Tag Archives: Magda

Why use real people in fiction?

So why do writers use real people as characters in their novels? Doesn’t the choice of real people as characters limit the writer’s creativity? Perhaps the author wishes to correct a settled view of the character, or offer an alternative interpretation to the established version of events as in Burial Rites (see below). Perhaps the discipline of keeping to what is known about a person, limiting to some extent the creation of the character, allows freedoms elsewhere in the writing? It may be that people’s actions and motivations, being the stuff of fiction, are more vivid when they are drawn from life.

I seem to have read a number of fictions based on historical events or people recently. So here are some thoughts on factual fictions (or is it fictional facts? – no it isn’t!), some reviews and mentions of other novels.

Writing about real people

For the writer it may be that it is useful that the storyline is already established. But there are some challenges. Not least, the outcome may constitute a spoiler. Or not. I was pleased, as a reader, that I knew Agnes’s fate in Burial Rites. Knowing that she was to be executed focused my mind on the changing relationships as her fate approached, which I believe was Hannah Kent’s intention.

A danger lies in the writer’s attachment to all that research. Some writers appear to include everything. Some writers wear their research lightly. Hilary Mantel appears to be in complete command of all her material, even when her interpretation counters some established ideas. I think of the righteousness of Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall, for example. She presents a very different view from what I learned in my A Level classes, or to Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Research is a very seductive part of writing. Writing on the booksbywomen blog Anna Mazzola reflects on writing her novel The Unseeing and advises:

Work out what to research, and know when to stop.

She spent a year researching London and criminal justice in the 19th century and the murder at the centre of the plot.

In retrospect, I should have mapped out the plot and deduced from that which questions I needed to answer in order to write the book.

Perhaps her most useful advice comes in her recommendation

Recognise that the history is not the story.

The job of the fiction writer is not to be a historian or biographer but to provide ‘a wider sense of what people’s lives might have been like in a particular era: to fear, to love, to escape, to survive’.

So here are some recommendations.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent

This unsettling novel is based on the true story of Agnes, executed for her part in two murders in Iceland in 1829.

The novel focuses on the period leading up to her execution when Agnes is billeted on a farm. We read about the responses of the family, neighbours and the priest she has asked to help her prepare. The everyday interaction with Agnes as well as her muted behaviour and then the retelling of her life story help gradually shift attitudes towards her.

In some ways it is a feminist novel. Hannah Kent has interpreted Agnes as a strong and independent woman who does not fit the norms of Icelandic society. In Burial Rites she stands up to male abuse to herself and a younger girl, and this eventually leads to the death of her tormentor. The younger girl is pardoned, being pretty and somewhat simple.

The details of Icelandic life fit well with what I have read, and the harsh realities of the law and the hierarchy of the island (subject to distant Danish rule) are well evoked. The writing is vivid and moving.

Recommended by Morag in a comment on the post Bookword in Iceland.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, published by Picador (2013) 355pp

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson has made her writing career writing about real people. The Great Lover features Rupert Brooke during his years at Cambridge and in Tahiti. Other historical figures make an appearance, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Wolf. The girl whom Rupert thinks he loves attended Bedales School, known for naked swimming and free lessons.

It was a Richard and Judy summer read, which must have brought Jill Dawson and Rupert Brooke to the attention of many readers who had not known them before. The story zips along, through endless pre-war sunny days, endless glimpses from afar and endless self-examination by the main characters.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published by Sceptre (2009)

Other fictions based on real people by Jill Dawson include Fred and Edie (2000) and The Crime Fighter (2016), which I recently reviewed, here.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

Magda is the wife of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The novella’s narrative captures different moments in her life. We meet her first as a girl, for example, in a convent, where the endemic cruelty of the sisters and the other girls is designed to promote conformity. The sections are filtered through different women: Magda herself in the convent, later it is her mother, her daughter’s diary, her own imagination of what it her life will be like after the war, and a more detached narrator.

We get a sense that abuse rattles down the generations, reinforced through institutions especially the Catholic Church and National Socialists, which is presented as a religion. It’s a vivid, and raw account of what it meant to be a child in pre-war Germany, as it was collapsing in 1945, and it meant to be one of the favoured ones in that distorted society.

Magda is an interesting mix of historical fact and imaginative exploration. I understood something more about how Bavarians and Catholics became such keen advocates of National Socialism, how women were abused by the ideas of fascism, and how women are forced to use their sexuality to make anything of themselves, especially in times of crisis and chaos.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel Salt Publishing (2013) 103pp

Recent reviews on this blog:

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor In this novel the main character is the actor Molly Allgood.

Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien A searing look at how charming and seductive evil can be, hiding in plain sight, even if he is the Beast of Bosnia.

Other fictions that I am tempted by …

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Shostakovich) (2016)

Or have read in the past.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Margaret Yourcenar (1951). The Emperor writes a letter to his successor towards the end of his life.

Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995); a circle of painters in Cornwall, three of whom create a doomed love triangle. Laura Knight, Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings among them.

Tom and Will by Matthew Plampin (2015). A novel based on a possible episode in the lives of two young painters JMW Turner and Tom Girtin.

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Berlin Stories

‘Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change,’ according to Rory MacLean’s Berlin: Imagine a City. In May this year I made my first visit to Berlin. Everywhere there was building, tramlines outside our apartment, construction on a grand scale on every street. I was rather disappointed that so much of its history seemed to have disappeared.

Brandenburg Gate, May 2014

Brandenburg Gate, May 2014

Checkpoint Charlie was a mock-up in the middle of a shopping street. I think the guards were actors. The Brandenburg Gate was swamped by foreign tourists, all aged about 20 and too young to remember the divided city, the Blockade, the Wall, escape attempts, JFK announcing, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ and its breach in 1989 … Berlin is a city of history but its past is being made faster than in any other city I know in Europe. This evolving history is reflected in its restlessness, its rewriting.

What do these books have in common?

What do these books have in common?

Books about Berlin reflect this.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada.

Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Written in a white heat in 28 days immediately after the end of the Second World War, the novel concerns the many ways in which the Nazi (and by extension totalitarian regimes of other kinds) distort life and appeal to base instincts and un-communitarian practices.

The Quangels lose their son early in the war and the father embarks on a small protest of writing postcards with anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler messages. These small acts of rebellion provoke different reactions among the people with whom he comes into contact: his wife, the Gestapo investigator, people who pick up the cards and others in prison. Even when the Quangels have been caught they are able to protest in their own way, although the system tries to hound them to the end. Small acts of kindness, organised resistance, decency of the people caught up by the regime but able to soften its effects from time to time – this is the source of redemption.

It is the conductor, with whom Otto Quangel shares a cell, who speaks to the title. So many acts of resistance but each one undertaken alone. If only they had been led, coordinated, then they might have amounted to something. And the novel addresses the issue of the purpose of struggle where the outcome is doomed. But Otto and his wife and others show that the struggle itself is worth it, to keep one’s integrity: you do what you can in the circumstances you find yourself in. It may not change anything. But the point is to struggle.

Fallada based his novel on a true story, which was well documented, as so much of Nazi Germany was. He died soon after writing it.

121 W in Berlin

A Woman in Berlin: Diary 20th April 1945 to 22 June 1945 by Anonymous

Translated from the German by Philip Boehm

A journalist begins her diary at the moment when the Russians advance on Berlin can be heard in the city at the end of the Second World War in Europe. She lives in an apartment block, and increasingly her life is limited to the block and then to the cellar. Her job has gone and safety is absent from the streets (US air raids are also a threat). The residents listen to rumours and the sounds of the advancing Red Army.

Within days the Russians arrive and everyone must decide how to respond to ‘Ivan’. The women are especially vulnerable to rape. The diarist is quickly raped, being fit and about 30. Fat women are also in demand (although there are few of them left). For several days as the Red Army celebrates the apartment dwellers must respond to the drunken and lascivious men. The diarist quickly decides that if she is to be raped repeatedly she should find a protector who will treat her decently. First Anatole, an officer with bear-like qualities and then the injured but cultivated Major become her protectors. Now the air raids have finished she stays with ‘the widow’ and her lodger in a first floor apartment. She records the visits of the many Russians who come through their apartment, most bringing supplies (especially alcohol), some bring interesting conversation.

As the conquerors begin to re-establish order lives, quickly change and then the diarist must do labour for the occupiers, mainly laundry and dismantling German factories ready for transport to the USSR.

Then there is the hope of job on a new publication, and finally her boyfriend returns, not seen since 1939. They try to connect. He is horrified by the complicity of the women in the rapes – as he sees it. He leaves and you get the sense that, as with so much else, they have to leave each other behind and move into the new post-war Germany.

The themes of the book are to do with how people behave in chaos, how order restores itself, especially for the conditioned German population. And how to deal with the fallout of rape for women – collectively and in writing.

In a post in September 2014 I called this a ‘hard to read book’. It was partly based on the comments of my travel companion, Fiona, who was reading it while we were in Berlin. It was hard, but the humour, courage and resourcefulness of the author made it worthwhile. I refer you to Clarissa’s comments on the post about this book and the author.

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, May 2014

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, May 2014

Three others to mention:

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

9781907773402frcvr.inddA novella, about Magda the wife of Joseph Goebbels, at various episodes in her life. One concerns Magda’s imagined time in Berlin under Russian rule – the period covered by A Woman in Berlin. The book is a psychological study of how abuse rattles down the generations and through institutions especially the family, the Catholic Church and National Socialism, which is presented as a religion. It’s vivid and raw.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood.

This collection of six sketches form a roughly continuous narrative. The book is ‘an ironic and compassionate picture of Berlin during the death throes of the Weimar Republic and of the foreign birds of passage who were drawn there temporarily for one reason or another,’ according to the Times obituary (1986) tucked into my copy. Isherwood lived in the city during the early 1930s. Cabaret is based on his memoirs. This was an exciting place, where the art was experimental, pushing boundaries, where excess and excitement lured the experimental and the young.

128 Goodbye cover

Stasiland by Anna Funder

After the fall of the wall and the end of the control of Eastern Germany and East Berlin by the communists, the citizens had to live with their past, and the way in which the Stasi had corrupted everyone, created its own state of secrets: Stasiland. Anna Funder is an Australian who researched and wrote about the lives of people who lived in the Stasi state, before and after the fall of the Wall.

 

What I notice about all these books is that they are all based on fact, even the novels draw on real events. It is as if Berlin’s history is rich enough, does not need to work much on its fiction.

Here’s a link to Ten of the best books set in Berlin chosen by Malcolm Burgess.

What would your Berlin stories be? I’m going to Amsterdam next week. What are the best Amsterdam books?

 

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Who or what are literary prizes for?

What purposes do literary prizes serve for readers? It’s clear that they provide writers with recognition and publicity that leads to sales. And for publishers it provides publicity that leads to sales. And for sponsors I guess it adds to their good image (which I assume is designed to boost sales somewhere along the line). So there is a pattern here.

67 MBP dated large

There are prizes for first novels, for biographies, a Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction, American prizes such as the National Book Award, and international prizes such as the Nobel Prize for Literature (for a body of work), the Man Booker Prize, the International Man Booker Prize and several awards for different genres (such as crime, sci-fi, children’s literature etc). For all I know there is a prize for last novels.

Zadie Smith is sure that winning a prize is essential for new writers to get noticed. Not everyone is convinced of their value. In the New York Times last month, Daniel Mendelsohn asked

What purposes do these prizes serve? Are the values they promote aesthetic or commercial? And how on earth do the judges arrive at their decisions?

Jennifer Szalai recalled what is said when things go wrong:

The complaints are as common as they are contradictory: Prizes are awarded to tepid, undemanding best sellers everyone reads; prizes are awarded to obscure, abstruse books no one reads. They are awarded to the right authors, but for the wrong work (Hemingway for “The Old Man and the Sea,” Faulkner for “A Fable”). They are awarded to the wrong authors for the wrong work (Margaret Mitchell for “Gone With the Wind”). They are withheld from the right authors for the right work (“Gravity’s Rainbow,” by Thomas Pynchon, won jury approval for the Pulitzer in 1974 but was overruled by a board that deemed the novel “turgid” and “obscene”). Sometimes the grousing has the whiff of sour grapes. “Prize X has never been awarded to Philip Roth,” “Prize Y has never ben awarded to me.”

She concludes that literary prizes should honour good books. Mendelsohn claims that prizes show what is prized and that as a result the real winner is culture itself.

But what about the reader? What do we get from these awards? I used to think that prizes were normative, restricting readers’ choices, operating a bit like the 2for1 tables at Waterstone’s, or reality tv competitions (the Great British Write Off?) or the bestseller lists in the weekend papers. And it is true that plenty of good books miss the awards: the slow burners, books that are idiosyncratic, specialist, appeal to small scale interests, and especially non-fiction and translated books. But we shouldn’t expect the awards to do everything for the book trade.

Awards do draw attention to some books, especially through their long- and shortlists. I admit to being very interested in long- and shortlists, and not much interested in which book or author wins (especially when the press starts speculating about muggin’s turn, as they did Jim Crace for the MBP this year and Julian Barnes in the past).

Here are some awards that have added to my reading pleasure:

IMPAC prize, especially for its longlist, because it is the outcome of nominations for high literary merit by public libraries across the world. Consequently some less prestigious, less artsfartsy books get identified, and frequently the shortlist (and winner) includes novels in translation. Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (2007) and Gerbrand Bakker, The Twin (2010) are two examples. The list this year is very long – 152 titles. Great! Lots to discover.

67 Out Stealing

67 WPFF logo

Women’s Prize for Fiction because it promotes women writers and women are still less published, less reviewed and the literary scene benefits from positive discrimination. See the blogpost in praise of the Women’s Prize for Fiction for a fuller discussion. This year I read and enjoyed all six of the shortlisted titles.

The title of this next one deserves a prize of its own: Not the Man Booker Prize, a list nominated by readers of the Guardian and although readers vote in an arcane system that can only be likened to the rules of Mornington Crescent (see BBC Radio4 show I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue) the panel make a final judgement. I was pleased to see that Magda by Meike Ziervogel lead the readers’ voting, even if Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life actually won.

The Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction, because there is some excellent writing and subject matter being written about every year and it’s not all fiction. There is always biography in the list, and history and other books that might slip by. This year I have been interested to read reviews of David Crane’s Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WW1’s War Graves. And Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins also looks very interesting.

And I will continue to rely on several other ways of finding good reading: reviews, end of year and holiday recommendations, word of mouth, gifts, browsing in bookshops, Twitter and my local library.

67 MBP2013

Meanwhile I have one and a half books left to read from the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2013. So far I have read 19cms and still have 8cms to go, including the winner – Eleanor Caton’s The Luminaries.

 

What do you think of Literary Prizes? Have you come across any good reads from a prize? What have literary prizes ever done for you?

 

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