Tuesday, December 02, 2008

When monsters fall in love

This is a story of love, the love that a man and woman marked by history shared. Winnie, the daughter-in-law of German composer Richard Wagner, and Adolf Hitler, the world's most hated villain, are said to have had an indiscreet affair for several years prior to the Second World War. Wilson fictionalizes this story and washes it in renewed ardor.

The narrator is a secretary to the Wagners, a man who so passionately lusts for Winnie that he agrees to adopt the illegitimate child that she and Wolf, as Hitler is referred to in the Wagner household, sire. The novel is an account that this unnamed secretary writes to his adopted daughter, explaining her genealogy.

Wilson's craft is a curious blend of his decidedly conservative politics and his adept skills as a novelist. When the novel sticks to characterization and story, he shines. From the sly Cosima, Winnie's mother-in-law, to Siegfried, her homosexual husband, the Wagner clan, in spite of Wilson's best efforts, emerges as a deeply flawed family that was fortunate to cash in on its patriarch's genius. Winnie is the beautiful, dutiful daughter-in-law who dons the mantle of returning the Bayreuth Festival — which Richard Wagner founded as a permanent destination for opera enthusiasts — to its former glory. To her, the Fuherer is the geekish opera-loving charmer she gives her heart to, even as she maintains the semblance of matrimony with Siegfried.

However, Wilson's politics lords it over the novel in very apparent ways, and his genial defence of Richard Wagner's anti-Semitism places serious demands on the reader's sympathy. Even Hitler is different things to different people. When the narrator meets him one evening, "it was not Uncle Wolf, the confident, jolly family friend; still less was it the leader appointed by Providence to save our nation. It was an outsider of outsiders, awkward, fearful, even, with his highly polished shoes and blue suit, slightly deferential towards the society which had chucked him out..."

Indeed, it is the childhood deprivation of the Fuhrer, as depicted in his memoirs to the narrator, which most starkly comes close to providing an explanation for his later political ideology. Thankfully, Wilson stops short of exculpating the man whose brand of genocide scarred the soul of Germany.

Overall an admirable effort,
Winnie and Wolf will be a most satisfying read if approached with a fair amount of discretion and while giving its writer the benefit of the doubt.

Winnie and Wolf was on the 2007 Booker longlist.

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