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‘I never have any luck with my books’ – Collecting the works of Friedo Lampe

Lampe was born on 4 December 1899, in the northern city of Bremen, a place which would exert a particular influence on his writing. At the age of five, he was diagnosed with bone tuberculosis in his left ankle and was 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 (E.T.A. Hoffmann, Kleist, Büchner, Rilke, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Dickens, Edgar Allan 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.'
Published on 21 July 2016
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By Simon Beattie


Friedo Lampe. Am Rande der Nacht. For me, name and title evoked those lighted windows from which you cannot tear your gaze. You are convinced that, behind them, somebody whom you have forgotten has been awaiting your return for years, or else that there is no longer anybody there. Only a lamp, left burning in the empty room. (Patrick Modiano, The Search Warrant)

On 2 May 1945, in Kleinmachnow, just outside Berlin, two Red Army soldiers stopped a passer-by, and demanded his papers. The man - tall, thin, but broad-shouldered, in a dark blue coat, hat, and with a rucksack on his back - did as he was asked. But something was not right. The Russians began to question the man, who did not quite resemble the photograph before them. Five minutes later, having not been able to make himself intelligible to the soldiers, the man 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.

We might dismiss the incident, over seventy years later, as a tragic circumstance of war, a case of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but for the fact that we know exactly who that man was. His name was Friedo Lampe, he was 45 years old, and he was a writer. As a gay man in Germany during the Third Reich his life could have ended much sooner, but he had survived. Yet, gnawed with worry at the possibility of being found out, and fearing for friends who were called up to fight, he had lost a great deal of weight during the War, so much so that he no longer resembled the photograph on his identity card. He had almost survived: the War itself ended only six days later, on 8 May.

Lampe was born on 4 December 1899, in the northern city of Bremen, a place which would exert a particular influence on his writing. At the age of five, he was diagnosed with bone tuberculosis in his left ankle and was 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 (E.T.A. Hoffmann, Kleist, Büchner, Rilke, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Dickens, Edgar Allan 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 his first novel, Am Rande der Nacht (‘At the Edge of the Night’), was published by Rowohlt in Berlin at the end of October 1933. The Oxford Companion to German Literature tells us that it ‘evokes the sensations and impressions of a September evening in Bremen with its charm and tenderness, its squalor and its lust, held together by the thread of the melodies of Bach …’. But there is more to it than that. The title-page of the novel is 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 could not 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 that 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 duly 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 flowing, only loosely connected, graphic, lyrical, strongly atmospheric’. The result is a narrative style which moves from long streams of comma-separated clauses of reported action, almost like stage directions, to passages of fluid, sensuous lyricism. There are frequent changes of voice, and regionalisms mix with more poetic language. 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. Despite positive reception from critics, sales were poor, in part due to bad timing: it was too close to Christmas, and by the 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 for the recently-founded Karl Heinz Henssel Verlag (July 1940 onwards). 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 in its way unique: 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. ‘I never have any luck with my books,’ Lampe commented.

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 of tense, eye-straining correction work a day, 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 on the man. Lampe had always been known for his healthy appetite, but by 1942 had 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 and that fateful Soviet patrol.

Lampe’s body was taken to a local Catholic priest, and later 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.’

Von Tür zur Tür was republished in 1946; a new version of Am Rande der Nacht, with the ‘offensive’ passages removed, appeared in 1949 as Ratten und Schwäne (‘Rats and Swans’). A volume of collected works was published in 1955 (in which, likewise, Am Rande der Nacht appeared in an expurgated version); an enlarged, second edition came out in 1986. A new edition of Am Rande der Nacht, following the text of the first edition, was published in 1999, to mark the centenary of the author’s birth. Lampe’s work has been translated into French, Dutch, and Italian. According to Wikipedia, translations into Serbian and Spanish are to follow, but none of his work has ever appeared in English.


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Published on Simon Beattie’s blog The Books You Never Know You Wanted and in The Book Collector, Summer 2016. Pictures: the author.

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