Wolfgang Koeppen's trilogy of novels written in the 1950s -- Pigeons on the Grass, HotHouse, Death in Rome -- were putatively 'forgotten' or ignored through most of the latter 20th Century. Translations into English have been around since the 1980s, but Koeppen remains broadly 'undiscovered' by American readers. That's not unusual; many of the most potent novelists of the mid/late 20th C wrote in German -- Hans Fallada, Alfred Doeblin, Gert Ledig, Irmgard Keun, Joseph Roth, WG Sebald, others -- and remain little known to English readers. We anglophones are the losers here; in the aggregate, German literature of the 20th C towers over English/American in intelligence, originality, and honesty. By all means, read Koeppen now!
The previous reviews by RM Peterson and H Schneider are sufficiently eloquent and enthusiastic, and I won't repeat what they've already provided. I'd like to offer a few responses and addenda, however. Both reviewers connected Koeppen's literary structure to the work of James Joyce; there's nothing false about that connection, but for an American reader, a more revealing comparison would be to the work of John Dos Passos, especially his immense trilogy "USA", which is formatted very much like Koeppen's trilogy. Koeppen acknowledged the influence of Alfred Doeblin's "Alexanderplatz" and Doeblin in turn acknowledged the influence of Dos Passos, so if an American reader wants to know what to expect in "Pigeons on the Grass", the answer is to expect the journalistic collage structure of "USA" or "Manhatten Transfer", but with far finer control of imagery and style. Koeppen is a superb stylist! One of the previous reviewers suggested a lack of discipline and conciseness in "Pigeons on the Grass". To my mind, that's totally inaccurate; this is a very tightly crafted and coherent novel. To paraphrase Mozart's famous sassy reply to the Emperor, 'there's not a note - or a paragraph - too many.'
The previous reviewers paid far too little attention to the women characters in this novel, focusing all their remarks on the despairing German poet Philip and/or the African-American soldier Odysseus Cotton. The women characters range from prostitutes to an alcoholic heiress to an aging women of the highest respectability and Hitlerian sympathy. It seems to me that the women are as much the protagonists of this novel as the men. They are richly developed as characters. Their mentalities are key to the novel's content and social insights. Another American character, the visiting literary celebrity Edwin, is also crucial to Koeppen's portrayal of Germany in its post-war cultural crisis; his desperation is implicitly "ours" in retrospect, and his brilliantly un-portrayed fate in the mean streets of Goethe-land is in fact the climax of the novel.
Racism is also a huge part of this novel, the driving force behind most incidents in the narrative. If the assorted characters of the novel are as incidental and self-bound as 'pigeons' scattered on the grass, all pecking at their own merest survival, then the 'grass' is the poisonous herb of racism. The 'racial anti-semitism' of Nazi Germany has not been mown so short after all, Koeppen exposes, and the extension to occupied Germany of an American racism is not likely to amount to a solution.
Koeppen was clearly no optimist about the "Economic Miracle" in post-war Germany, or about the direction of European culture at large following the War. I would guess that he expected an even sourer and more sordid course of events than "we" have witnessed in the intervening decades. He was, however, an incredibly credible witness of the state of things in Germany at the exact historical moment when modern Europe was born.