(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Alfred Andersch is a well-known German editor, radio playwright, short-story writer, and novelist. During World War II he deserted from the German army as an act of protest and found a new political faith in Communism. Later, disillusioned with Marxist theory, he turned to the world of art and literature. Recent works, such as Efraim’s Book and The Night of the Giraffe and Other Stories, have focused on the experiences of disillusioned characters who seek to escape from reality by isolating themselves or retreating into the realm of aesthetics. His latest novel, Winterspelt, is clearly related to Andersch’s past experience and past work, but it also represents a significant turning point in his thought.

Winterspelt is a provocative and compelling novel of ideas. Through an occasionally troublesome or irritating mixture of factual documentary, historical commentary, and fictional narrative and commentary, Andersch presents a dark but perhaps not altogether despairing view of the nature of reality—a vision which has interrelated philosophical, political, and psychological implications. The primary impact of the novel derives from the uncompromising honesty and complexity of that vision.

Certain aspects of the novel suggest the influence of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, both of whom are quoted on the page preceding the first chapter. The central situation—the unauthorized attempt of a German officer just prior to the Battle of the Bulge to arrange the capture of his battalion by an American company commander whose superiors withhold the approval he needs to carry out the mission—is reminiscent of the World War I situation central to the plot of Faulkner’s A Fable. Closer to the essence of A Fable than the situation, however, is Andersch’s preoccupation with the tragic duality of human nature. The link to Hemingway may be seen in Andersch’s presentation of characters who define themselves through the various ways in which they respond to war—a war that represents symbolically the prime factors which shape human existence: chaos and chance. But to note these very general points of connection is in no way to question the originality of Andersch; in this novel, his vision and his style, ultimately inseparable, are clearly his own.

The vision of a chaotic universe is projected out of the chance-stricken series of events that propel five characters into a kind of psychological orbit around a plan which is ostensibly aimed at the senselessness of continuing the butchery of a war already decided. The theme of monstrous irrationality or moral chaos reflected in general through the characterization of the war is gradually spelled out in a more complex and ironic way through the meticulously detailed thought processes of the individuals who become involved in the plan. With one exception, all of these characters have ambivalent motivations. The better side of their natures—that small part of the spirit and mind capable of separating itself from the tentacular roots of self-interest—accounts for the idea of an action meant to signify defiance of irrationality, monstrosity, and moral chaos. But running subconsciously counter to this impulse in the minds of the prime movers of the plan is the all-powerful convoluted instinct of self-interest or self-preservation; and it is the intricate combination of the various complex manifestations of self that in large measure leads to the disaster in which the enterprise ends. That disaster is not the failure of the plan but the death of the one character in the novel whose motivations are open and pure.

The five characters whose interlocking minds and instincts are responsible for the main line of the action are Dincklage, the German major who conceives the plan at his headquarters in the village of Winterspelt, which has been masterfully camouflaged under his command; Käthe Lenk, the former schoolteacher who is attempting to escape the war by going into hiding in the village and who has fallen in love with the major; Hainstock, the Communist underground agent who has become the owner of a rock quarry and whose love Käthe had accepted earlier in gratitude for the protection he offered her; Schefold, a self-exiled German art historian who is holed up in “no-man’s land” between the two military lines and who visits Hainstock during his excursions into German territory; and Kimbrough, the American captain who permits Schefold to take his trips in return for the information he brings back about the morale of the German people.

Dincklage’s plan, which he never intended to be more than a fantasy, is put into action through the intercession of Käthe and the consequent involvement of Hainstock and Schefold. The risk which Schefold runs as a result of these connections, a trip through the German lines to establish communication between the two officers, turns out to be as senseless as the continuation of the war, because both officers know at the time the trip is made that the plan cannot be executed. The two officers and the Communist agent allow the aesthete to take an unnecessary risk because certain deep-rooted needs in their natures are satisfied by...

(The entire section is 2134 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Booklist. LXXIV, July 15, 1978, p. 1717.

New York Times Book Review. July 30, 1978, p. 14.

West Coast Review of Books. IV, September, 1978, p. 33.