Writers Reading


booksspecsDuring the academic terms I re-read the books I am teaching for my courses. I think of them as texts, not only because that’s the more usual academic term, but also because they are not always books of fiction or poetry – we study diaries, autobiographies, letters, and theoretical, as well as personal essays. I don’t always teach the same texts, but before doing so I will always have read each text at least twice. Once, to know what kind of a book I am dealing with, and once again to decide how it will fit into my syllabus and what the students will gain from the book. What difficulties will the text present? Will they be as fascinated as I am by the writing, the issues, theoretical and political, or the literary strategies of each text?

This process of re-reading is a quality test of the books – or texts - in question. Will I notice different things or learn more from them when I re-read them? I nearly always do – but if I don’t they fall off my re-reading list into the bottom drawer. I am always careful to hang onto my copies. No book of mine is ever cast into oblivion. Who knows when I might be tempted to read that very book again? And I hold onto hard copies so that I will still have my library when the electricity gives out and the machine stops.


The Third Reich, the Holocaust and the iconography of Nazism have been of enduring significance in European writing, not only in the aftermath of World War II, but also during the 1930s after Hitler came to power in 1933. The various texts that I am teaching on this course explore some of the ways in which the historical events of this period have been represented and interpreted by writers, and not necessarily professional writers. We have been reading writers who were directly affected by the Nazi regime (Hans Fallada, Primo Levi) or murdered in the death camps (Anne Frank, Irène Némirovsky). One of the writers of the next generation (Paul Celan) who lost his family in the camps declared that language was the only thing that remained intact for him after the war. Yet the corruption of language, not only German, but also all languages, through its abuse within fascist dictatorships, is a theme to which many writers of the period return, again and again. The Third Reich has generated a remarkable number of ‘What-if-Hitler-had-won?’ dystopian fictions in various registers, genres and with manifestly different agendas. I chose some of these that represent different kinds of fiction, some horrifying and prophetic, (Katharine Burdekin), or speculative reflections on the nature of history, (Philip K. Dick, Robert Harris), and the most recent novel by Owen Sheers, Resistance, which, despite the imaginary successful German invasion and the Nazi soldiers occupying Wales, is a love song to the border hill country of South Wales where he grew up. These novels re-write, re-imagine, and re-interpret history, and inevitably, re-apportion blame.

None of these texts is unproblematic. Both diaries included on my syllabus (Anne Frank, A Woman in Berlin) have been challenged and their authenticity questioned. Fraudulent diaries and bogus holocaust memoirs continue to unsettle the literary world. Everyone remembers the Hitler Diaries in the 1980s, but fraudulent Holocaust memoirs, such as Fragments, the memoir of childhood that was the centre of the Binjamin Wilkormirski Affair in the 1990s, a book which won literary prizes before being exposed as fiction, are arguably more serious in the context of Holocaust denial. Should The Third Reich and the Holocaust ever be represented in fiction or poetry at all? How do these texts, many of which self-consciously address the moment in history in which they were written, deal with the problems of experience, authenticity, and representation? How do we read eyewitness accounts of traumatic events? The original meaning of ’martyr’ is a witness. Who has the right to re-imagine or reconstruct the experience of living inside, surviving –or not surviving- this period of history in the dark continent of Europe? Is this still an issue nearly seventy years after the end of the Reich?



Thomas Mann Mario and the Magician

1929. Translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter (Vintage)

This is quite an old-fashioned translation so I had the original German text beside me while we were reading the extraordinary tale, set in an Italian resort in the 1920s. Mann's themes are nationalism, which he found odious, and the figure of the Leader in the Fascist state. As always, it is Mann's method of narration that is compelling and strange. He takes his time, leads his readers onwards, ever deeper into a labyrinth of possible meanings.


Peter Gay My German Question: Growing up in Nazi Berlin

London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998

Gay’s narrative concentrates on the crucial six years he spent living under the Nazi regime in the Third Reich, which transformed him, once his family escaped to America, from Peter Joachim Israel Fröhlich into Peter Gay. He has neither forgotten, nor forgiven anything that happened then. This autobiographical analysis of his own life experiences and the ways in which they shaped him is filled with vehement rage.


Katharine Burdekin Swastika Night

The original edition was published under the pseudonym Murray Constantine, in 1937. Current teaching edition (New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1985).

My class found this dystopian, prophetic novel to be one of the most disturbing books they read, partly because of ‘the Reduction of Women’ to a state of animal abjection, and partly because it was written in the 1930s, well before the war, yet predicted, with uncanny accuracy, the violence of the Nazi regime.


Christopher Isherwood Goodbye To Berlin

First published by The Hogarth Press, 1939. Our edition London: Vintage, 1998.

This book has a complex afterlife, forming the basis for the play, ‘I am a Camera’ and the film Cabaret (1972). We watched several sequences from Cabaret in class. The beauty of the young Nazis singing, in the clip where an ordinary weekend German gathering on the edge of a forest takes on a sinister edge, fascinated everybody. Isherwood’s text is very sharp on male beauty. We commented on the modernist collage structure of the text and were intrigued by the diary entries that open and close the novel.


Anne Frank The Diary of a Young Girl

The first version, Het Achterhuis, which was the title Anne originally chose for her book, was published by her father, the only one of the families hiding in the Secret Annexe to survive the Holocaust, in 1947. This edition by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler. Translated from Dutch by Susan Masotty. The Definitive Edition (London: Penguin Books, 2007)

Nearly all my students had read the diary in an expurgated form as children. The uncensored edition proved a revelation. Anne’s candour on all matters, from farting to adolescent sexual desire, startled all her readers. The hardest passages to read were her plans for her future, what she would do ‘after the war.’ She died in Belsen in 1945, three months short of her sixteenth birthday.


Paul Celan Poems

Translated by Michael Hamburger, 3rd Edition (London: Anvil, 2007) Including Michael Hamburger’s Essay ‘On translating Paul Celan’.

We compared two very different translations of Celan’s celebrated and controversial ‘Todesfuge’. The poem reappears as an echo in Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When?


Hans Fallada Alone in Berlin

1947. Original edition Jeder stirbt für sich allein, 1947. Translated from German by Michael Hofmann (London: Penguin Books, 2009).

The original title actually means ‘Each Person dies for himself alone’. There is something of a Fallada Renaissance going on in Britain. This novel, his last, which describes secret hidden resisters inside the Reich, has been translated and published in English for the first time, and Jenny Williams’ 1998 biography of Fallada has been reissued. He remains a controversial figure, a writer who remained in Germany and made his compromises with the regime. An argument broke out in the pages of The Guardian when the translation appeared, with one critic describing the book as a second rate novel by a third rate writer. Tempers flared.


Irène Némirovsky Suite Française

Written in French 1941-1942, left unfinished and in manuscript when the writer was deported to Auschwitz where she was murdered in 1942. The MS survived in a suitcase, owned by her daughters, who were hidden from the milice and the Gestapo. First French edition published 2004 (Paris: Denoël, 2004). Translated from French by Sandra Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 2006). My teaching edition is the paperback (London: Vintage, 2007)

Némirovsky’s prose has been wildly over-praised since this novel, or the two existing fragments thereof, was published. This is a conventional naturalistic novel written in extremis in the 1940s. We are reading it outside the times the book is addressing - yet this is one of the most persuasive accounts of the breakdown of civil society that I have ever read. And everything she says matters. So the text isn’t a slick, easy, society novel, as the undemanding prose might suggest, but the last book she wrote in her journal before the Nazis came for her.


Primo Levi If Not Now, When?

Original edition Se Non Ora, Quando? 1982. Translated from Italian by William Weaver (London: Abacus, 1987). The Penguin Classics edition (2000) has an excellent introduction by Mark Mazower, the historian who wrote Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (Allan Lane, 1998) now also available in Penguin, 1999.

This is Primo Levi’s only novel. He is better known for his experimental autobiographical writing dealing with his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. If Not Now, When? is, however, one of the most powerful, optimistic books I have ever read. Its subject is the struggle of the Jewish partisan groups against the Nazis in Eastern Europe and the survival of a culture, that of the Eastern European Jewish stedtl, then threatened with extinction.


Anon A Woman in Berlin: Diary 20 April 1945 to 22nd June 1945

First published in English, New York, 1954. Present revised edition Eine Frau in Berlin, published in German 2003, first British publication, translated by Philip Boehm (London: Virago, 2005) Winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize, 2006.

I was one of the judges who awarded the prize for this wonderful translation. The text itself is a war diary but it is about the rape of women in war; not an easy subject to discuss.


Philip K. Dick The Man in the High Castle

1962. Reprinted with a new Introduction by Eric Brown (Penguin Classics, 2001)

Robert Harris Fatherland

1992. London: Arrow Books, 1993, reissue 2009

I am re-reading both of these novels at the moment; both texts play games with imagined histories. The books are written in quite different registers. Harris delivers the hard-boiled, fast-paced goods. Here is a thriller, full of clichés, just waiting to be filmed, as indeed it was. The Good German realises that his country is run by lying violent thugs, and that the Nazi past is filled with unspeakable evil. The flaw in the plot seems obvious. If everyone already knew that ‘evacuation to the East’ meant genocide why on earth does it suddenly become an appalling secret that must be covered up at all costs. Philip K. Dick deals in the speculative metaphysics of historical possibility. Japan now rules the Western part of the USA. History becomes fiction. This is the only American writer I am teaching this semester. Dick is perhaps more famous as a 60s druggie who wrote the novel upon which the 1980s cult movie Bladerunner was based: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


Jenny Erpenbeck Visitation

Original edition Heimsuchung Eichborn Verlag, 2008. Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2010).

Michel Faber raved about this novel in the Guardian Review when it first appeared in English translation in 2010. I wrote an essay in New Welsh Review disagreeing with him. The Editor of NWR then disagreed with me and we all parted company. It is a fascinating, slippery text, beautifully written. But the ethics and aesthetics of modernism appear unequal to the task of representing twentieth century German history and the consequences of the Third Reich. Erpenbeck’s text has no named characters as such. Identity is reduced to role. And so all history is controlled not by individuals but by impersonal, invisible and unaccountable forces. It is not wise to remove human agency from such frightening subjects as Fascism and genocide. But that’s my view.


Owen Sheers Resistance

London: Faber and Faber, 2007.

The clichéd images on the new cover for the film tie-in edition (Nazis and Pretty Girls!) are very unfair to the elegance and intensity of the writing. In fact this is a book about landscape and loss, and the emotional charge comes from the evident passion Sheers harbours for the haunted hills and remote valleys of this part of Wales. What if this country were occupied and no longer belonged to the Welsh farmers who have lived and worked there for centuries?