by A N Wilson
The title of each chapter is drawn from Wagnerian opera – The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin, Tannhauser, Mastersingers, Parsifal, Tristan and Isolde and Gotterdammerung.
The book marks a return by A.N. Wilson to the novel, after recent successes in history and biography – The Victorians, After the Victorians and Betjeman, to name just a few. Real characters and imagined circumstances are blended in an exploration of Wagnerian music, German culture, the aberration of National Socialism and the contradictions of Adolf Hitler.
The real Winifred Wagner (nee Williams) lost her parents before the age of two, was raised in an East Grinstead orphanage until the age of nine and was then adopted by the elderly Karl and Henriette Klindworth. Klindworth had been a pupil of Liszt and was a member of Richard Wagner’s inner circle. He remained a friend of Cosima, Liszt’s illegitimate daughter and Wagner’s widow.
By 1914, the Bayreuth Festival was in trouble. Cosima had made it a shrine to her husband. Her successor as director of the festival was her son Siegfried, whose incurable quest for boys was fodder for the rumour mongers and a constant menace and embarrassment for the festival. The solution was a marriage between Siegfried and Winifred. Miraculously, the union produced four children between 1917 and 1920. But in 1923 an event occurred that profoundly influenced Winifred Wagner. Adolf Hitler, who had been emotionally transported by his first experience of Lohengrin at the age of 12 in Linz, came to Bayreuth. Winifred Wagner and Hitler met and formed a friendship. The relationship was close but the truth is unlikely ever to be known. At this point, the novelist’s licence permits Wilson to build on the established facts.
The story’s anonymous narrator was Winifred’s personal assistant and household factotum. The structure is a rambling, revelatory letter, a memoir, based on his observations from within the Wagner family circle. The person to whom the letter is addressed is the daughter of Winifred Wagner and Adolf Hitler, born in secret in 1932 and placed into a Bayreuth orphanage. Later, at Winifred’s suggestion, she was adopted by the narrator and his wife Helga. After the war, the child grew up in East Germany not knowing the identity of her birth parents, then escaped to the West and led a quiet Lutheran life in Seattle, US. The novel is an outpouring to her of the circumstances of her birth and the life and times of Winifred Wagner. The narrative is studded with vivid cameos of the musicians and conductors around whom the prewar Bayreuth Festival revolved – Toscanini, Karl Muck and Tietjen are all there.
And it would not be a book by A.N. Wilson without ruminations on religion and the conflict between good and evil. Neitzsche, Wittgenstein and Deitrich Bonhoffer naturally feature. The narrator comes to realise that National Socialism was, quite literally, an occult rite, a branch of the Black Arts, more than a political party. Winifred Wagner on the other hand, just like two of the Mitford girls, was unable to see the evil in the man they admired so much.
Hitler is depicted in an amiable, domestic context, the playful “uncle” to Winifred’s children, who permitted Jews and homosexuals in the Bayreuth Festival orchestra. His surreal double life is crudely parodied by Wilson who emphasises Hitler’s uncontrollable flatulence at moments of great excitement – speech making and orgasm. The extraordinary paradoxical consequence of the friendship between Winifred and Hitler was that the Bayreuth Festival Theatre was almost the one area of artistic freedom left in Germany after Hitler became Chancellor. The book is, of course, full of vignettes of history at which Wilson is so adept. There is a moving account of how, on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, the synagogue in Bayreuth was saved from Nazi thugs by well-meaning Christians, while 9500 Jewish shops and 520 synagogues across the country were destroyed. And there is a painful description of the April 1945 bombing, by the “allies of freedom”, of Bayreuth, once reputedly the finest Gothic city in Europe.
Ultimately, however, the recurrent theme of this complex and unusual novel is Hitler’s doubleness and the paradox that music, which had been conceived as a statement about the transcendent power of art, a power to outlast politics and cross national barriers, was doomed to become an expression of strident nationalism, unspeakable horror and never-to-be-repeated obscenity.
The last sad word is given to the indefatigable Winifred who declaimed, on hearing that the Russians had taken Berlin: “I have no doubt whatever,” she said firmly and she began to nod her head rhythmically to emphasise each syllable, “that the Fuhrer’s policy will be vindicated, that he is probably even as we speak mobilising our divisions. He will drive the Russians out of Berlin. He will drive the Americans out of Bayreuth.”Book review originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 23 November 2007