History As Fiction

This article, 'History as Fiction,' has been written by Michael Dean. He is the author of The Crooked Cross (Quaestor2000) published on May 29th. The novel is set in Munich in 1933 and is about Hitler, the German resistance to Hitler and German Expressionist painters. There is more about his novel on his website: http://michaeldean.web247.net/

Late in the afternoon of April 20th , I was standing in the spring sunshine in the beautiful courtyard of Somerset House, talking to Beryl Bainbridge. It was just before she and Hilary Mantel were due to speak on History as Fiction, sponsored by the Royal Society of Literature. We were talking about Hitler.

One of Beryl Bainbridge’s seventeen novels, as you probably know, was Young Adolf. My debut novel, The Crooked Cross (Quaestor2000), published on May 29 this year, also features Hitler. Set in Munich in 1933, it centres on the German resistance and German Expressionist painters, who the Nazis declared ‘degenerate.’

April 20th was Hitler’s birthday. On the same day (coincidentally?) President Ahmedinedzad of Iran made remarks about Israel at the UN in Geneva which the Times next day described as ‘Orwellian.’ ‘Hitlerian’ would have done just as well. Not a bad day, then, to look at the present’s relationship to the past.

The speakers were asked about their way into the past - research: Beryl Bainbridge said she read contemporary sources only, steering clearing of any modern work. Hilary Mantel said she ‘read everything.’

For me, the research is an end in itself. I knew from early on that I would write polemical essays about Hitler, as well as the novel. They are on my website: http://michaeldean.web247.net/ Hitler as Artist develops the theory that Hitler was an autistic artist-savant and Did Hitler Kill Geli Raubal? puts a dent in the received wisdom that Hitler had an alibi when his half-niece, Geli Raubal, was killed.

But reading for a novel is always incomplete and partial. ‘There is a point where the
facts run out,’ as Hilary Mantel put it. The novelist, they both said, completes the person in the historical character – thoughts, dreams, aspirations; speech, smells, sex. If the history isn’t seen through the mind – or voice – of a person, Beryl Bainbridge said, then it isn’t a novel: ‘A novel means a person is speaking to you.’ The facts are a sort of relief map of the terrain to be covered, not data to be entered into the SatNav.

However, the facts and the truth are not the same thing. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme, on April 26th , Hilary Mantel said ‘Thomas Cromwell had been marginalised and misunderstood.’ In her new novel, Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate), she wanted to put that right. I too had polemical purposes. Much of my novel is about real Germans in 1933 – journalists, politicians, lawyers - who opposed Hitler. History has forgotten them. I wanted to pay tribute, to honour them. I also wanted to examine the moral dilemmas posed by being brave. Do you put your family at risk? That sort of thing.

Sometimes the facts get in the way of the novelist’s truth. At the RSL event, Beryl Bainbridge told us that Young Adolf is based on information by Bridget Hitler, the wife of Hitler’s half-brother, Alois. Bridget said that she and Alois had sent money to the young Hitler to enable him to come to Liverpool. Bridget’s deposition is lodged in a distinguished New York library, but nobody today – including Beryl Bainbridge - believes a word of it. We can be pretty sure that Adolf Hitler remained a stranger to Lime Street. Nevertheless, Beryl Bainbridge’s novel offers insights – truths – into the awkward youth who became the adult whose damage to humanity was arguably unique.

I had, in a sense, the opposite problem. Part of The Crooked Cross is about a fictional attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1933. I was told, at first anyway, that nobody would read the novel because everybody knew Hitler was not assassinated in 1933. He wasn’t assassinated in 1944 either, but that didn’t affect the success of the film Valkyrie, about the Stauffenberg plot to kill him.
Fiction doesn’t depend on the reader’s knowledge, any more than it depends on fact. The novelist Michael Carson wrote this about The Crooked Cross: ‘… the reader is cheering the would-be assassins of Hitler. We know that history sees him surviving until 1945, but we willingly suspend our disbelief, hoping against hope that the just assassins will triumph and - forlorn hope - not come to harm themselves. Good fiction can pull off this ache for happy endings.’

Historical fiction goes to places where biography and history cannot go. It succeeds – when it succeeds – by other means. And I would say that if we are not to lose the past, and see today’s monsters prevail where those in the past failed – and it was a close-run thing, by the way, with Hitler - then we need historical fiction as part of truth’s weaponry.

At the end of the RSL event I passed on the wine and the company of literati, many toting London Book Fair bags – amiable though they all seemed. I know I will never belong there. I sank a bottle of wine and scoffed a pizza with the Significant Other; happy to have got this far, lifted by what I had heard.

What we took with us from the evening, in our hearts and minds, was Beryl Bainbridge reading from Every Man For Himself. A moment from the past had come into the present, because when she read we experienced another’s experience of what it had been like. And we kept it with us and we let it change us.