Few extensive studies of post-World War Two German literature have been written in English. One of the most comprehensive of these is After the Fires by Peter Demetz. This lengthy survey of East and West German, Austrian, and Swiss literature provides a wealth of information on literary developments as well as on individual authors and will be of particular interest to readers concerned with German letters but uncomfortable reading critical material written in the German language.
Written as a follow-up to Postwar German Literature, Demetz' earlier survey of German literature from 1945 to 1960, After the Fires concentrates most heavily, though not exclusively, on the period since 1960. The book consists of a preface, sixteen chapters, a summary postscript, a selected bibliography of works in translation, a list of recommended critical readings (not limited to those in English), and an index. Two chapters are devoted to West Germany and its literature, one to the German Democratic Republic, one to Austria, and one to Switzerland. Poetry, drama, and prose fiction each has a chapter to itself, and seven chapters are devoted to individual authors deemed important by Demetz: Heinrich Boll, Christa Wolf, Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Adolf Muschg, Max Frisch, and Gürter Grass. One chapter, certainly the most personal, is titled "On Auschwitz, and on Writing in German: A Letter to a Student" and attempts to articulate the impact of the "legacy of Auschwitz" both on German letters and on the scholarly, critical reception of German culture, including literature, since World War Two. Demetz faces the latter issue using himself as a case in point and elucidates the former with reference to the writings of H. G. Adler, Jurek, Paul Celan, and Peter, each in his own way a "survivor" of Hitler's barbarism, as indeed is Peter Demetz himself.
The greatest strength of After the Fires is the range of material treated in the book. For readers interested in an overview of the development of a particular national literature or of a specific literary genre, the book offers a valuable introduction. Those chapters, however, that deal with individual authors are a bit problematical. Certainly Böll, Wolf, Bernhard, Handke, Frisch, and Grass are world-renowned authors who deserve particular attention in a study of literature after World War Two. And it is also understandable that Demetz would devote a chapter to Muschg, an author of much less renown of whom Demetz, however, obviously thinks a great deal. However, the treatment of these major literary figures tends toward glibness and may be misleading to the reader who has not been exposed to other discussions of these authors. The reader would thus be well-advised to take with a grain of salt such contributions as the description of Heinrich [End Page 754] Böll as "a largely conservative anarchist who wanted to reestablish the order of families sticking together, of small groups of people who love each other, and the laws of hospitality, charity, purity of heart, compassion, and community (not society)" and the assertion that Christa Wolf "has come within inches of being the most thoughtful writer of the Green movement on either side of the Wall."
It is tempting to speculate upon the origin of such reductive formulations. Upon first reading, one may assume that the attempt to make the book accessible to a general audience could account for them. Upon further reflection, however, it seems more likely that Demetz' explicitly nontheoretical (and possibly even antitheoretical) orientation is the source of the book's more reductive aspects. By setting up in the book's preface an antithesis of pure theory and of his own "terrestial interests" in knowing "how good poems, plays, and novels are made, and how they relate to each other and to the kind of writing to which they belong, within the social context of their time," Demetz sidesteps the problem of defining the social context in any rigorous, theoretically grounded way, resting content instead with the commonly accepted views of East and West German, Swiss, and Austrian...