Martin Walser Walser, Martin (Vol. 183) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Martin Walser 1927-

German novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, critic, lecturer, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Walser's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 27.

Renowned in his native Germany since the 1960s and a vocal advocate for German reunification in the 1990s, Walser is a prolific writer of diverse genres who has emerged to international acclaim as one of the leading German voices in contemporary world literature. In his novels ranging from Halbzeit (1960), Seelenarbeit (1979; The Inner Man), Brandung (1985; Breakers), Die Veriteidigung der Kindheit (1991), and Tod eines Kritikers (2002), Walser has exhibited a preoccupation with the individual's predicament of discerning truth from fiction, memory from reality, and language from experience. In many of his essays, plays, and novels, Walser has also engaged such larger socio-political topics as the character of the German national identity and petit-bourgeois after World War II, the fragmentation of people and society in the modern world, and the decline of civic and cultural order and unity. Marked by concise prose and masterly dialogue, Walser's works have been noted by literary scholars for their empathetic contributions to both critical realism in German literature and the debate on national identity in post-reunification German culture.

Biographical Information

Walser was born on March 24, 1927, in Wasserburg, Germany, to Martin Walser, an innkeeper and coal merchant, and Augusta Schmid. After his father died in 1938, Walser was forced to work in the family business while he attended the Lindau Gymnasium. When World War II erupted in 1939, Walser joined the student anti-aircraft artillery and was later drafted into the Reich Labor Service and eventually the Nazi army. Near the end of the war, Allied forces captured Walser and held him in a POW camp near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. While imprisoned, he worked at Radio Munich, the Third Reich's central broadcasting station for Bavaria. In 1946 Walser completed his high school studies and enrolled at the College of Theology and Philosophy at the University to Regensburg, where he participated in student theater and wrote his first dramatic sketches. In 1948 he transferred to the University of Tübingen where he joined the student theater and secured a freelance job at the South German Broadcasting System (SDR) in Stuttgart. In 1951 Walser received his doctorate degree with a dissertation on Franz Kafka's prose style. In the mid-1950s Walser wrote several radio plays for broadcast on SDR and was loosely associated with Gruppe 47, an influential literary group of critical realists who withheld its approval of Walser until 1955 when he won their annual prize for best new writing with the short story “Templones Ende.” In 1957 he published his first novel, Ehen in Philippsburg (Marriage in Phillipsburg), which won the Hermann Hesse Award. In 1958 he caught the notice of American diplomat Henry Kissinger, who invited him to the Harvard International Seminar, a trip that influenced his second novel, Halbzeit, the first volume of his Antslem Kristlien trilogy. In addition to his success as a novelist, Walser also established a reputation as one of West Germany's leading playwrights. During the 1960s, he wrote the critically acclaimed and hugely popular plays Der Abstecher (1961; The Detour), Eiche und Angora (1962; The Rabbit Race), Der schwarze Schwan (1964), and Die Zimmerschlacht (1967). Walser returned to writing novels in the late 1960s, publishing Das Einhorn (1966; The Unicorn) and Der Sturz (1973), completing the Kristlien trilogy. Throughout the 1970s, he visited the United States as a visiting scholar at a number of colleges and universities. As the 1981 recipient of the Georg-Büchner prize for his literary contributions to contemporary German culture, Walser expanded his international audience after several of his works became available in English translation during the early 1980s. During the same period, Walser renewed his contact with his other literary pursuits, publishing the lecture series Selbstbewußstein und Ironie (1981), the essay collections Liebeserklärungen (1983) and Geständnis auf Raten (1986), and the play In Goethes Hand (1982), which helped revive his dramatic reputation. During the 1980s, Walser continued to publish novels, including Brief an Lord Liszt (1982; Letter to Lord Liszt), Meßmers Gedanken (1985), Brandung, Dorle und Wolf (1987; No Man's Land), and Jagd (1988). An early and outspoken advocate for the reunification of Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Walser primarily wrote novels during the 1990s, including Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, Ohne einander (1993), Finks Krieg (1996), and Ein springender Brunnen (1998). In 1997 Walser published Werke in Zwölf Bänden, a nine-volume set comprising the first comprehensive collection of Walser's literary works.

Major Works

Influenced by Kafka's and Marcel Proust's literary styles, Walser's novels typically concern the ill effects of postwar German consumer culture upon the individual, tracing how such societies depersonalize human behavior and interfere with interpersonal communications. In addition, Walser's early novels often incorporate commentary on such socio-political issues as the societal implications of German capitalism and the character of the German postwar national identity. However, Walser's focus always remains on an individual protagonist, often the same character reappearing in successive novels. Ehen in Philippsburg tells the story of Hans Beumann, a journalist seeking fame and fortune in the town of Philippsburg. Narrated from several third-person perspectives, Beumann gains social entrance and acceptance by mimicking local upper-class behavior only to sacrifice his own individuality. The first novel of the Antslem Kristlien trilogy, Halbzeit, relates a cautionary tale about the prevalence of commercial culture and its effect on society and language from the perspective of Kristlien, a socially adept advertising man who transfers from Germany to New York City. In the subsequent volumes of the trilogy, Das Einhorn and Der Sturz, Kristlein increasingly changes his personality to suit different social situations and eventually loses his identity due to unrelenting social pressures. In Jenseits der Liebe (1976; Beyond All Love), the protagonist, Franz Horn, is a mid-level manager whose career declines after the promotion of one of his younger subordinates, Horst Liszt. The novel recounts Horn's relationships at work, his attempts to defeat Liszt, his desire to leave his family, and his attempts at suicide, all of which prove unsuccessful. Set in a small Bavarian town, Das Schwanenhaus (1980; The Swan Villa) concerns Gottlieb Zürn, a realtor who leads a sedentary life because he is perpetually unable to make any decisions and prefers rather to fantasize about his female clients and business competitors. Equally ineffective as both a father and a husband, Zürn desires to obtain a contract to sell the Swan Villa, a large resort house which would add to his prestige and holdings, but the sale eludes him throughout the novel. An epistolary sequel to Jenseits der Liebe, Brief an Lord Liszt is comprised of letters from Horn to Liszt, largely concerned with office politics and the precarious existence of executives, particularly as Liszt begins his own descent down the corporate ladder after he is supplanted by a younger counterpart. Divided into three parts, Meßmers Gedanken presents the aphorisms and stylized thoughts of a man named Tassilo Herbert Meßmers, as recorded by Tassilo himself and an unidentified narrator. Set primarily on a California college campus, Brandung recounts the professional and personal decline of Helmut Halm, an older teacher at a Stuttgart gymnasium, who seizes the chance to spend a semester in California, the “Shangri-La of youth, sun and sensuality.”

Stylistically reminiscent of Heinrich Böll's novels, Dorle und Wolf tells the satirical story of a deeply divided German nationalist, Wolfe, an East German defector who spies for West Germany with the help of his married mistress, Dorle. In Jagd, a sequel to Das Schwanenhaus, Gottlieb Zürn and his wife, Anna, confront both their marital problems and the generation gap made apparent by their teenage daughters. Opening in 1930s Dresden, Die Verteidigung der Kindheit focuses on Alfred Dorn, who is widely considered to be an academic and musical prodigy. His family is devastated by the bombardment of Dresden, suffering both material and emotional losses, and Dorn eventually flees East Germany to study law in West Germany. Dorn leads an unexceptional life, obsessively tied to his mother and preoccupied with rescuing the memories of his childhood lost in the bombardment. A bestselling roman à clef, Ohne einander follows the sexual betrayals of a modern married couple, offering a cynical picture of contemporary intelligentsia. In Finks Krieg, Stefan Fink, a state-government official from Wiesbaden, engages in a lengthy legal fight to clear his name after his new boss lies about Fink's performance and tries to replace Fink with a friend. However, Fink becomes a nuisance to all in his pursuit of justice, and in the end, he no longer cares about the result. A highly autobiographical novel about growing up during Germany's Nazi era, Ein springender Brunnen centers around Johann—a boy who learns to love language at an early age—and his family as they struggle to save their hotel as Adolf Hitler rises to power. Hailed by some critics as Walser's masterpiece, Der Lebenslauf der Liebe (2001) tells the story of a middle-aged, lovelorn female protagonist, Susi Gern, who abandons her comfortable existence with her dying husband for an affair with a Muslim student, forty years her junior. Another roman à clef, Tod eines Kritikers recounts the murder of a leading literary critic, Andrè Enrel-König, allegedly by a disgruntled writer, Hans Lach, as narrated from the perspective of Lach's friend, Michael Landolf, who is determined to prove Lach's innocence.

Walser's most notable plays include Der Abstecher, a comical study of exploitation about a Hamburg businessman hoping to rendezvous with a now-married former mistress, and Eiche und Angora, a biting satire of recent German history as reflected through the ill-fated experiences of a town simpleton. A drama concerning post-World War II German guilt, Der schwarze Schwan dramatizes a son's discovery of his father's involvement in the war's atrocities. The son tries to trick his father into making a public confession, but he fails and eventually commits suicide. Die Zimmerschlacht depicts a series of arguments between a middle-aged married couple as they prepare to attend an engagement party. As they debate, the couple discovers that what they thought were private hopes and expectations are nothing more than internalized social expectations. Among Walser's later plays, In Goethes Hand traces the relationship between Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his devotee Eckermann, portraying Goethe as an egomaniac who abuses those around him and Eckermann as a willing recipient of such abuse. Notable among Walser's essay collections are the five lectures comprising Selbstbewußstein und Ironie, which contrast Thomas Mann's modern definition of irony with Socrates's original formulation, and Vormittag eines Schriftstellers (1994), which contains assorted essays on political, cultural, and literary topics.

Critical Reception

Critics and audiences alike have acknowledged the significance of Walser's contributions to German letters and culture, often discussing the relevance of his form of critical realism within the context of German history and postwar society. Throughout his career, reviewers have noted the singularity of his themes and his use of a single protagonist across several stories. Because many of Walser's writings focus on the relationship between the individual and contemporary society, several commentators have observed parallels between Walser and American novelist and essayist John Updike, identifying a similar focus on literary diversity and shared concerns about their respective national identities after World War II. Although most critics have agreed that Walser has developed his own singular literary voice and style, some have continued to note the influence of Kafka, Heinrich Böll, and Frederich Nietzsche on Walser's works. Walser's detractors have repeatedly faulted the author for writing apparently plotless narratives with little unifying detail. Such commentators have found Walser's unrelenting cynical, pessimistic perspective on postwar German culture disturbing, arguing that Walser fails to present constructive alternatives. Conversely, some scholars have accounted for Walser's lack of plot action by examining his typically intimate representation of a character's inner life, observing the ways that Walser's prose prompts a sympathetic response to usually flawed characters. Later reviewers have also commented on the increasingly nationalist tone of his works since the German reunification, particularly in Walser's more autobiographical novels, essays, and lectures that address the Nazi era of German history.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kantaten auf der Kellertreppe (play) 1953

Ein Flugzeug über dem Haus und andere Geschichten (short stories) 1955

Ehen in Philippsburg: Roman [The Gadarene Club] (novel) 1957; also published as Marriage in Philippsburg, 1961

Halbzeit (novel) 1960

Der Abstecher [The Detour] (play) 1961

Eiche und Angora: Eine deutsche Chronik [The Rabbit Race] (play) 1962

Überlebensgroß Herr Krott: Requiem fuer einen Unsterblichen (play) 1963

Lügengeschichten (short stories) 1964

Der schwarze Schwan: Ein...

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Donald F. Nelson (essay date March 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Nelson, Donald F. “The Depersonalized World of Martin Walser.” German Quarterly 41, no. 2 (March 1969): 204-16.

[In the following essay, Nelson analyzes the dominant themes and corresponding linguistic features of Die Ehen in Philippsburg and Halbzeit, exploring how Walser's experience and perception of compromised social communication in postwar Germany inform the novels.]

Martin Walser is a curious example of a contemporary novelist who, despite more than a decade of prolific writing, has failed to gain appreciable recognition from Germany's literary critics. Although the “Preis der Gruppe 47” (1955) and the “Hermann-Hesse-Preis”...

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Gertrud Bauer Pickar (essay date January 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pickar, Gertrud Bauer. “Narrative Perspective in the Novels of Martin Walser.” German Quarterly 44, no. 1 (January 1971): 48-57.

[In the following essay, Pickar studies various literary devices related to the narrative perspective in Die Ehen in Philippsburg, Halbzeit, and Das Einhorn, evaluating the effects of each device's development upon the forms and themes of the novels.]

Walser's first novel, Ehen in Philippsburg, is often dismissed as the work of a novice and generally passed over in discussions of his other novels, Halbzeit and Das Einhorn.1 The reason for its exclusion is the apparent lack of...

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Ulf Zimmermann (review date spring 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Zimmermann, Ulf. Review of Selbstbewußstein und Ironie: Frankfurter Vorlesungen, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 56, no. 2 (spring 1982): 332-33.

[In the following review, Zimmermann highlights the political significance of Selbstbewußstein und Ironie: Frankfurter Vorlesungen, affirming Walser's contention that the prevailing modern notion of irony perverts Socrates's original definition of the concept.]

At the fulcrum of these five lectures [Selbstbewußstein und Ironie: Frankfurter Vorlesungen] is Martin Walser's contention that the prevailing conception of irony, as epitomized in Thomas Mann, is a perversion of the original...

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Harriet Waugh (review date 19 March 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Waugh, Harriet. “Cotton Wool.” Spectator 250, no. 8071 (19 March 1983): 24-5.

[In the following review, Waugh finds The Swan Villa unreadable and “simply boring,” faulting the novel's “muffled” style.]

Martin Walser is a German writer and his novel, The Swan Villa, has been translated by Leila Lennewitz. The quotations on the back of the jacket about one of his earlier novels indicate that he is highly thought of; and that ‘every paragraph, every incident seems to be exactly right in length, in placing, in mood and in detail’ (The Northern Echo). He is a ‘gimlet author boring into people's veneered exteriors’ (Daily...

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Ursula Mahlendorf (review date spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mahlendorf, Ursula. Review of In Goethes Hand: Szenen aus dem 19. Jahrhundert, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 57, no. 2 (spring 1983): 279.

[In the following review, Mahlendorf outlines scenes from In Goethes Hand, pronouncing the play's portrayal of the psychological and social dynamics of oppression successful.]

Martin Walser's recent play In Goethes Hand is a fascinating study of a great man and his human, all too human relationships. The title is a pun on “In Gottes Hand.” Walser's Goethe is indeed God, and Eckermann, in this drama's three parts, is his most devoted servant and priest. The play shows the continual and...

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Ulf Zimmermann (review date summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Zimmermann, Ulf. Review of Liebeserklärungen, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 58, no. 3 (summer 1984): 411-12.

[In the following review, Zimmermann focuses on the relationship between the language and literary values expressed in Liebeserklärungen, commending Walser's wit and phrasing.]

Except for the fact that the volume [Liebeserklärungen] consists exclusively of favorable reviews—being after all a collection of literary “declarations of love”—it doesn't really have any sort of unifying theme. The selections come from other volumes or from periodicals and were composed as “occasional” pieces, celebrating literary...

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Richard Eder (review date 27 January 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. Review of The Inner Man, by Martin Walser. Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 January 1985): 1, 7.

[In the following review, Eder summarizes the plot and themes of The Inner Man, noting the parallels between the protagonist and contemporary Germany.]

Chauffeur Xaver Zurn, driving his wealthy employer across southern Germany in a pale-green Mercedes, needs to relieve himself [in The Inner Man]. But it is more than that. There are global aspects, universal dimensions to his abdominal agony.

History furnishes a lesson for his retentive struggle. (“Xaver had read descriptions of battles during the Peasants’...

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D. J. Enright (review date 28 March 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Enright, D. J. “Calling Dr. Angst.” New York Review of Books 32, no. 5 (28 March 1985): 31-2.

[In the following excerpt, Enright assesses the characterization of the protagonist of The Inner Man.]

At the outset it looks as though the raison d'être of Martin Walser's novel, The Inner Man, is the uplifting effect of contemplating other people's misery. The hero is a chauffeur suffering from indigestion—the inner man is not at peace—and when we meet him he is driving his boss, a big industrialist, from Tettnang-Oberhof on the German side of Lake Constance to Düsseldorf, and in extreme discomfort owing to the laxative he has taken. “To throttle...

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Peter Spycher (review date autumn 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Spycher, Peter. Review of Meßmers Gedanken, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 59, no. 4 (autumn 1985): 587.

[In the following review, Spycher focuses on the identity of the narrator-protagonist of Meßmers Gedanken, noting the individual's relationship to the narrative.]

As the title [Meßmers Gedanken] indicates, we are offered a (three-part) collection of aphoristically and often poetically expressed thoughts by a man named Tassilo Herbert Meßmer. Meßmer himself and a “narrator” have taken irregular turns in noting them down. The narrator's identity remains totally unknown, Meßmer's almost totally. Their mutual relationship...

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Ulf Zimmermann (review date summer 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Zimmermann, Ulf. Review of Brandung, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 60, no. 3 (summer 1986): 465.

[In the following review, Zimmermann summarizes the plot of Brandung, observing the “bleakness” of its protagonist and the stylistic “excess” of its American-English syntax.]

The story of Helmut Halm, as Walser reveals it through Halm himself, [in Brandung], is one of aging, decline, failure, and finally of resignation to the routine continuation of the same. What brings this home to Halm, ironically, is the unexpected and exciting opportunity to get away from the almost intolerable tedium of his life as a teacher in a...

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D. J. Enright (review date 14 August 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Enright, D. J. “Special Subjects.” New York Review of Books 33, no. 13 (14 August 1986): 37.

[In the following excerpt, Enright describes the plot, themes, and characters of Letter to Lord Liszt, assessing the novel's value within the context of Walser's previous efforts.]

“And my lament / Is cries countless,” goes one of Gerard Manley Hopkins's sonnets, “cries like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away.” This would serve as a handy description of Martin Walser's new novel, except for the word “dearest.” Franz Horn is a middle-echelon executive, a sales manager, with Chemnitz Dentures. He has been on the skids for some...

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Peter Demetz (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Demetz, Peter. “Martin Walser: Analyzing Everyman.” In After the Fires: Recent Writing in the Germanies, Austria, and Switzerland, pp. 349-61. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Demetz provides an overview of Walser's life and career through the publication of The Swan Villa and discusses his overall contributions to German letters and culture.]

There are many labels used in dealing with Martin Walser, who was once among the angry young men and is now approaching his early sixties. Critics speak about the radical, if occasionally loquacious, intellectual of the independent Left, the regional writer loyally attentive...

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John Espey (review date 27 September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Espey, John. “Life and Lust in Academia.” Chicago Tribune (27 September 1987): section 14, p. 7.

[In the following review, Espey compares and contrasts the academic setting of Breakers with Coral Lansbury's Felicity.]

The academic novel has evolved into a number of subspecies. In its American aspect, probably the most popular of these has become the record of the visitor from abroad who examines with a slightly superior eye the institutions of the New World.

Felicity and Breakers represent the extremes of the form. The former is a splendidly impure farce, the latter, an ironically moody-exercise in introspection....

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Sven Birkerts (review date 28 December 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “California Dreaming.” New Republic 197, no. 3806 (28 December 1987): 40-2.

[In the following review, Birkerts considers the relationship between the plot and style of Breakers within the context of Walser's previous works, comparing the literary attributes of “this emerging European master” with those of John Updike.]

Martin Walser—who is not to be confused with the pixilating Swiss stylist Robert Walser (1878-1956)—is the closest thing the West Germans have to John Updike. The comparison sounds facile, and it may not please either Updike or Walser (or it may), but it does help to locate some of the salient attributes of this...

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Donna L. Hoffmeister (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hoffmeister, Donna L. “Fantasies of Individualism: Work Reality in Seelenarbeit.” In Martin Walser: International Perspectives, edited by Jürgen E. Schlunk and Armand E. Singer, pp. 59-70. New York: Peter Lang, 1987.

[In the following essay, Hoffmeister examines the clash between occupational functionality and the service-oriented worker's personal investment as represented by the realties of Xaver Zürn's chauffeur job in Seelenarbeit.]

Martin Walser depicts in Seelenarbeit (1979) a feature of work reality which can be highly pernicious to human emotional and physical well-being. In sociological terms it is known as functional...

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Anthony Waine (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Waine, Anthony. “Martin Walser.” In The Modern German Novel, edited by Keith Bullivant, pp. 259-75. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Waine discusses the social relevance of Walser's critical and comic realism within the context of postwar West German culture, tracing the evolution of narrative devices and techniques throughout Walser's novels.]

The integrity of post-war literary life in the Federal Republic can be accredited in no small measure to one particular generation of writers, whose years of birth fall approximately between 1925 and 1930. By the time they reached their late teens or early twenties they had witnessed, with...

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Richard Eder (review date 1 January 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Adultery in the Natural Interest.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 January 1989): 3.

[In the following review, Eder evaluates the German nationalist theme of No Man's Land, relating the political and corresponding personal implications in terms of its protagonist.]

Wolf is a German nationalist, but forget all the abominable meanings the term has picked up over the last century.

Think of Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven, pastoral nostalgia, sausages, comfortable bad taste, amiable pedantry, the Rhine and the touch of comedy that beguiled Mark Twain. Think neither of the soldier, the brownshirt nor the four-Mercedes...

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Anna Otten (review date summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Otten, Anna. Review of Jagd, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 63, no. 3 (summer 1989): 480.

[In the following review, Otten summarizes the themes and characters of Jagd.]

Once more Martin Walser takes us into his favorite terrain, the shore of the Bodensee, and focuses on a Zuern family, as he did in Das Schwanenhaus (1980; see WLT 55:3, p. 463), where the main theme was competition. In Jagd, however, he deals primarily with eroticism, business, and politics; Gottlieb and Anna Zuern are richer, their four daughters more independent. Gottlieb, the antihero, experiences a midlife crisis over Anna's lack of interest in sexual...

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Ian Brunskill (review date 4 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brunskill, Ian. “On a Lonely Path.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4618 (4 October 1991): 33.

[In the following review, Brunskill assesses the merits of Die Verteidigung der Kindheit within the context of Walser's oeuvre.]

Martin Walser's new novel follows the unremarkable life of Alfred Dorn. As a child in Dresden, Alfred is regarded by friends and family as a prodigy, academically successful, musically gifted, a talented draughtsman who can caricature his teachers and forge his classmates’ parents’ signatures. His studies in Leipzig immediately after the war are hampered by his obvious lack of sympathy with the new political system of the GDR....

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Frank Pilipp (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pilipp, Frank. “Walser's Post-1973 Narrative Phase in Context.” In The Novels of Martin Walser: A Critical Introduction, pp. 19-46. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1991.

[In the following essay, Pilipp provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Walser's literary career since the early 1970s in terms of its relevance to German society and literary culture.]


In his early novels Walser portrays individuals whose spontaneous potential is curtailed by social reality. This theme of dependency and oppression is prevalent both in his novels and novellas after 1973. As Walser considers himself a...

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Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Skwara, Erich Wolfgang. Review of Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 66, no. 2 (spring 1992): 334-35.

[In the following review, Skwara hails Walser's achievement in Die Verteidigung der Kindheit as “a major literary event,” delineating its themes, protagonist, and plot within the context of “German-German” postwar history.]

Martin Walser's newest work, Die Verteidigung der Kindheit (The Defense of Childhood), truly a magnum opus, is a book of fiction—or is it rather a biography? If so, then we read a double biography: namely, the life of ill-fated Alfred Dorn, painful hero of the...

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Alexander Mathäs (essay date spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mathäs, Alexander. “Copying Kafka's Signature: Martin Walser's Die Verteidigung der Kindheit.Germanic Review 69, no. 2 (spring 1994): 79-91.

[In the following essay, Mathäs investigates the influence of Franz Kafka on Walser's Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, comparing the themes and protagonists of the novel with Kafka's literary works.]

In their initial reactions to Martin Walser's novel Die Verteidigung der Kindheit, many critics emphasized the continuity in Walser's works. Consequently, these critics stressed the psychological similarities of Walser's protagonists.1 Those critics who interpreted Walser's novel in terms...

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Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Skwara, Erich Wolfgang. Review of Ohne einander, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 68, no. 2 (spring 1994): 364.

[In the following review, Skwara accounts for the popular appeal of Ohne einander, highlighting the novel's themes.]

In 1991 Martin Walser published his magnum opus, Die Verteidigung der Kindheit (see WLT 66:2, p. 334), a novel likely to be considered the most relevant book written about the tragic absurdity of the two former Germanies. Now Walser has returned to his lifelong topics of human frailty, the artificiality of marriage, and the absurdity of love and love's absence. Ohne einander (Without Each...

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Wulf Koepke (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Koepke, Wulf. “The Reestablishment of the German Class Society: Ehen in Philippsburg and Halbzeit.” In New Critical Perspectives on Martin Walser, edited by Frank Pilipp, pp. 1-15. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994.

[In the following essay, Koepke examines the elements of German class relations that inform the thematic focus of both Ehen in Philippsburg and Halbzeit.]

There is no need to belabor two essential points in Walser's early novels: his social criticism (Gesellschaftskritik) and his possibly excessive love of details, defining his brand of “realism.” The German critics noted these points when the novels appeared,...

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Keith Bullivant (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bullivant, Keith. “Working Heroes in the Novels of Martin Walser.” In New Critical Perspectives on Martin Walser, edited by Frank Pilipp, pp. 16-28. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994.

[In the following essay, Bullivant compares and contrasts the protagonists in several of Walser's novels in terms of the relationship between their occupations and Walser's thematic concern with individual failure in modern competitive society.]

The novels of Martin Walser are usually understood as breaking down into three, or even four groups: Marriage in Philippsburg (1957, trans. 1961) was a relatively conventional social novel set at a time of social mobility that...

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Steve Dowden (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dowden, Steve. “A German Pragmatist: Martin Walser's Literary Essays.” In New Critical Perspectives on Martin Walser, edited by Frank Pilipp, pp. 120-33. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994.

[In the following essay, Dowden compares the themes and techniques of Walser and John Updike's novels and literary criticism, classifying them both as pragmatists.]

Martin Walser's nearest American counterpart is probably John Updike. They belong to the same generation, the former having been born in 1927, the latter in 1932, and they both excel in the same prose forms: the novel and the literary essay. In addition, both writers are conspicuously interested in the...

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Theodore Ziolkowski (review date winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ziolkowski, Theodore. Review of Vormittag eines Schriftstellers, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 135-36.

[In the following review, Ziolkowski summarizes the themes of Vormittag eines Schriftstellers, elucidating the volume's thesis and critical perspective.]

The latest volume [Vormittag eines Schriftstellers] by the impressively productive Martin Walser contains an assortment of eleven occasional pieces on political, cultural, and literary topics—mostly published in various newspapers since the German unification. We find here a paean to Boris Becker, an insightful appreciation of Horst Janssen's erotic...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Skwara, Erich Wolfgang. Review of Finks Krieg, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 140-41.

[In the following review, Skwara discusses the themes of Finks Krieg, noting that the novel lacks erotic tension but labelling certain section as “vintage” Walser.]

Few German authors have developed a tone as uniquely their own as has Martin Walser: whatever the story, we recognize his voice right away (see e.g. WLT 70:3, p. 685). Finks Krieg, Walser's newest novel, of course remains loyal to a seismograph's function, which is to register earthquakes; and he has been the German Federal Republic's seismograph of...

(The entire section is 1074 words.)

Michael Butler (review date 10 January 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Butler, Michael. “Taking on the System.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4893 (10 January 1997): 22.

[In the following review, Butler examines the significance of the critical realism of Finks Krieg, summarizing the novel's themes, its critical reception, and its relationship to Walser's other works.]

The furore surrounding Martin Walser's latest novel, Finks Krieg, together with major work recently published by Günter Grass and Christa Wolf, has sent a signal to fractious literary pundits in Germany that the older generation of-writers has no intention of slipping quietly into a well-earned retirement. Though their reputations were...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Stuart Taberner (essay date October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Taberner, Stuart. “Martin Walser's Halbzeit: Stylizing Private History for Public Consumption.” Modern Language Review 92, no. 4 (October 1997): 912-23.

[In the following essay, Taberner analyzes the implications of cultural models in the psychological development of Anselm Kristlein, the protagonist of Halbziet, discussing the thematic significance of Kristlein's mimetic tendencies and the “fictionalization” of his personal and paternal biographical failures.]

Martin Walser's Halbzeit is typically considered to capture the mood of the early history of the Federal Republic, namely the 1950s and the Wirtschaftswunder. Indeed,...

(The entire section is 6444 words.)

Ulf Zimmermann (review date winter 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Zimmermann, Ulf. Review of Ein springender Brunnen, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 73, no. 1 (winter 1999): 140-41.

[In the following review, Zimmermann comments on the plotting of Ein springender Brunnen, drawing autobiographical parallels to the protagonist's literary experiences.]

In his “Nachtlied” Nietzsche's soul is “ein springender Brunnen”; that is what language became for Martin Walser. Language enables us to get a fix or what has happened though it is dubious that what we record is actually the same as what happened, as Walser observes in the beginning of this autobiographical novel [Ein springender Brunnen] of...

(The entire section is 705 words.)

Erich Wolfgang Skwara (review date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Skwara, Erich Wolfgang. Review of Der Lebenslauf der Liebe, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 75, no. 2 (spring 2002): 122-23.

[In the following review, Skwara contrasts the themes, style, and protagonist of Der Lebenslauf der Liebe with Walser's works since German reunification.]

Martin Walser, the major literary seismograph of German soul and Befindlichkeit over the past five decades, has taken on a new challenge in both the artistic and human sense. Whether this new dimension of his oeuvre represents a widening or a narrowing of the writer's scope, Walser is either way on a fascinating new path, and he takes us along. If sorrows...

(The entire section is 903 words.)

Michael Butler (review date 19 July 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Butler, Michael. “A Portrait of Vanity.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5180 (19 July 2002): 23.

[In the following review, Butler chronicles the controversial Jewish reception of Tod eines Kritikers, outlining the plot and themes in the context of Walser's literary practices.]

For a people who have long perceived self-effacing dullness as a desirable quality of civil society, contemporary Germans appear to love nothing more than a good row. These have come at regular intervals since Unification in 1990. Furious debates have been unleashed, for example, on the quality and significance of East German literature, on the centrality of German culture in...

(The entire section is 1213 words.)

Rita Terras (review date April-June 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Terras, Rita. Review of Tod eines Kritikers, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 77, no. 1 (April-June 2003): 132.

[In the following review, Terras criticizes Walser's attempt to construct a coherent mystery in Tod eines Kritikers, calling the novel “a bad book by what used to be a good writer.”]

The relation between writers and literary critics was hardly ever simple and cordial. But never has literary criticism been so much the stronger party and virtually in control of the writer and his work as in recent years. In the Soviet Union, literary critics were in control of the very process of writing, and their power extended even to...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Theodore Ziolkowski (review date April-June 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ziolkowski, Theodore. Review of Aus dem Wortschatz unserer Kämpfe: Prosa, Aufsätze, Gedichte, by Martin Walser. World Literature Today 77, no. 1 (April-June 2003): 134.

[In the following review, Ziolkowski compliments the variety of the prose pieces collected in Aus dem Wortschatz unserer Kämpfe: Prosa, Aufsätze, Gedichte.]

In a career spanning almost fifty years, Martin Walser has never been less than provocative and controversial, whether he was questioning the social values of the early Wirtschaftswunder or challenging the recent “ritualization” of Auschwitz and its use as a “moral cudgel.” In honor of his seventy-fifth birthday his...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Butler, Michael. “Negative Capabilities.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4933 (17 October 1997): 30.

Butler examines the vast collection of Walser's works in Werke in Zwölf Bänden, noting the literary, cultural, and social relevance of the nine-volume set for reunited Germany.

Feingold, Michael. Review of Letter to Lord Liszt, by Martin Walser. Voice Literary Supplement, no. 39 (October 1985): 3.

Feingold comments that Letter to Lord Liszt is primarily focused on middle-aged, middle-class angst.

McGee, Celia. Review of The Swan Villa, by Martin Walser....

(The entire section is 397 words.)