Three years ago, I blogged about Friedo Lampe, an insatiable book-buyer and author whose first novel was banned by the Nazis when it was published in 1933. Since then, my interest in his life and writing has grown into something a bit more tangible: earlier this year, Hesperus Press published my translation of Lampe’s Am Rande der Nacht.
As it is Banned Book Week, we thought it would only do to celebrate Friedo Lampe again here on the blog, this time with my translator’s introduction to the English edition of Am Rande der Nacht:
‘I never have any luck with my books,’ commented Friedo Lampe in 1944, after an air raid destroyed almost the entire edition of his latest book, a collection of short stories. Just over ten years before, his first, the novel Am Rande der Nacht (‘At the Edge of the Night’), had been banned by the Nazis. Lampe had spent a life in books—as reader, collector, librarian, editor, and writer—but it was a life of struggles and setbacks that ultimately ended in tragedy.
Lampe was born on 4 December 1899, in the north German city of Bremen, a place which would exert a particular influence on his writing and serve as the setting for his first book. At the age of five, he was diagnosed with bone tuberculosis in his left ankle and sent to a children’s clinic over 100 miles away, on the East Frisian island of Nordeney; he spent a total of three years there, away from his family, before being pronounced cured, but it left him disabled for the rest of his life. As a teenager, Lampe was a voracious reader—he devoured Hoffmann,Kleist, Büchner, Rilke, Mann, and Kafka, but also Boccaccio, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Poe—and an insatiable book buyer: ‘It really is an illness with me. I just have to buy every book, even if I don’t have the money.’ After the First World War, during which he was given a desk job with the mess sergeant at a local barracks, Lampe studied literature, art history, and philosophy at Heidelberg (with Friedrich Gundolf and Karl Jaspers), Munich, and Freiburg (with Edmund Husserl), before returning to Bremen and work, first as a trainee at, but soon sub-, then associate editor of the family magazine, Schünemanns Monatshefte. In 1931, the magazine ceased publication (a victim of the Great Depression), and Lampe retrained as a librarian; he soon found work with the public libraries in Hamburg, where he was responsible for acquisitions.
It was in Hamburg that he became acquainted with young writers such as Wilhelm Emanuel Süskind (father of Patrick) and Joachim Maass, who wrote for the avant-garde monthly arts magazine, Der Kreis. The Nazis’ seizure of power in January 1933 soon put paid to the magazine, which was shut down months later. Many of Lampe’s writer friends went into exile.
But Lampe himself was writing, and Am Rande der Nacht was published by Rowohlt in Berlin at the end of October 1933. The title-page of the first edition is actually dated 1934, but by then the book was already unavailable: in December 1933 it was seized by the Nazis, withdrawn from sale, and later included on their official ‘list of damaging and undesirable writings’ due to homoerotic content and its depiction of an interracial liaison between a black man and a German woman. Lampe wrote at the time that the book was born into a regime where it was unable to breathe, but hoped that one day it might rise again.
Am Rande der Nacht is not simply a rare example of a novel by a gay German writer in the Thirties. It is also an early work of magic realism—‘The way spaces, periods of time, slide into each other, something which is sometimes called surrealism, is an artistic method Lampe liked to employ’, wrote the author Kurt Kusenberg. ‘People live their lives as if a dream’—and exhibits a new narrative form which, in Germany at least, was largely without precedent. It has no one main character, but rather weaves together the actions of various people from one September evening. Rowohlt’s chief editor at the time, Paul Meyer, wrote: ‘The novel is good, stylistically. It is not always easy to read because, like the novels of Dos Passos, it doesn’t have a continuous plot, but a sequence of quick-changing, parallel scenes’. The book’s dust-jacket, when Rowohlt published it, drew attention to this. In large letters across the front cover, it stated: ‘A remarkable novel. Novel? A stream of images and scenes, with many characters: children, old people and young people, men and women, townsfolk, performers, students, and seamen. Things happen as they happen, horrible things, touching things, exciting, gentle, all against the backdrop and in the atmosphere of a sultry summer night on the waterfront of a north German city. A melancholy, beautiful book, akin to the timeless writing of Hofmannsthal, Eduard Keyserling and Herman Bang’. (The dust-jacket advertised other Rowohlt publications which were also subsequently banned by the Nazis: Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, and In einem andern Land, the 1930 translation of A Farewell to Arms.)
Lampe loved Ancient Greek literature; his later heroes were Kleist, Otto Ludwig, and Cervantes. But it was his keen interest in the cinema which influenced his first book most. Lampe conceived the novel as filmartig (‘film-like’, ‘cinematic’) when he was writing it, intending ‘everything [to be] light and fluid, only loosely connected, graphic, lyrical, full of atmosphere’. Writing in 1959, Heinz Piontek called Lampe ‘one of the first German writers to transfer the technology of film onto prose. His eye has something of a camera about it, dissecting the action into “sequences”’; the editors of Rowohlt’s 1986 collected edition drew attention to Lampe’s ‘soft cross-fades, clean cuts or deftly executed pan shots’. As Lampe wrote in Laterna magica, a short story published only after his death: ‘The most important thing is the cut.’
Nazi censorship policies also made things difficult for Lampe as a book-buying librarian, and in 1937 he moved to Berlin, where he accepted a job as an editor with Rowohlt. Lampe’s second novel, Septembergewitter (‘September Storm’), came out in December that year but sales were poor, in part due to bad timing: it was too close to Christmas, and by January the new book was old news.
Lampe carried on at Rowohlt until the end of September 1939—the press was shut down by the Nazis, and Ernst Rowohlt himself left Germany—when he worked as an editor first for Goverts, at the time one of the leading literary publishers in the country, then, from July 1940 onwards, for the recently-founded Karl Heinz Henssel Verlag. In 1943–4, he edited a series of works by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German authors for Diederichs in Jena. During the War, Lampe produced very little of his own work, only a dozen short stories. He was gripped by fear: fear that friends, or he himself (though his disability apparently saved him from this), would be called up for military service, fear of not having enough to eat, fear of losing his friends, job, and home, fear of being arrested for his homosexuality, fear that a long-desired volume of his own collected works would never appear. And his fears proved true: nearly all his friends were called up; then, in the night of 22–23 November 1943, his flat was completely destroyed in an air raid on Berlin. Lampe was beside himself, and reports in letters that only a couple of pieces of furniture could be saved. His greatest loss was his books: ‘That’s the worst thing. I’ve spent my whole life building up that library. It was unique, in its way: a comprehensive collection of German literature from its beginnings to the present. And the best translations of foreign literature, all systematically collected and arranged, some in valuable editions’.
A new edition of Septembergewitter (printed in a collection of short stories entitled Von Tür zu Tür, ‘From Door to Door’, in which any English names in the novel were replaced with Danish ones) was planned for 1944, but it was beset with problems: the threat of closure for Goverts Verlag, a lack of paper for printing. Finally, paper was secured, and the type set, only for most of the edition to go up in flames during an air raid on Leipzig.
After the destruction of his flat, Lampe had moved to Kleinmachnow, between Berlin and Potsdam, where he was given refuge by the writer, Ilse Molzahn, whom he had got to know when working at Rowohlt. She had left the city for the relative safety of Silesia, and was only too pleased to know someone would be living in her house. Lampe found living there an ‘idyll’ after the horrors of Berlin.
By the end of 1944, Lampe had been drafted into working for a branch of the Nazi Foreign Office, editing reports from intercepted enemy news broadcasts. As the months went by, Lampe understood all too clearly the course the War was taking, the regime’s impending defeat, and the nature of its crimes. Lampe called the work ‘gruelling, a real grind. Six hours a day of stressful, eye-straining proof work, lots of night shifts, constant tiredness … But I am lucky with how things are. I was examined again recently and marked down as “out of commission”’.
The War had taken its toll. Lampe, who was a big man, and known for his healthy appetite, had by 1942 already lost a lot of weight. Three years later and he was, by all accounts, a shadow of his former physical self. In the spring of 1945, Molzahn returned with her family to Kleinmachnow. With Soviet forces moving into neighbouring Wannsee, she wanted to press on to Nauen which, it was rumoured, had been taken by American troops. She urged Lampe to go with them, but he instead returned to Kleinmachnow where he was later stopped by two Red Army soldiers who demanded his papers. Lampe, dressed in a dark blue coat, hat, and with a rucksack on his back, did as he was asked. But something was not quite right. The Russians began to question him, as they did not believe that the man standing before them and the man in the photograph were one and the same. Due to the privations of war, and gnawed by constant fear, Lampe had lost so much weight that he no longer resembled the photograph on his identity card. After five minutes of trying to make himself intelligible to the soldiers, Lampe was ordered onto a nearby patch of grass. He raised his arm across his face, when two shots were fired, and he fell to the ground. The date was 2 May 1945, just six days before the end of the War.
Lampe’s body was taken to a local Catholic priest, and interred in a nearby cemetery. His grave is marked by a simple wooden cross, carved with the words ‘Du bist nicht einsam’: ‘You are not alone’.
Hermann Hesse later wrote: ‘His novel Am Rande der Nacht appeared in 1933. I read it at the time with great interest, as German prose writers of such quality were rare even then … And what struck us at the time … as so beautiful and powerful has not paled, it has withstood; it proves itself with the best, and captivates and delights just as then.’