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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

In bed with the Fuhrer

By Norman Lebrecht / August 22, 2007

A N Wilson: Winnie and Wolf (Hutchinson, £17.99)

With the possible exception of the Prophet Mohammed, there is no more dangerous character to insert in a work of fiction than Adolf Hitler. Not for risk of street riots or death threats, but because the mind of the genocidal monster has resisted the best efforts of psychiatrists and historians and is unlikely to yield its enigma at the turn of a plot to an imaginative writer with an impressive bibliography.

Hitler is universally regarded as an evil archetype, and while novelists as disparate as George Steiner, Philip K. Dick and Beryl Bainbridge have ventured to the edge of credulity and good taste, no Hitler in fiction has left more than a sour taste and a sense of the unnecessary.

It says much for A N Wilson’s narrative skill that the Führer slips in and out of his story as smoothly and inoffensively as he does into its heroine’s bed – though there is nothing identifiably heroic in the narrow mind and battleship build of Winifred Wagner, landlady of the Bayreuth Barn during the Thousand Year Reich.

Winnie, an English orphan raised in Berlin by elderly Wagnerians and offered for procreative purposes to Wagner’s boy-chasing heir Siegfried, conceived four dutiful children and a premature enthusiasm for the rabble-rouser Hitler, whom she furnished with writing paper and sweetmeats while he sat in jail in 1924 scratching out Mein Kampf. She called him Wolf, not perhaps the most obvious endearment.

Hitler came out of jail as Wagner’s biggest fan after George Bernard Shaw and Winnie’s number one best friend, always available at the end of a phone, even as he was invading Poland or bombing the night lights out of her native England. Just about everyone who saw Wolf and Winnie together assumed that they were not lovers. Hitler was, by all known accounts, either asexual or erotically very weird indeed, and Winnie after Siegfried’s death took whatever satisfactions she required with grey Heinz Tietjen, her artistic director, a third-rate musician who ran theatres in Weimar, Reich and post-War Germany with an equanimity unmatched since the Vicar of Bray.

The widow’s love for Wolf is observed by her secret admirer, a Bayreuth staffer with a wounded pash for his boss, possibly an analogy for the German love of authority. Herr N-, as Wilson unnames him with Victorian discretion, comes to a wretched end in the prison state of East Germany, where he writes a closet memoir. N- is the book’s most sympathetic character, a natural-born loser with a gift for appreciating all that he can never attain.

Winnie and Wolf is a novel rich in philosophical reference – Nietzsche, Heideggger, Wittgenstein, thorny as you like – and ruminative pleasures. The presence of Hitler is no more discomfiting than his flatulence, a source of much table-talk among the Wagners, and the odd couple are coldly illuminated as calculating loners in a time and place of unremitting artificiality. Hitler is shadowy, awkward, almost incidental. The Wagners, on the other hand, are portrayed true to life as insufferable bores.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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