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Martin Walser, eminent German writer, dies at 96

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Martin Walser, whose trenchant novels about contemporary Germany elevated him to the country’s pantheon of writers who emerged after World War II, even as he stoked controversy by challenging the ongoing societal atonement for Nazi crimes, died July 26 in the city of Überlingen. He was 96.

A spokeswoman for the Rowohlt Verlag publishing house confirmed his death but did not cite a cause. Mr. Walser lived on Lake Constance in southern Germany along the border with Switzerland and Austria, a region that served as the setting for many of his works.

A novelist, playwright and essayist, Mr. Walser was a contemporary of the writers Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass and was widely considered to have attained the same rank in German letters, even if he was not recognized, as they both were, with the Nobel Prize for literature.

Mr. Walser began writing in the 1950s, roughly a decade after the German defeat in World War II, and occupied himself principally with the society that formed in West Germany in its wake.

While East Germans remained under Soviet domination, West Germans enjoyed the benefits of their “economic miracle” as they emerged from the catastrophe of the war to become one of the most powerful markets in Europe.

Mr. Walser found in West Germany a place ripe for satire. In his works, a writer for the French newspaper Le Monde observed, he “[revealed] the anxieties of middle-class people caught between the benefits of German economic prosperity and a nagging sense of personal failure.”

It was “a world he knew well,” the writer added, “because it was his own.”

In one of his most popular works, the best-selling 1978 novel “Ein fliehendes Pferd” (published in English as “Runaway Horse”), Mr. Walser depicted two middle-aged men, old school friends, who meet while vacationing on Lake Constance with their wives.

One of the men, Helmut, is seemingly the epitome of conventionality; the other, Klaus, is outwardly hip. But the realities of their lives prove more complex, and the slim book was widely recognized as what the German news outlet Deutsche Welle described as a “searing critique of society.”

Mr. Walser was extensively translated into English, with his novels “The Swan Villa” (about a Lake Constance real estate agent), “The Inner Man” (centered on an industrialist’s restless chauffeur) and “Letter to Lord Liszt” (ostensibly about infighting among executives at a denture manufacturer in southern Germany) among the most widely read.

He explored the East-West German divide in the 1987 novel “Dorle und Wolf” (“No Man’s Land”), whose protagonist, Wolf, is an East German spy.

At one point, Wolf observes travelers at a train station in the West German city of Bonn and sees them as a “mass of half-people.”

“They all shone with achievement, but not one of them seemed content,” Mr. Walser wrote. “And not one of them would say, if asked, that he lacked his Leipzig half, his Dresden part, his Mecklenburg extension,” the author continued, listing East German cities.

Mr. Walser explored his own life amid the rise of Nazism in “Ein springender Brunnen” (“A Gushing Fountain”), a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1998. The protagonist, Johann, like Mr. Walser, is born in 1927. Like Mr. Walser’s parents, his father is a communist and his mother belongs to the Nazi Party. Johann watches as Hitler leads Germany into a war that will ultimately leave his brother dead.

The year “A Gushing Fountain” was published, Mr. Walser received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. He made international news with his acceptance speech, in which he confronted a current of thought that called for a continual reckoning with the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews.

To many survivors of the Holocaust, and to people who work to preserve its history through memorials, monuments, literature, film and art, the importance of memory only increases as the Holocaust recedes ever deeper into the past.

Mr. Walser, however, spoke for another current in German thought when he protested that “we are confronted all the time with our guilt” and that Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi killing centers, had become “a permanent exhibit of our shame.”

He objected to what he described as the “instrumentalization of Auschwitz,” in which memory-keeping for the Holocaust, he said, becomes an “empty ritual” often used for political purposes. Auschwitz, he argued, should not be “a moral cudgel or just a compulsory exercise.”

Even a half-century after the end of World War II, he complained, when many people in Germany had not even been alive during the war, anyone who suggested that “Germans have become a normal people now, an ordinary society” was met with wariness.

Mr. Walser knew his remarks would be controversial, and he said that he made them “trembling.” His defenders said he had given voice to a feeling many Germans silently harbored, but the criticism was swift.

Ignatz Bubis, the leader of Germany’s Jewish community, denounced what he described as Mr. Walser’s “moral arson.”

“Don’t you understand,” the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel challenged Mr. Walser, “that you have opened a door that others can push through, others who follow completely different political views and are dangerous in a completely different way?”

Mr. Walser again attracted attention with the publication in 2002 of “Tod eines Kritikers” (“Death of a Critic”), a roman à clef based on the eminent German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who was Jewish and had survived the Warsaw Ghetto.

Reich-Ranicki was by all accounts brilliant but at times unleashed harsh judgments on writers including Mr. Walser. In his depiction of his fictional literary critic, Mr. Walser was accused of employing antisemitic tropes.

“The fictionalized critic is power-hungry, a sexual predator and obsessed with money — a monster with no redeeming features,” a reporter for the Wall Street Journal wrote. Mr. Walser insisted that “the idea that I draw from the anti-Jewish repertoire is an insult.”

Despite the controversy, Mr. Walser remained a prominent intellectual and prolific writer. At his peak, he wrote a book a year.

“I think that world literature is about losers,” he once said. “That’s just the way it is. From Antigone to Josef K. — there are no winners, no champions. And furthermore, anyone can confirm that in their circle of acquaintances: People are always more interesting when they are losing than when they are winning.”

Mr. Walser was born to a Catholic family in Wasserburg, a town on Lake Constance, on March 24, 1927.

He was 10 when his father, a coal merchant, died and was raised by his mother, who kept an inn. In the semi-autobiographical “A Gushing Fountain,” Mr. Walser depicted the mother as joining the Nazi Party only for the benefit of her business, so she could support her family.

German media reported in 2007 that Mr. Walser had been enrolled in the Nazi Party as a teen. Mr. Walser said he had no memory of having done so and noted that the date on his record — April 20, 1944, Hitler’s birthday — suggested that local party leaders had enrolled him along with other young men as a gift to the führer.

After the war, Mr. Walser studied at the University of Regensburg and later the University of Tübingen. He worked as a radio reporter and wrote radio plays before beginning his career as a novelist.

Mr. Walser’s literary talents were recognized nearly immediately. He belonged to Gruppe 47, an association of German writers, also including Böll and Grass, that sought to revive German literature after World War II.

Mr. Walser’s 1957 debut novel, “Ehen in Philippsburg” (“Marriage in Philippsburg”), was a satire on the postwar “economic miracle.”

Mr. Walser was married in 1950 to Käthe Neuner-Jehle and they had four daughters. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

One of Mr. Walser’s last books was an illustrated collection of his writings. In the book, according to Deutsche Welle, Mr. Walser wrote that “I do not defend myself,” and that “I am thoughtful and want to live until the last evening.”



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