The German Epic in the Cold War: Peter Weiss, Uwe Johnson, and Alexander Kluge. By Matthew D. Miller. Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018. xvi + 237 pages + 10 b/w illustrations. $34.95 paperback or e-book.

Martin Brady

Matthew D. Miller’s project is an ambitious and timely one: to investigate the actuality—the “possible futures” (182)—of three door-stopping modern German epics: Peter Weiss’s Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (three volumes, 1975–81; a ‘definitive’ version was published in a handy-if-weighty volume of 1199 pages by Suhrkamp in 2017); Uwe Johnson’s Jahrestage: Aus dem Leben von Gesine Cresspahl (four volumes, 1970–83, 2150 pages); Alexander Kluge’s Chronik der Gefühle (2004, 2036 pages). Although understandably, given the sheer weight of his task, the author doesn’t engage with publication history, it is a remarkable testimony to Suhrkamp that all three works appeared in the same publishing house. Less satisfying, of course, is the patchy availability of translations into English. Although Jahrestage was finally published in a complete translation in 2018, too late for this volume (Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl translated by Damion Searls, New York), only the first volume of Weiss’s trilogy and extracts of Kluge’s magnum opus have been published in English. Although Miller doesn’t address the problem explicitly, his study shrewdly provides sufficient plot detail and résumé to make it comprehensible to those who have not read all 5,000 pages or who don’t read German.

When measured against its objects of study, Miller’s book is a model of brevity: the text is a mere 180 pages (supplemented by substantial and informative footnotes, a useful index, but sadly no bibliography), yet it covers a lot of ground succinctly. There is considerable originality here: whilst Weiss and Johnson are frequently compared, including Kluge’s post-Reunification collection of stories sheds new light on two “Cold War classics.” The thesis is simple: these epics adapt and develop an age-old genre in innovative and fresh ways, making it relevant to the future (our present and beyond). In the case of Weiss’s Ästhetik this means the legacy of emancipatory struggle, which the novel itself locates within a massive historical frame beginning, famously, with a detailed ekphratic discussion of the Pergamon frieze in Berlin, but also encompassing wonders as diverse as Picasso’s Guernica and Angkor Wat. Miller rightly and perceptively concentrates on the “democraticization of epic form” (73) and “narration as resistance” (76), convincingly drawing out the utopian, future-orientated tenor of Weiss’s epic despite the deaths of so many resistance fighters. As Miller concludes, Weiss’s novel “rescues and rechannels emancipatory aspirations in long time” (89).

Weiss’s novel is frequently termed a “Jahrhundertroman,” and the same epithet has been applied to Johnson’s four-volume epic. The comparison is compelling here, and Miller draws out some fascinating common ground, most revealingly in the case of Bertolt Brecht, whose reinvention of “epic” narration and “separation of the elements” were key to Weiss, Johnson, and Kluge. Although Miller draws attention to this in interesting ways, there are connections here that could have usefully been developed a little more: whilst pointing out, quite rightly, that the presence of Brecht over substantial stretches of volume two of Weiss’s Ästhetik suggests the author has appropriated Brecht’s epic theatrical devices (separation, estrangement, and so forth) for prose fiction, he fails to acknowledge that Brecht himself did this in innovative ways in his own novels, not least Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar, itself a work of epic ambition which views National Socialism and Italian fascism through the historical frame of Ancient Rome. In discussing the modern epic, Miller makes telling use of Brecht’s famous remarks about art, reification, and the Krupp and A.E.G. factories in Der Dreigroschenprozeß (35) but does not mention the author’s contemporary Dreigroschenroman so admired by Walter Benjamin. At least passing reference to the fact that Johnson’s Jahrestage refers to, or quotes directly from, more than twenty works of Brecht across its four volumes—including Me-Ti: Buch der Wendungen (which, after all, Johnson himself edited for Suhrkamp in 1965), the Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner, and the epic poetic “GDR learning play” Herrn-burger Bericht—would also have supported and strengthened Miller’s argument.

Alexander Kluge’s “Brechtianism” is well-known, most transparently in the case of his early prose and cinema films (a Keunergeschichte is hilariously wrestled with by Leni Peickert, the protagonist of Abschied von gestern in 1966). Miller only refers to Kluge’s filmmaking in passing (and minor slips in the titles of his first two films suggest they are peripheral to his concerns). Miller’s argument that Chronik der Gefühle belongs to the pantheon of great epic tomes is generally convincing, and there are some nice detailed analyses here of individual stories, although there remains a nagging sense that it is first and foremost the sheer weight and ambition of Kluge’s “implosions of epic form” (150) and “constellative storytelling” (155) that demand comparison with Weiss and Johnson. The absence of any coherent narrator(s) and the epic fragmentation ad absurdum could be seen to distance Kluge’s post(-modern)-epic from the coherent, grand narratives of Weiss and Johnson. However, the title of Miller’s book justifies the juxtaposition: the author does convincingly draw out the ways in which these three texts hone in on finite periods of twentieth-century history which have a direct bearing on the Cold War: 1937–45 in the case of Weiss; a single year, 1967–68, with Johnson; 1945 (the bombing of Kluge’s hometown of Halberstadt in particular), divided Germany, and the Wende (the reunification period of “transition”) with Kluge.

Miller persuasively locates the novels within Cold War concerns and rhetoric without engaging with wider issues of literary history and theory in any great detail. His study is eminently readable for the most part, although on a few occasions there is a tendency to adopt the metaphorical tone of the texts themselves: this is particularly evident in the discussion of what Miller (with recourse to existing scholarship) terms Jahrestage’s “hydropoetics.” Thus, the novel’s “streams and rivers are directed into the epic’s sea,” its “narrative spates take shape according to a logic of tidal fluctuation” (100), and the reader is invited “to bathe in all kinds of different waters” (97). When it comes to Kluge the metaphors turn arboreal and we stumble around in “narrative thickets” (154) or get “lost in Chronik’s forests” (140). Mannerisms notwithstanding, Miller is generally concise and sober in his assessments, and his concluding defence of these modern epics is winning: they offer “reconstitution and training of the human senses” in an age that needs them “more desperately than the already catastrophic centuries of the past” (183). He nicely downplays the difficulty of reading such works, although he does acknowledge it in passing. There was an opportunity here to engage a little more theoretically with issues of reception with reference, for example, to Leonard Diepeveen’s study of difficulty as a modernist strategy in The Difficulties of Modernism (New York and London, 2003). The difficulties posed by modernist novels of epic proportion (Miller namechecks Mann, Musil, Joyce, and Döblin in passing) are, after all, inextricably linked to the complexities of twentieth-century history.

Miller’s study will appeal to a knowledgeable readership interested in twentiethcentury prose forms as well as German scholars and, in a brief “Epilogue,” it tantalizingly suggests that these three works by canonical, white, male writers, whilst being “as unwieldy as they are rewarding” (180), could even open up the epic “to its feminist and postcolonial appropriations” (182).