Thursday, October 11, 2007

Winnie and Wolf by A N Wilson

Winnie and Wolf is the story of the extraordinary relationship between Winifred Wagner and Adolf Hitler that took place during the years 1925–40, as seen through the eyes of the secretary at the Wagner house in Bayreuth.

Winifred, an English girl, brought up in an orphanage in East Grinstead, married at the age of eighteen to the son of Germany’s most controversial genius, is a passionate Germanophile, a Wagnerian dreamer, a Teutonic patriot.

In the debacle of the post-Versailles world, the Wagner family hope for the coming, not of a warrior, a fearless Siegfried, but of a Parsifal, a mystic idealist, a redeemer-figure. In 1925, they meet their Parsifal – a wild-eyed Viennese opera-fanatic in a trilby hat, a mac and a badly fitting suit. Hitler has already made a name for himself in some sections of German society through rabble-rousing and street corner speeches. It is Winifred, though, who believes she can really see his poetry. Almost at once they drop formalities and call one another ‘Du’ rather than ‘Sie’. She is Winnie and he is Wolf.

Like Winnie, Hitler was an outsider. Like her, he was haunted by the impossibility of reconciling the pursuit of love and the pursuit of power; the ultimate inevitability, if you pursued power, of destruction. Both had known the humiliations of poverty. Both felt angry and excluded by society. Both found each other in an unusual kinship that expressed itself through a love of opera.

In A.N. Wilson’s most bold and ambitious novel yet, the world of the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany is brilliantly recreated, and forms the backdrop to this incredible bond, which ultimately reveals the remarkable capacity of human beings to deceive themselves.

I added this book to my TBR list when it was placed on The Booker Prize long list without even realising what it was about. Although this book didn't make it onto the shortlist, with the winners announcement just days away it seemed as though it was probably time to read at least one of the nominees! And besides someone else had requested it from the library, so I couldn't extend it again!

The blurb for this book in some ways describes only one aspect of the story that we read in it's pages, although it is the main part of the book. Not only is there the friendship between Winnie and Wolf, otherwise known as Winifred Wagner (daughter in law of the famous opera composer) and Adolf Hitler, there is the question of how was it that Hitler came to be the leader of Germany, and intertwined throughout this are various threads about the life of Richard Wagner and details relating to the staging of the Wagner festivals in Bayreuth during the 1930s.

Our narrator is an unnamed man, who is writing his story from behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. He was secretary/administrator to Siegfried Wagner, (son of Richard and composer/ Wagner Festival director) and therefore was quite involved in the personal lives of the Wagner family. The reason our narrator is unnamed is that he is afraid of the dreaded Stasi police in East Germany - afraid mainly for himself - but also having been afraid for his daughter, even though she has long ago fled to the West.

He confesses through the pages things he could not confess even to his wife - that he knew a very different Hitler - a man who had a way with children and pets, who loved opera to the point of obsession, and that the narrator had had an unrequited love for Winnie (although his wife had pretty much guessed that!) . But make no mistake, this is not an book which tries to repaint the picture of Hitler as we know him, but more asks a couple of questions. How did this man become one of the most popular leaders in Germany ever? How could individuals and the German people as a whole have pretty much turned a blind eye to the early signs of what was to come? Was the fact that they went from a country in deep economic depression full of starving people to what appeared to be a viable economy enough to ignore the fact that people were being murdered and SS gangs were roaming the streets and towns, that there were camps set up where anyone opposed to the regime were being sent, even before WWII began.

From Page 33:

Is our capacity to love another person often (always) accompanied by an inability to notice what it is that prevents the majority of other people loving them? (In the case of Wolf there are many complicated factors at work, of course, since he was extremely popular, the most popular political leader our country had ever had - so were we all suffering from the same delusion as Winnie?)

This wasn't a book that I could sit down and read in one sitting having become absolutely absorbed in. It is the kind of book that you have to work at. The storyline meanders from one of the threads to another and then back again, with a large cast of famous and infamous characters. Yet it works.

Not long after I finished it, I was asked whether I liked this book, and my answer was I really don't know. Is it possible to like a book that features Hitler as a character? The various facets of the story are interesting, the writing is challenging, and I am sure that if I really loved Wagner or opera in general that I might have been really captivated.

Trying to grade it was also therefore somewhat difficult. It wasn't so average that it should be 3.5 but if we want to go just on enjoyment that is probably around the mark. In the end, it was interesting enough and challenging enough to deserve the mark that I eventually gave it. Maybe I should just split the difference!

Would I rush out and buy more books by A N Wilson...probably not. Am I maybe just a tiny bit interested in seeing whether I can find some snippets of the operas mentioned in the novel.....yes. If I don't do that within the next couple of days will I forget about it? It's a definite maybe!

Rating 4/5

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