Me at the Edinburgh Book Festival.
Last night on the 10th August 2014 I went to hear Audrey Magee, author of the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction short-listed book The Undertaking, give a talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I recorded the talk and below is my edited transcribed notes on said talk.
The talk was chaired by Harry Morgan. He starts by asking Audrey to talk about her book The Undertaking.
My story, The Undertaking, tells the story of Peter Faber an ordinary infantry man on the Russian front. He hates the war and he hates the war so much that he marries a woman he doesn’t know, a complete stranger to him, Katharina Spinnel. He does this because by marrying her he gets home on leave and she receives a pension if he dies.
I use this very simple framework to track the couple as they meet as they fall in love, a very intense relationship. Through their relationship we get to see what it was like to be an ordinary German in the Second World War and I suppose I got fascinated by that ordinariness because I am not German I have no connection with the Ukraine where some of the book is set.
When I was a teen I went to Germany for the first time I knew nothing about the country other than the holocaust and the Second World War. So I went out quite naively and I suppose I was struck first and foremost by the cloud of silence that I had not anticipated.
I come from Ireland and I know about silence and you know about the silence in all these communities we live in, Protestant and Catholics. But it is a different silence in Germany. It’s a very big wall of silence. It wasn’t just silence against me as a foreign person it was the silence among themselves. It was a cross generational silence. Grandparents did not talk about the war with their children. So I became fascinated by this silence and what was behind that silence.
Then there was another encounter when I was 21 and I was outside the walls of Dachau with an American Jewish man who had lost relatives in Dachau. He had promised his family that he would come and pay tribute to the family he lost in the camp. But when he got there it was Monday and the camp was closed. He was traumatized as he had made this promise as part of his European trip. So I said why don’t we walk around the perimeter. As we walked around the perimeter we meet an older German woman and we talked But he knew no German and she no English so I interpreted for both of them.
It emerged during the talk that she had lived here all her life. Her house abutted the camp wall. She had slept in that house, played in that garden, worked in that garden her entire life and all during the time when the man’s relatives were being killed behind the wall. He became hugely upset because this was his family members and he ended up shouting at her. What did you do? Why didn’t you do something? She replied what could I do? It was me against all of them. I didn’t know and if I did know what could I have done? That was a very searing encounter. To some degree it was my first time behind that wall of silence and it stayed with me.
There was pain on both sides. He had lost family and she had to live with the scope of it all and the knowledge she done nothing and thousands of people had died over the wall from her house. So that went into The Undertaking in terms of what decisions people made and the consequences of those decisions. The consequences of doing nothing, the consequences of being silent or the consequences of acceptance.
Harry Morgan: In the Undertaking there is there is the theme of choice. Having to turn a blind eye to things. Audrey, the character of Katharina, she begins to stand up against her parents, and against the Nazis. Can we talk about her character and how it evolves during the course of the war.
Audrey Magee: The book shows us Katharina in a family situation. She lives with parents and her brother is also on the eastern front. She is 22 and Peter is 24. Katerina goes along with everything. She goes along with what is expected of her because she is trying to become a woman and she is trying to become a wife and she is trying to become a mother. So she is following all these expectations of her life things that would evolve normally in peaceful times but she is trying to do these things during war and deprivation.
If you go along with the system you get extra food etc and because her family were Nazi supporters, they did things the Nazi party asked of them, they move out of their very small apartment into a palatial apartment that had belonged a few days previously to a Jewish family. They gradually took on an upper middle class lifestyle because they aligned themselves with the Nazi party. She went along with this she went along with what her parents were doing. She went along with her brother being sent back to the Russian front even though he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Disorder.
She went along with everything really until the moment of rape and she was subjugated. It’s what can happen to us. We go along with a system we go along the perceived wisdoms and what the family are doing. Because to some degree we believe it’s the path we think we should follow. If there is a crisis it can turn things for you and you evolve into a very different person.
Audience question: Do you plan to continue writing in historical fiction?
Audrey Magee: Funny thing is I never saw myself as writing historical fiction. I don’t necessarily see my novel as historical fiction I see it as an exploration of war and what it’s like to be on the wrong side of war. So it’s set obviously in history so I suppose I used that period to some degree because it’s over and because I knew Germany. But sometimes I think it could be about any war. So I don’t see myself as a historical fiction writer.
Audience question: How difficult was it for you to engage emotionally and psychologically with events on the eastern front? My second question is to do with the silence you mentioned in Germany and I wondered what sense you think that silence in Germany particularly in Eastern Germany was it even more compounded because of the post war events and the silence that fell over Germany and the British point of view?
Audrey Magee: Well, firstly I’m not British, I’m Irish so even that could give one a different perspective because it wasn’t my war and to some degree I was an outsider to the whole war, So I probably didn’t have the difficulty that to that a British writer may have had writing about the Eastern Front. Had I been British that would have been a huge leap to make, to start taking it from a completely different perspective because being British you have grown up with it. Because I have no perspective of it this allows me to see it from a completely different perspective which is from a German perspective and the Eastern perspective. Because it wasn’t part of my psyche to see it only from this perspective being Irish and with Irish writing you do tend to come at things, to look at things from different angles.
Harry Morgan: At the end of the war the Russians provided jobs and this is something you explore in your book.
Audrey Magee: At the end of the book Katharina is in Berlin at the end of the war. And yes I suppose I look at what it was like in different sectors. What is was like in the American sector, the British sector she was in the Russian sector. So people like Katharina became very isolated. I can’t say too much about it because it’s near the end of the book. But it was like Germany was pushed further into silence and then there was the silence of the East.
I was there in the 1980s it was a very difficult country to be in, to live in because they had so much to be frightened of and especially how people interpreted them; what they had done was so awful and what they let happen was so awful.
Audience question: I was fascinated by the cake eating and the bringing of cake. I just wanted to ask you was part of the novel about eating? Eating and emotions are very tightly put together. What would you say about that and how it fits into the general themes.
Audrey Magee: When you start not to have food it becomes all encompassing. When people look back to when food was taken from them and they are entitled to less than they are used to be able to eat it becomes such a focus of your life. They, the Germany people, had to queue so long for food in Berlin and food was so heavily rationed. So something like a cake becomes a focal point. It is probably quite hard for us now to imagine that situation as we are surrounded by food. I spent some time is central Asia during the wake of Glasnost and Perestroika. Food was such an extraordinary issue. Anything you brought into a house was such an amazing event. To some degree I drew on that because it was such an intense emotion. If you’re hungry you become broken. If all you can think about is food it fills your day.
Audience question: Has your book been published in Germany and if so what has been the reaction?
Audrey Magee: My book has already been translated into several other languages. It’s harder for Germany because I’m writing about them, I’m not German and therefore they believe I really shouldn’t be doing it. I knew that when I was writing it and I drew very heavily on Heinrich Theodor Böll for that because he wrote about Ireland very wonderfully.
There is a walk around near my house and I would reach the same point every day and I would think well if Heinrich Theodor Böll can write about Ireland then I can write about Germany. It is difficult and it is a hard book about Germany. My agency tells me it will happen. But I understand the reticence of the German people with an outsider writing about Germany and it’s hard to hear an outsider writing about your country.
Audience question: What research did you do about the eastern front?
Audrey Magee: I took quite an academic approach to it by starting with tertiary texts and then other materials and I distilled and distilled and distilled until I came to diaries and journals. So I read and read and drew on the Russian poets because the pain within them and their poems. There was so much pain within that war for everyone. Stalingrad was absolutely horrendous for the Germany army as they were completely abandoned.
Harry Morgan: A big thank you to Audrey Magee.
My review of the book can be found here,