A Sad Affair by Wolfgang Koeppen

Last night I finished reading Wolfgang Koeppen’s 1934 novel Eine unglückliche Liebe (A Sad Affair). This year I’ve resolved to read more fiction from non-English language writers. This one is actually a book that’s been sat on my shelf for so many years that I can’t even remember how I got it. I know I didn’t buy it. I’m pretty sure that it was given to me as a gift by my mom when I was going through my artsy fartsy Bohemian phase. It certainly seems at home when placed in the company of the books I was reading at the time; Quiet Days in Clichy, On the Road, and Women to name a few. All of these books had something in common- they were fictionalized memoirs that focused on a particular time or place, they covered universal aspects of the human condition such as poverty and sex, and they all spoke to a kind of masculine sensitivity- an anguish even. They were all slow-paced and introspective, with philosophical ambitions. They weren’t written as page-turners and they rejected the accepted forms of how a plot ought to be structured.

In addition to committing to reading more non-English language writers, I’m also ticking off so many old books. Why not read Koeppen? The book itself is only 172 pages. Before I started reading, I did something I’ve been trying to do more recently- I checked out the introduction. It was actually super-interesting and it definitely enhanced my reading experience. I can see the appeal in wanting to go in fresh and not know anything about the author’s life, but in this instance it increased my interest in the novel. The introduction is written by the book’s translator- Michael Hofmann. In it he discusses how, despite being regarded by German critics as a quintessentially German book, the book is in many ways remarkably “un-German”. You would expect a book written in Germany in the mid-1930s to reflect in some way life under Nazi rule, but this book is completely apolitical. There’s no mention of world events at all (in fact, I don’t think the words “Germany” or “German” are used at all), and in some way that’s what makes it so interesting- how out of time it is. The focus of the book is entirely on the narrator’s sexual obsession with an actress named Sibylle.

Now I’ve read several books that deal with sexual obsession in my time, but this one is by far the most desperate. And the fact that it all happened (which I learned in the introduction) made the book all the more fascinating. Every moment of pain, anguish and heartache that the narrator goes through is authentic. Koeppen is completely forthcoming and lays himself bare. The object of his desire, Sibylle, is based on the real-life actress Sibylle Schloss- and it’s one of her nude photographs that appear on the front cover. The Sibylle of the novel is portrayed as extremely promiscuous, but also fiercely independent. She is someone that has complete ownership over her sexuality. She is described as falling into bed with almost any man on the street- but it has to be her idea; she has to be the one in control. And therein lies the tragedy for the narrator, who is utterly devoted to her. He worships the very ground she walks on, and witnesses Sibylle give herself to men so easily, and yet despite his infatuation (or rather, because of it) she does not permit him the slightest physical contact. He obsesses over what her lips feel like. He believes wholeheartedly that she is his “destiny”. Sibylle, on the other hand, gets angry at the very idea of them so much as kissing, let alone becoming lovers.

What I liked about this book was that there were several funny lines where the narrator’s observations, neuroticisms, and anxieties felt so relatable. It’s somehow comforting to think that people were awkward back then too. The real strength of the novel, however, is found in its memorable stream-of-consciousness passages. Lines such as “Her lips seemed to him the font of life, the source of all joys, the world offered no drink to set beside the kiss of her lips and never, never once, had he been allowed to breathe on them, to feel them, their redness, their flesh, their moist gleam that shone to his faint spirit, a craving, a signal, a finishing line in a gauntlet race through an infernal landscape, to the scornful laughter of the happy, the contented, the sated, the living; he was without anyone to pity him, the compassion of the world denied itself to him with these same lips” remind me of the lyrical, poetic writing of Koeppen’s contemporary Modernists such as William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, as well as the later works of the Beat Generation. The protagonist may be pitiful and unheroic, but there’s something so human about him. He wants to be a good person. He has so much love to give, but he is so desperately lonely. Sibylle is unwilling to give him what he wants, but she also seems like the only person that even knows he is alive. Now I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know I’ve fallen into the trap a few times down the years of idealizing a girl I’m attracted to, and I just think it’s such a quintessential flaw in the male psyche. That’s why I’m sympathetic to the protagonist. I think a lot of young men have similarly ascribed higher qualities to the women of their desire that those women cannot possibly live up to. To the narrator, Sibylle is an angel, and no man is worthy of her.

Some readers consider the book to be a self-deprecating satire, because the narrator’s obsession reaches almost absurd limits. There are darker passages in the book that I found interesting (albeit in a morbidly-curious way) such as the scene where they are walking on the harbor in Zurich and the protagonist suddenly starts thinking about pushing her off the edge. I’ve always been interested in why people do terrible things, so the idea that a seemingly normal person might just snap and do something awful on an impulse is quite compelling to me.

This was a good read- and an excellent translation by Hofmann. In many ways, it was a return to the kind of books I read a lot of during my collegiate years.

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