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Martin Walser: Halbzeit [Half Time]

This book has been hailed as one of the great German novels of the early post-war period and it is easy to see why. It is very long – nearly 900 pages. Unlike the other great German novels of that period, such as Tauben im Gras (Pigeons on the Grass), Mutmassungen über Jakob (Speculations about Jakob) and Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), it does not focus on the war or the East/West divide but rather focuses on where Germany is going, as regards its economic development. Also, unlike those three novels, it has not been translated into English (or, as far as I can determine, any other language) and is only available in a collected edition in German.

Walser’s story, the first in a trilogy, is about Anselm Kristlein, a German in his mid-thirties. He has served in the war, where he was a prisoner. At the beginning of the novel, he is recovering from an operation. He is married with three children and is working as a travelling salesman. The first half of the book is about his life at this point. Walser gives us, in great detail, a description of Kristlein’s life, family, work and friends but all seen through the eyes of the narrator himself. For example, his visit to the barber, accompanied by his daughter, takes up many pages as he talks to Mr. Flintrop, the barber, discusses whether he has dandruff and, if so, how best to treat it, watches his daughter read a film magazine and generally observes his surroundings. This could be boring if told in straight narrative format but Walser has it all filtered through the mind of the narrator and, like most of us, Kristlein flits around, goes off on tangents, makes connections that are not always obvious, changes the subject and daydreams. Through this somewhat convoluted approach, Walser shows us how Germany is developing, as the consumer society comes to the fore, whether it is for dandruff products or film stars, and this representative of the new Germany reacts to his environment.

The second part of the book is about Kristlein’s career, as he moves from being a salesman, into advertising. At the very beginning of the book, Walser gives us a quote from the zoologist Adolf Portmann about Batesian mimicry – how certain species (he refers to butterflies) can mimic completely different species. It is clear that Kristlein, perhaps unwittingly, has developed this skill and he uses it to the full when he moves into advertising. His successful career in advertising gives Walser an opportunity to decry the rise of the consumer society, not using direct satire in the way, say, that a British or American author might do, but merely showing how it has developed and taken over post-war Germany. While many hailed the post-war economic development of West Germany, Walser is more circumspect, as he shows us not just the foibles of the advertising industry but the foibles of the advertising man. Kristlein is a social animal – that is part of the secret of his success – and he neglects his family for his friends and, of course, a series of affairs, which are portrayed as acquisitive rather than based on any feelings of love. At the end he is back with his family after more medical issues following a trip to America but we are left with the feeling that he is just passing through.

This is not a particularly easy book as much of it, particularly the first part, piles on the details in a seemingly haphazard way as seen through the eyes of Kristlein. But, as a portrait of post-war West Germany as it is going full steam into the Wirtschaftswunder, it is a fascinating work. Given that it is barely in print in German, the chances of it ever appearing in English are slim, to say the least, but if you can read German, it is worth the effort.

Publishing history

First published 1960 by Suhrkamp
No English translation