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.
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.
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.
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.