Walter Kempowski’s writing career began on a winter evening in 1950, nineteen years before he published his first novel. Then 21, he was serving time for espionage in an East German prison at Bautzen. For two years, he had passed the time by going from bunk to bunk and plying his fellow prisoners with questions about their lives. He met a glassblower from the Vogtland, a businessman who had worked in Persia, a bank president. He discovered Auschwitz survivors sleeping above former camp commandants, Americans alongside Finns and Brits, and a Frenchman who had been stationed at Dien Bien Phu. One evening, as Kempowski trudged through the yard for his nightly exercise, he found himself thinking how painful it was that the conversations going on throughout the prison at that moment should be lost, like the choir of voices swirling around the Tower of Babel. The guard on duty told Kempowski to pay attention. “Those are your comrades in the cells,” he said. “They’re telling you something.”

By the time of his death in 2007, Kempowski had earned an international reputation as Germany’s premier chronicler—a quirky old uncle spending time in his attic, surrounded by faded photographs and dusty junk. Anyone Kempowski came across could expect to be peppered with questions about their wartime memories, the subject of their dissertation, their first car. Some enthusiastic readers would drive to his rural home in Nartum, Lower Saxony, to recite their family stories into his tape recorder. These interviews would serve as the basis for many of his novels and documentary works, but they were more than just source material: Kempowski possessed an inexhaustible curiosity about the lives of others.

He also possessed an impish wit and took great pleasure in raking the muck. In interviews, he liked to take aim at his more successful contemporaries, at West Germany’s political class and, above all, at himself. Kempowski gave a frank interview to Die Weltwoche a few months before he died of intestinal cancer. When the interviewer remarked to him that he had lived “a German life,” Kempowski replied, with typical dryness, that his interlocutor was right to use the past tense.

That life had been a hard one. As a child in Rostock, a city on the Baltic Sea, Kempowski had resisted his duties for the local chapter of the Hitler Youth, playing the truant so brazenly that he was almost sent to a prison camp. (The troop leader happened to know his father, and so his name was struck from the list.) Kempowski’s father, a Wehrmacht soldier, was killed during the occupation of Rostock by the Soviet Union, sparking a lifelong hatred of the USSR and its East German satellite in his two sons. At the end of the war, the Kempowski brothers furnished the Allies with documents showing that Russian forces were stripping Rostock of more industrial equipment than had been sanctioned by the West. They were arrested by the Soviet authorities and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. The family’s shipping business was liquidated, their apartment given away, and their possessions taken and sold. For failing to report their activities, their elderly mother was sentenced to ten years of hard labor.

Kempowski’s eight years at Bautzen—his sentence was commuted in 1955—were the most important of his life. He told his biographer, Dirk Hempel, that the first several were spent struggling with the knowledge of what he had done to his mother. He tried to kill himself. He re-read the twelve books in the prison library and tramped through the darkness during exercise hour. As time passed and his despair began to wane, Kempowski decided to fashion a life for himself as best he could. He learned French and became director of the prison choir. He also cultivated a friendship with the chaplain that would endure for decades. Their long conversations about guilt and atonement led Kempowski to accept his sentence as punishment for the ruin he had brought on his family, as well as for what Germany had wrought during the war. Restitution could only be achieved by facing the horrors head-on: by listening to and recording answers. At his bunk, Kempowski began writing an epic poem about an outbreak of plague in a medieval town; when no one was looking, he would scribble verses onto bits of toilet paper pilfered from the latrines.

Though his debut novel, A Report From the Cell Block (1969), attracted little attention, Kempowski’s fascination with the lives he so diligently recorded soon began to pay dividends. Cell Block was followed by the bestselling Tadellöser & Wolff (1971) and We’re Still Golden (1972), the first two installments of what became The German Chronicle. Assembled from family diaries preserved by his sister, the sprawling nine-volume work is an unsentimental depiction of his family’s struggles from the early twentieth century until the brothers’ arrest in 1948. The novels depict his father’s and brother’s initial support for Hitler, the brutality of the war, and the deranged optimism of the years following its end. (We’re Still Golden owes its title to Kempowski’s mother, who, as the Red Army swept into Rostock, remarked: “So long as you don’t have gallstones or TB, we’re still golden.”)

The success of the books was an impressive achievement, considering that the novels are hardly typical crowd-pleasers. In place of a coherent literary narrative, Kempowski’s novels line up long strings of brief, haiku-like paragraphs, rarely more than a few sentences long. Here is Kempowski’s account of his arrest, which opens Cell Block (and closes We’re Still Golden): “They came for me in the gray morning light. Two of them wore leather jackets. When you get back, I thought, you’ll really have something to talk about.” Of the captain reviewing his case, Kempowski wrote, “Totally unprompted, he’d say, ‘All the apple trees have died!’ (The temperature had plunged during the night.) Because I called the Soviet Union Russia, they made me stand in the corner.”

But despite impressive sales, institutional recognition eluded Kempowski for the first several decades of his career. His novels were not nominated for prizes—a serious snub in the German literary world. Even at the height of his fame, Kempowski’s influence never rivaled that of Günter Grass, who was esteemed not only as a novelist but as the conscience of Germany, pressed for comment whenever crimes of the past surfaced in the news. (To date, translations of Kempowski’s work remain few and far between.) At a time when public discourse swung between high condemnation and uncomfortable silence, the impassivity of Kempowski’s prose confounded critics. Younger readers, for their part, saw it as a sign of deep conservatism that Kempowski’s harshest criticisms were leveled not at the Nazis—if anything, his childhood under National Socialism appeared in a suspiciously rosy light—but at the Soviet Union and East Germany. A 1975 film adaptation of Tadellöser & Wolff raised his profile, but through the 1970s and ’80s, Kempowski was mostly neglected by the literary establishment, very much to his chagrin. “I was poisoned,” he told the reporter from the Weltwoche. In another interview, he claimed that the lack of recognition was what caused his cancer.

Still, Kempowski’s financial success furnished him with the resources to start “gathering fates,” as he called it. He conducted interviews with anyone and everyone he encountered—even the students who sometimes heckled him at his readings. This material became the basis for the Chronicle’s two “question-volumes,” Did You Ever See Hitler? (1973) and Did You Know About It? (1979). These books divided readers, who had expected another installment in the Kempowski family saga. The answers appeared to be arranged randomly, without commentary or conclusion—but conclusions were never Kempowski’s métier. Like the novels, the question-volumes were meant to preserve, not to interpret. For Kempowski, history’s power lay not in the grand narrative but in the tiny detail, such as the little rhyme that one housewife recalls reciting with her starstruck girlfriends after catching a glimpse of Hitler in the flesh. (“Our Führer, if you will / Come up to our windowsill.”) Without the texture of individual experience, Kempowski felt, history became nothing but statistics and geography. “It never means anything to me when people say that three or four million people were gassed,” he told Die Weltwoche. “But when I hear that an SS man in Dachau tortured poor Pastor Schneider…I can get a picture of the monstrous horrors.”

By 1980, Kempowski had amassed so much interview material that he decided to formalize his endeavor by creating an official archive. He placed notices in Die Zeit and other German newspapers and was swamped with responses from readers. Some mailed him a few letters or pages from the diary of a deceased relative; others sent detailed family chronicles, which Kempowski transcribed, digitized and stored in a complex system of wooden cabinets in his attic. His home in Nartum became a house for the dead—though for Kempowski that was not such a gloomy proposition. Dead Germans, he observed, spoke much more uninhibitedly than their living countrymen.

Past lives offered him a form of companionship that he was unable to cultivate with the living. With the exception of his wife Hildegard, Kempowski’s diaries mention few intimates; a casual reader might never learn that the couple had children. The only people who achieved true personhood in Kempowski’s eyes were the authors and historical figures, like Thomas Mann and Karl Liebknecht, whose memoirs and letters he devoured. “Biographies are my favorite reading,” he admitted to his diary, after a long night in the archive in 1983. “My loveliest hours are those I spent busy with the courses of other people’s lives.”

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Over the years, as Kempowski’s archive grew ever larger, the writer began to question his literary method. At nearly 3,000 pages, the Chronicle was not lacking in detail. But as the diaries, letters and interviews made abundantly clear, the Kempowski family’s experience of the war was not exemplary; there was no single, unifying experience of World War II. A soldier sent to the hellish Eastern Front told a very different story in his letters home than one sent to the West. By the same token, life in occupied Paris—humiliating, morally compromised, but ultimately livable—was worlds away from the situation in occupied Poland, where thousands of families were deported east to make way for “repatriated” Germans. Even a Jew sent to Bergen-Belsen, known for its well-organized communist prisoners, was the victim of a different Holocaust than the one who passed with assembly-line efficiency from the ramp to the crematorium at Auschwitz. What was needed, Kempowski decided, was an “objective” approach, a book in which the full chaotic scope of the war could be rendered without sacrificing the unique texture of each individual voice—a work that could replicate what he felt forty years ago listening to the noises of the exercise yard at Bautzen, surrounded by the Babel of voices in the snow. It was as much a job for the former choir director as it was for the writer he had become.

The result, Sonar: A Collective Diary, was a massive four-volume collage assembled from the wealth of documents in Kempowski’s archive, as well as from his extensive library. The text consists of “particles,” as Kempowski called them—brief excerpts from diaries, cables, letters and newspapers montaged into a kaleidoscopic view of the war’s darkest days. There were Berliners cowering in bomb shelters and prisoners at Dachau awaiting their fate. There were increasingly deluded radio addresses from the Nazi high command and reflections from exiles like Thomas Mann, who watched from afar, wondering what would have befallen him had he stayed. Sometimes Kempowski used rapid cutting to tell a dramatic story, like that of the White Rose resistance, bit by terrifying bit; at other points, he set banality alongside historical horror, a favorite technique. The reader learns, for example, that while British prisoners at Nanndorf were being served a cup of cold tea to alleviate their homesickness, Anaïs Nin, safe in New York City, was admiring a lovely velvet hat she had been given by a friend. Feeling whimsical, Pablo Picasso painted its enormous plume light pink.

A historian constructing chains of causality would have made little of the “connections” documented in Sonar. But for Kempowski, simply knowing that the French writer and the wretched British soldiers existed under the same sky, breathing the same air, linked them one to the other—they were like iron filings, charged by the same unseen magnet. In Kempowski’s own journal, published in Alkor: Diary 1989, the drama of the daily headlines, which he dutifully recorded each morning, provides a context for and a contrast to the banal events that unfold beneath them. It is difficult to determine what, if anything, it might signify that Kempowski was sharing peppermint schnapps with guests at his literary salon the same day two Libyan planes were shot down by the US Air Force. Though they never wholly meet, the two events reach out for each other across the blank space Kempowski leaves between them.

Many of these headlines announced parades, memorials and mass demonstrations commemorating the historical events that Kempowski was documenting. The year 1989 alone saw the seventieth anniversary of the Weimar Republic, the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion of Poland, the fortieth anniversary of a divided Germany—and, of course, became a landmark year itself when the Berlin Wall finally fell. Not for nothing do the Germans call anniversaries Wiederkehre: “returns.”

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The publication of Sonar’s first volume in 1993 marked the first time in his career that Kempowski, readers and the national conversation were in accord. The intergenerational conflicts of the 1960s and ’70s had given way to the building of memorials, public expressions of remorse and the collection of survivor testimony. Readers, reviewers and, at long last, prize committees all hailed Sonar as a milestone in what German academics have called “memory culture,” no less a historical achievement than a literary one. A spokesman for the German government announced that Kempowski was “one of the most prominent authors in the German language,” and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called him “bitterly essential.” The collective diary was awarded a heap of literary prizes, including the Konrad Adenauer prize for literature. Still, after twenty years as a self-identified outsider, the success was bittersweet. “Frankly,” he told Die Weltwoche, “it could have come sooner.”

Kempowski benefited from another, subtler shift as well—the formerly unspeakable but growing public sentiment that, during the war, the Germans had suffered too. As Sonar hit bookstores, a controversy raged over the Neue Wache memorial in Berlin, which was dedicated to “victims of war and tyranny,” including, it was implied, the soldiers of the Wehrmacht. Though Sonar was often mentioned alongside other testimonial works, like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, it is significant that the book’s “symphonic” structure did not privilege the murder of the Jews over the carnage of Stalingrad or the Allied destruction of Dresden and Hamburg. Kempowski had never shied away from asserting that the Germans had been victims as well as perpetrators. But while, before, critics had held him at arm’s length, now he found himself at the crest of a wave of literature about “the crimes of the Allies,” from Günter Grass’s Crabwalk—published two years after Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize—to W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, which used the rhetoric of Holocaust amnesia to chide Germans for their “silence” about the destruction of their cities. Reviewers ignored this aspect of Sonar; Kempowski did not. “Yes, at the end of the war I saw a train with concentration camp prisoners cross a troop transport. It’s so appalling that there is no consolation in knowing that Stalin killed ten million people,” he said. “But one should be able to say that one can no longer stand this eternal perpetrator status. That depresses me.”

For all his talk of “murmuring” to the dead, Kempowski’s mosaic often told his own story as much as it did his interviewees’—the story of a comfortable life under National Socialism shattered by the horror of the war’s final years. In this respect, the title of Sonar is particularly telling: the stories that Kempowski gathered were, to use his term, “plankton,” while he cast his seine from a ship up above, plucking them from the lightless depths of oblivion to illuminate their meaning. He decided which part of the story any one person’s testimony would serve to illustrate, what went in and what stayed out. (Kempowski’s diaries are full of bemused anecdotes about interviewees who wanted money for their stories, or a say in how they would be used.) What distinguished Kempowski from the scores of other writers and historians who struggled to shape narratives about the war was his unshakable optimism in the ability of literature to represent and even provide a kind of restitution for its atrocities. Kempowski may not have been able to resolve intractable problems of guilt and absolution, but that did not keep him from bearing witness—both with his own experience and by recording that of others. It was just a matter of pulling oneself together and going about one’s work

That faith made—and continues to make—Kempowski unusual in a country that has had good reason to doubt the humanizing power of literature. In his final years, Kempowski continued to dream up grand projects, including an enormous web archive of music, diary materials, film clips and newspapers spanning the years 1850–2000. He hosted a literary salon at his home, where his fans, now old men and women, came to discuss German letters and the lasting legacy of the war. (After his death, the archive was transferred to the Academy of the Arts in Berlin.)

A Der Spiegel reporter who visited him in his final days described Kempowski, sharp as ever, carrying his feeding tube in one hand and a backpack in the other. As they sat over tea, the reporter observed that the backpack might serve as a figure for Kempowski’s oeuvre—about the guilt, the fate, that one must carry. “A backpack, yes, that’s right,” Kempowski replied. “You’ve got to be grateful. Easy to say, but that’s been my experience: the more monstrous the pain one has to bear, the easier it is.” The conversation paused as Kempowski, who had refused chemotherapy, squinted at the bag. “If your wife leaves you, that’s not, at bottom, a problem,” he finally went on. “That one can take the greatest, most terrible calamities of life and turn them around—that’s what’s at stake.”