Thursday 16 September 2010

Facts and Fiction; by Leslie Wilson

The picture is of my grandfather in German police uniform in Cologne after the war. If you enlarge the image you'll see the little puncture marks where the Nazi-era medals have been removed.
I was commenting on extreme departures from historical fact in a kids’ book about the Holocaust, and somebody said to me: ‘Leslie. It’s fiction.’ I didn’t answer that, just thought about it. Because I have written two books about Nazi Germany myself, and getting it as right as possible really matters to me.

Before I go further, I have to say that I do view what I write as fiction, absolutely not works of history. Entertainment, even. I invent characters, and even if I wrote about people who actually existed, I’d still want to use my imagination to write scenes for which there is no documentary evidence. But – and this is very important to me – I like to know that the documentary evidence makes what I write probable and therefore feasible. So, when I wrote about a young girl who has a romantic relationship with a Jewish boy she’s hiding, I feel happier because I have read accounts by survivors who were hidden by their girlfriends. And I have on my shelves approximately 3m of books about Nazi Germany, ranging from the wonderful 4-volume Noakes and Pridham: Nazism, A Documentary Reader, to survivor stories in English and German; my mother’s memoir of her childhood in Nazi Germany; family letters, dvds of the bombing of Berlin, historical maps and timetables; and analytical books like Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, which should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand how people can commit atrocities.

Does this mean that I am hampered in my writing by so much research? No, I don’t think so. I use the books, sometimes to read myself into a sense of the period, sometimes because I need to check the facts. If I’m going to say that certain restrictions – like not being able to buy meat or new clothes – were inflicted on Berlin’s Jewish population at a particular date, I check it out in Noakes and Pridham. The fact-checking certainly makes me a slower writer. But I don’t, I hope, ever bludgeon my readers with chunks of information just to show that I’ve done my homework. The story is paramount, but it must be founded on something real.

In addition, one often finds things out that are better than anything one could make up, or which solve narrative problems. Like the escape hatches between cellars that were part of German air-raid precautions. I saw the construction of one on a German dvd of the bombing. That became part of a scene in Saving Rafael which I based on a story my mother told me, about being trapped beneath a blazing hotel in Berlin. Her story was far too good not to use, but her experience had been so traumatic that her memory had blanked some parts of the story out. I had to do quite a lot of reading – from a book I have called Berlin Im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Berlin in World War 2) and watching the dvd, to work out how she and the others could have escaped. Also, on the topic of bombing, I read a diarist of the period saying: ‘I’d never seen so many people weeping on the streets,’ which gave me the image of people walking through the blazing streets, dragging stuff they’d managed to save from their homes, crying. Why make that up, when the facts are so powerful?

But do I regard myself as better than people who aren’t so thorough in their research? No, that would be very arrogant of me. I said in my July blog, that I love to time-travel. It’s my adult equivalent of going through the wardrobe door into Narnia. But I have always been fascinated by history, and wanted to know how things really were. I used to be so frustrated, as a kid, if I read a historical novel (and I read a lot of them) and then discovered that it had distorted or misrepresented the facts which I had taken on trust. I felt cheated.

When it comes to Nazi Germany, though, this desire to know is far more than mere interest. I am half German, and, since I grew up in the aftermath of the war, I heard many harsh and often hateful things said about Germans. Later, I discovered about the Holocaust, and some people told me that there was a fundamental, genetic flaw in the German identity, they were all monsters. ‘But you’re OK, you’re British.’ Only I wasn’t entirely. Like many other British people I have a heritage – and one I that is important to me – that doesn’t originate from these islands. And I loved my mother and grandmother dearly and I knew they weren’t monsters. I used to say, fiercely: ‘People are people!’ by which I meant that anyone – including black ‘immigrants’, who were being rather heavily demonised at that time - were human beings – you couldn’t define them by their nationality or race.

My parents wanted to discourage me from dwelling on what my father described as ‘Germany’s shame.’ It wasn’t loyal to my mother, I was told. But my mother wasn’t an easy person, and as I grew up, our relationship got more and more fraught. Then there was my grandmother who lived with us until she died. She was mentally ill and wandered round dressed like a peasant, fasting, praying, fanatically cleaning the house, and apparently doing penance for some terrible sin. ‘Poor little children,’ she used to say to my brother and me, ‘being born into this world.’ I knew my grandfather had been persecuted at the beginning of the Nazi period, and yet he had become a major in the police force, and, incidentally, a harsh, scary man who I found it hard to love. All of these things had a lot to do with the war and Nazi Germany, and I became less and less inclined to be content with the version of facts that my mother doled out to me – though of course much of it was fascinating and, when she wrote her own memoir, illuminating.

I wrote Last Train from Kummersdorf, which seeks to understand the mindset of a kid who’s been fed Nazi propaganda, after my mother’s death, initially because I went to see Schindler’s List and realised I needed to write about Nazi Germany, but then in order to comprehend the society my mother grew up in and perhaps understand a bit more about her. In the middle of writing that novel, I found out about my grandfather, who was indeed persecuted. I went to Berlin and read his file. The more I learned and understood about Nazi Germany, the more I myself walked and lived in it through the medium of my characters, the more I came to understand. I do know that my grandmother’s mental distress was brought on by a law passed by Hermann Goering in 1945 – no wonder she said Hitler was Antichrist. She said that in the mental hospital in 1939, and my mother was terrified she’d be murdered. Plenty of mentally ill people were.

So – I myself need to know. But now I shall get on my tub and thump. I think there is a danger in propagating, even through the medium of fiction, easy and inaccurate assumptions about the Holocaust. It’s a period that has been more mythologised, maybe, than any other. It stands in the middle of human history, even after sixty-five years in which dreadful crimes against humanity have been committed, as the epitome of human savagery. But if we are to say ‘Never Again’ – an assertion which can bring on a fit of despair when one thinks of Pol Pot, of Rwanda, of our own country’s willingness to connive with torture – if one is to say this in any realistic way, I do believe we have to understand how these crimes get committed. Fiction, and the imagination, are part of that process, which cannot be carried by works of history alone. And if we fail to pay attention to the nuts and bolts of that, if we play off mythologised fantasies against an unreliable background – well then, it’s too easy to avoid confronting uncomfortable truths, and we won’t help the process of understanding.

I’ll come off the tub now.


Sue Purkiss said...

This is fascinating, Lesley. It's particularly interesting to me at the moment, as my son's just done an MA thesis on how the Holocaust has been memorialised/remembered, which comes to a similar conclusion to yours - that you must look carefully at the evidence, and on the basis of that, learn and apply those lessons. As you say, fiction can be part of that process, but it has a duty to be accurate - perhaps more so than when it's dealing with other subjects. On the other hand, perhaps there's a danger that it's such a significant and (naturally) emotive subject that it's easier not to approach it at all - even now, I'm thinking, why don't I just shut up? What do I know?

John Dougherty said...

Stay on the tub, Leslie! You're needed up there.

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks, Leslie, for this passionate plea for responsibility in creative writing. I wholly agree.

Keren David said...

Hear hear...and there's a particular responsibility to be accurate when writing for children who do not have very much knowledge about the Holocaust.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Very important stuff Leslie, I agree about the research and feel we must immerse ourselves in order to write the best and most convincing fiction. The most important part for me of all of this is your desire to reclaim your family story, which firmly belongs to you and underpins your identity. History is important as it provides us for the basis for moving forward and hopefully coming to terms with all our pasts.

Stroppy Author said...

Excellent post, Leslie. I agree entirely about the responsibility to be accurate. What I'm writing at the moment is set in 16th-century Italy - much longer ago and less likely to touch any raw nerves, but I feel my reponsibility both to truth and to the people of the time is the same.

Meg Harper said...

Sorry, I missed this, Leslie - I rarely get chance to look at ABBA even tho I write for it. Have just posted more briefly on a related issue. Just to say, I entirely agree with you as I'm sure would my learned friend Eric, Emeritus Professor of History and castigator of twaddle in historical fiction of whatever period. Keep on thumping!