A lamp left burning

Posted on 3rd June 2021 by simonbeattie

A version of this review appeared in The TLS in June 2021.

It is 75 years since the tragic death of Friedo Lampe, the disabled gay writer who survived the Nazi era only to be summarily shot by the Red Army just days before the end of the War.  When, within months of coming to power in 1933, the Nazis banned his debut novel, Am Rande der Nacht (At the Edge of the Night), he wrote to a friend that the book ‘was unable to breathe in the Third Reich.  But let’s see.  Perhaps it will rise again at some point.’  The same could be said of all Lampe’s writing.  Thanks to the pioneering work of Wallstein Verlag, that wish, finally, seems to be coming true.

The rediscovery came in 1999, the centenary of Lampe’s birth, with a new, unexpurgated edition of Am Rande der Nacht, the first appearance of the complete text since it was originally published by Rowohlt in the Thirties.  Post-War editions of the book removed passages which had led to its being banned by the Nazis, but Wallstein revived the original text, following up with new editions of Lampe’s other books.  Finally, just last year, they published Lampe’s collected correspondence, and have now brought out Johann-Günther König’s readable biography, the first devoted to the writer to appear in German.  König, a co-founder of the erstwhile Friedo-Lampe-Gesellschaft, makes good use of the correspondence, as well as what scant remains are preserved in the archives of this ‘remarkable figure in the German literary scene of the first half of the 20th century.’

Growing up, Lampe was a voracious reader and an insatiable book-buyer (‘it really is an illness with me’), a hobby which became a job when he started working for Hamburg’s public libraries in 1932.  Lampe lived for books: buying them, reading them, discussing them, and finally writing them.  When Am Rande der Nacht came out towards the end of 1933, Lampe was concerned as to how people would take it: ‘What do you think of it now it’s in print?’ he wrote to a close friend in October 1933.  ‘Very shocking?  I’m worried.’  The book’s ‘cinematic’ style was innovative, drawing the attention of critics, but its content attracted attention, too, and on his return to work after Christmas in January 1934, Lampe found the novel on the Nazis’ list of banned books, on account of homoerotic and other scenes of a sexual nature.  As König suggests, Am Rande der Nacht was Lampe’s coming-out novel, but the episode left him fearing for his job, and his future as a writer.

In the event, Lampe carried on at the library, but kept in touch with Rowohlt, who offered him an editorial position in 1937.  Official restrictions on the Hamburg library service notwithstanding, Lampe had enjoyed his job as a librarian, but the money in publishing was better.  A ‘mountain of manuscripts’ awaited him, not least Hans Fallada’s Wolf unter Wölfen, where he was meticulous in noting anything which the authorities might deem offensive.  It received rave reviews.  The same year Lampe worked on a new novel of his own, Septembergewitter, which, due to delays at the printers, Rowohlt only managed to bring out in December, sadly too late for the Christmas trade, and sales were no better in the New Year.  As an editor, Lampe went on to work for other publishers.  Then came the War. 

Lampe was a big man, known for his healthy appetite, and was particularly hard hit by rationing; by 1942, he was already, in his own words, ‘terribly thin.’  ‘One way or another,’ he wrote, ‘we shall all sooner or later be sucked into this whole disaster.’  The following year, on the night of 22 November 1943, over 700 British bombers dropped 2500 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on Berlin.  Lampe was out at the time, but his flat was destroyed.  Then, less than a fortnight later, another air raid, this time on Leipzig, destroyed the printing works where a new volume of Lampe’s short stories, Von Tür zu Tür, was being printed.  ‘I never have any luck with my books,’ he wrote to a friend.

Lampe had suffered from bone tuberculosis as a child, which affected the way he walked for the rest of his life, a condition which saved him from being called up until, in July 1944, he was conscripted to work for the German Foreign Office, intercepting and analysing enemy transmissions, often on the nightshift.  He found it gruelling work.  Eight months later and the Red Army was closing in on Berlin.  Friends, fleeing from the approaching Soviet troops, tried to get Lampe to come with them, but he declined.  Then, on 2 May 1945, the day Berlin capitulated, he was stopped by two Red Army soldiers.  Eyewitnesses relate how Lampe was unable to make himself intelligible to the men, who ordered him onto a patch of grass and shot him.  It is still not clear why.  One suggestion is that the Soviets had been told to be on their guard for members of the SS trying to escape and, due to the privation of war, Lampe no longer resembled the photo on his ID card.

Nearly all Lampe’s possessions, along with those of many who knew him, were destroyed in the War.  Such losses inevitably leave gaps, and König’s book is peppered with questions as it charts Lampe’s course from reader to writer, from librarian to literary editor.  What are we to make of the Lampe which is left to us?  An intensely private man, certainly, but not a loner: his circle of close friends knew him as a companionable, chain-smoking epicure, with a deep love of books.  To all outward appearances he was a quiet, confirmed bachelor; colleagues did not know he was gay.  But then, as Chapter 3, ‘Anders als die anderen’ (‘Different from the others’), notes: throughout Lampe’s life—the Wilhelmine era, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich—homosexuality in Germany was illegal.  Nights along the Reeperbahn when he lived in Hamburg, and one instance of being blackmailed by a Berlin rent boy in 1943, reveal another side to the life of a man who stood out, both physically and in his writing, and yet who out of necessity had to remain unobtrusive to try and survive.

As one would expect from Wallstein, this is a very nicely produced book.  It therefore comes as a slight surprise that there is no index, which would have been useful.  That aside, it is an important addition to our knowledge of Lampe, in Patrick Modiano’s words (in Dora Bruder, quoted on the dust-jacket here), a lamp left burning in an empty room.

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2 responses to “A lamp left burning”

  1. Dear Simon,

    thank you so much for bringing this forgotten author to attention again. He is worth it!

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