now being discovered by American readers. The Hothouse (1953) is, along with Pigeons on the Grass (1951) and Death In Rome (1954), one of a trio of books that established his reputation as an innovative novelist. Set in the former German capital of Bonn, it follows Keetenheuve, a member of the opposition party in the Bundestag, through two fateful days.

At the outset of The Hothouse, Keetenheuve is returning to his parliamentary duties by train after burying his wife, Elke. His rivals are spreading rumors that, while in exile during the Nazi years, he served as a major in the British army. He learns inside information about a gaffe by British and French generals that he hopes will help him in his fight for disarmament and human rights. Hoping to neutralize him, a government official offers Keetenheuve the ambassadorship to Guatemala. Keetenheuve delivers a speech in parliament that concedes no ground but accomplishes nothing.

The Hothouse derives its title from its protagonist’s revulsion from Bonn, his sense that the city, like contemporary life in general, “was as unreal as flowers in a hothouse.” Presented through the disturbed perspective of Keetenheuve, an alienated idealist who cannot abide compromise and sham, the book mixes acute observation with apocalyptic and erotic fantasy. Keetenheuve’s failures are not only a powerful metaphor for German malaise after World War II but an enduring account of human defeat in the face of “the colossal futility of existence.”

Sources for Further Study

The New Republic 225 (August 20, 2001): 30.

Publishers Weekly 248 (June 4, 2001): 57.

The World and I 16 (November, 2001): 258.