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Martin Walser: Die Verteidigung der Kindheit [The Defence of Childhood]

As with his previous books, description and the inner thoughts of the main characters are what drives this novel. It tells the story of Alfred Dorn, born in 1929, the son of a dentist. As a child, his parents consider that he is likely to be a prodigy. He does very well at school but his university career is less successful. He studies law at Leipzig but, according to him, does not pass, for political reasons. He goes off to West Berlin to study law but, as soon as he has qualified, he is back in Dresden, to be with his beloved mother. Indeed, that is more or less the key theme of this novel – Dorn’s oedipal love for his mother, his desire not to look to the future but remember her, when he moves to West Germany and then, when he moves her to West Germany to be with him, when she dies. Indeed, as the title implies, he is not happy being an adult but was much happier being his mother’s son. His father does have a role to play. His parents divorced when Dorn was a child and the father went off to West Germany but Dorn clearly has an oedipal rivalry with his father, whom he sees, rightly, as a petit bourgeois, a man who more or less collaborated with the Nazis and who does things in the conventional bourgeois manner, even to the extent of going off with a younger woman.

Of course, what makes this book, as with his other books, is the depth into which Walser goes to explore Dorn’s life and motives, his Proustian search for his lost childhood, his need for his mother and her love and, ultimately, how he is, in many respects, representative of a sort of Germany that lives in the past and not the future. After reading this or other Walser novels, you feel totally absorbed into another world which is somewhat familiar but also somewhat disconcerting and unreal. It is Walser’s skill to create this world and it is sad that this book, like most of his others, is not available in English.

Publishing history

First published 1991 by Suhrkamp
No English translation
Published in French as Dorn ou Le Musée de l’enfance by Robert Laffont in 1992
Published in Spanish as La niñez defendida by Seix Barral in 1992
Also available in Greek