Johannes Bobrowski
Levin's Mill
New Directions (1994, paper) ; Marion Boyars (1970, hardcover)
1964 (in German; English translation by Janet Cropper 1970)
a review by Cooper Renner

Like Penelope Fitzgerald, Bobrowski evokes and embodies his setting by intelligent selection of detail rather than hundreds or thousands of unnecessary words of mundane description. Like Alan Garner, he sets the reader directly into the midst of the characters' conversations (and even their thoughts) without always identifying who is speaking, the Babel on the page reflecting the sometimes confusing babble of living dialogue. Like Thomas Hardy, he carefully reanimates the cultural commonplaces (religious traditions, history, songs, prejudices) of the rural populations which time and progress have swallowed up. Those commonplaces, especially the prejudices, are complicated in Bobrowski's case because his milieu in Levin's Mill includes several villages near the German-Polish border of the 1870s, where Germans with Polish surnames, Poles with German surnames, Jews and gypsies are all a part of the mix. The central character Johann, the narrator's grandfather, has already cagily destroyed the mill of his "upstart" Jewish competitor Leo Levin by breaking down a weir, the rush of released water washing away the rickety structure. There are no doubts in Johann's world about the rightness of his religious beliefs (he is a kind of German Baptist) or the superiority of Germans to Poles, Jews and gypsies. If the pending court case which Levin has brought against Johann is the plot's central thread, it is one which matters scarcely more to Bobrowski than the others woven into what is, in a broader sense, a love song to a long-lost past*: the neighbors who support or oppose Johann's actions, the machinations which bring about the Malken Union (of two small groups of Protestants), the disillusionment which leads the local pastor's wife to kill herself, the technically illegal but widely enjoyed circus the gypsies put on in a barn, the not quite easy relations between the villagers and the police. The light but astringent tenor of Bobrowski's style, a kind of poetic conversationalism, makes Levin's Mill a late Modernist work whose not quite irreverent colloquialness feels entirely contemporary. Bobrowski is not naive enough to believe that right will win out over might, but neither do his victimized characters surrender to despair over their treatment by the stiff pillars of society. A serious novel which never takes itself too seriously, Levin's Mill deserves a much wider readership than it has yet garnered in the 40 years since it was first translated into English.

(*I can't help feeling that this formulation is not mine, but I have no idea where I may have gotten it.)