The relationship between Wagner's operas and Nazism, though fascinating, has been analysed to death by novelists and historians. A new fictionalised treatment sheds little fresh light on the topicby Vernon Bogdanor / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
Winnie and Wolf, by AN Wilson Hutchinson, £17.99
Faction, the writing of fiction about real historical figures, is a difficult art, particularly when the main characters are figures from recent history. Twenty years ago, AN Wilson published a novel, The Gentlemen in England, in which two of the characters were thinly disguised portraits of Alastair Forbes and Peter Quennell. To criticisms that his characterisations were not true to life, Wilson replied that he was writing a work of fiction, not biography. Evelyn Waugh used fiction to get his own back on CRMF Cruttwell, his much disliked Oxford history tutor, who after finals had told him, “I cannot say that your 3rd does you anything but discredit, especially as it was not even a good one.” In Decline and Fall, Cruttwell was portrayed as a brutal burglar who castrates a Harley street abortionist. Has a novelist the right to use his imagination in this way? Perhaps not, and if the likeness is sufficiently apparent, the victim may have recourse to the law. JB Priestley threatened Graham Greene with a libel action unless he altered the portrayal of Quin Savory, a hack novelist, in Stamboul Train which, Priestley felt, would be easily identifiable as himself.
The novelist Allan Massie has offered two useful guidelines for the writer of faction. The first is that “the more distant in time, the more liberties the novelist may fairly take.” Mozart is in no position to take legal action against Peter Schaffer for Amadeus, and Vermeer cannot complain to Tracy Chevalier about Girl with a Pearl Earring. Connoisseurs of music and painting may be annoyed at these novels’ distortions, but their resentment is of a different kind from that of contemporaries whose reputations have been traduced.
Massie’s second guideline is: “If you wish to introduce recent historical figures into a novel, then it is best to have them seen through the eyes of fictional characters. In this way you set them at a distance. They are presented to the reader as they present themselves to characters of the author’s devising. There is no pretence that you are giving the ‘real Churchill or de Gaulle,’ for example; only Churchill or de Gaulle as he might have seemed to an invented character.” Anthony Powell shows himself to be a master at this subtle kind of distancing in his portraits of Montgomery and de Gaulle in the Dance to the Music of Time sequence.
AN Wilson adopts a similar method of indirection in Winnie and Wolf, although his historical figures, rather than being incidental to the action, as in Powell, occupy centre stage. The novel tells the story of a supposed love affair between Winifred Wagner, the composer’s English daughter-in-law, and Hitler (pictured, right, with Winifred and sons in 1938), known to the Wagner family as “Uncle Wolf.” The affair resulted in a child, Winifred Hiedler, a “mild-mannered, reclusive and polite woman” known as Senta, after the heroine of The Flying Dutchman. The story of the affair is told by Senta’s adopted father, Herr N—, a hanger-on in interwar Bayreuth, who settled in communist East Germany after the war. Senta became a professional cellist, and emigrated to the US. She left her adopted father’s manuscript, which forms the novel, to her local pastor in Seattle, to be opened after her death, which occurs in 2006.
Wilson is not, it should be said, the first novelist to suggest that Hitler fathered a child. He has been anticipated by Harry Mulisch in his novel Siegfried, published in 2003. In that novel, however, the child is rapidly put to death, and the story is told by the Nazi functionary who had to undertake this gruesome task.
The purpose of Wilson’s exercise in faction is, presumably, to cast light on Wagner and Hitler, and on the problem of the relationship between the operas and Nazism. This is of course a fascinating theme, but it has been powerfully illuminated in fiction in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and analysed to death by historians and musicologists. In her brilliant biography Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler’s Bayreuth (2005), Brigitte Hamann gives a penetrating analysis of the châtelaine of Bayreuth, whom she sees neither as “a heroine nor a criminal, but one of the great mass of trusting, misguided people who succumbed” to Hitler. That seems as near definitive a verdict as one is ever likely to get.
Wilson on the whole shares Hamann’s standpoint. Winifred, he suggests, was in a state of “completely adoring Wolf but actually hating many, if not most, manifestations of Nazism when she encountered them.” Though herself anti-semitic, she was never able to grasp why the Nazis sought to remove Jewish singers and instrumentalists from Bayreuth. For her, the operas were all, and Herr N sometimes asked himself “whether even Wolf himself was not simply yet another of the army of helpers enlisted by Winnie to keep the show on the road.” Winifred did her best to protect Jewish artists, saving some from the camps, and they spoke in her favour to the postwar denazification tribunals, helping to save her from a prison sentence.
To the end of her life Winifred persisted in believing that kindly Uncle Wolf, whom she referred to as USA—Unser Seliger Adolf—was unaware of the atrocities. As Wilson remarks, he remained for her “the gentle opera lover,” and perhaps she brought out the best in him—”the worst thing anyone could have done,” since it allowed Hitler to mask his capacity for mass murder.
AN Wilson is an accomplished writer, but these thoughts could have been more illuminatingly expressed in an essay. Winnie and Wolf is a novel which does not quite come off. Wilson, however, has written good books before—and will no doubt do so again. Never trust a writer who is on top form all the time.