Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 4, 2017

The Decision, by Britta Böhler, translated by Jeannette K. Ringold #BookReview

Oops, I read this last month but forgot to blog it!

The Decision by German-born author Britta Böhler is a book that I discovered last year when Stu reviewed it at Winston’s Dad – and I bought it as a companion to Summer before the Dark by Volker Viedermann (also reviewed by Stu) because they share the same theme.  They’re about famous Jewish authors confronting the perils of Nazi Germany… The works of those authors-in-exile were all exponents of Exilliteratur, literature written in German by those who opposed or fled the Hitler regime.

The Decision is a fictionalised account of three tense days in 1936, when the renowned author Thomas Mann is in Switzerland, weighing up the implications of publicly denouncing his homeland Germany.  At this time he had published, among many other works, Buddenbrooks, (1901, see my review); Death in Venice (1912); and The Magic Mountain (1924, see my review).  He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.  His was a powerful voice, and – having left Germany for Switzerland in 1933 when Hitler came to power, he had to decide how best to use his celebrity.

He has written a letter denouncing the regime to the Zurich-German press, that when published would amount to cultural suicide.   It is not just that he cannot ever go back unless things change, it is also that he is tormented by the idea that he shares the same cultural tradition as new regime, and may be tainted by it.  He’s not even sure if he can still enjoy the sublime music of Wagner, now that it’s been appropriated by the Nazis.

He had not realised, when he left Germany, that it would be the last time:

He had not suspected anything, nothing at all. How could he have foreseen that this journey would mark his farewell to Germany? Later he often wished that he had looked out of the train window. He should have imprinted the landscape on his mind – that way he could have taken the images abroad with him. He couldn’t even remember the border crossing between Lindau and Bregenz; half asleep he had let the last impressions of Germany slide by.  (Kindle Locations 308-315).

[…]

You go on vacation suspecting nothing, and before you know it your fatherland is gone. With a speed that makes your head spin. (Kindle Location 326).

The novel is prefaced by a quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein:  ‘Ethics and aesthetics are one’  and while Wittgenstein wrote a great many impenetrable aphorisms, this one is crystal clear.   He is saying that aesthetics and ethics are inseparable.  Yet what this novel shows, is just how difficult Mann’s decision was.  You can see his torment in his own words, in Dr Faustus, a novel begun in 1943 and published in 1947, (see my review).  But in this novel, Britta Böhler shows Mann under pressure in intimate detail, as a family man, as a writer and as a public figure, trapped in the same dilemma as Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. (Not that I’m suggesting any similarity between Henry VIII and Hitler, only that public figures sometimes have to make risky public decisions that never confront ordinary folk whose opinions don’t have the capacity to influence events.)

Feeling torn, Mann considers the pressure he has been under from his adult children, Erika and Klaus:

These past three years Erika and Klaus have urged him repeatedly to break his silence, express his opinion, and publicly distance himself from the Nazis. There had been scores of rather nasty fights. Erika accused him of being arrogant; his reserve was presumptuous; it was unseemly to feel superior to everything in these terrible times. Erika and Klaus – both are so implacable in their hatred of Germany. The world is so simple and clear for them.  (Kindle Locations 130-133).

He is suspicious of his brother Heinrich:

That his brother felt so easily at home in his new living situation made him a little jealous. Well, it was of course a fact that in a sense Heinrich had always been on the side of the opposition; that made many things easier.

And he doesn’t get along with Heinrich’s new lady friend:

He had looked forward to Heinrich’s visit, to the joint walks and conversations, but unfortunately Heinrich had not come alone. Why had he brought along that horrible Mrs. Kröger? She was a typical girlfriend for Heinrich, loud and uncultured, like all the actresses with whom he had enjoyed himself while his wife and daughter waited for him. (Kindle Locations 405-410).

And even now, he still clings to some doubt, because he loves the Germany he knew, the Germany that is now so alien to him:

Yet he hadn’t been convinced right away. For days he hesitated over the decision. He was heartily sick of living in a hotel, but renting a house for a year or even two felt final. You couldn’t know whether a return to Munich might not be possible after all; the situation could perhaps change for the better. And even if that weren’t the case, shouldn’t he try to return in spite of it all? Staying away permanently from Germany – wasn’t that tantamount to a betrayal of his own country?  (Kindle Locations 441-444).

While he mourns the loss of his home and possessions, he is also confronted by an existential loss:

What is going on inside the people of Germany? What are they thinking and feeling when they take the tram to work in the morning or when they are shopping? Have the events left any marks on their faces as they walk in Herzog Park? He can still not make sense of it. The image of his fatherland is becoming increasingly vague and blurred. He has become an outsider, an observer who knows Germany only second-hand.  (Kindle Locations 485-488).

Stu was right, The Decision is an excellent book!

Author: Britta Böhler
Title: The Decision (originally published as Der brief de Zauberers but my edition is translated from the Dutch De Beslissing by Jeannette K. Ringold
Publisher: Haus Publishing, London, 2015
ASIN: B018XPU5BM
Source: Personal library, bought for the Kindle from You Know Who.

Available from Fishpond: The Decision (hbk)


Responses

  1. I found this such a gripping read you felt his struggle

    • Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Stu – one of many great books I’ve found through your blog:)

  2. It’s some years since I read T. Mann, and German lit generally is a bit of an underrepresented area of my reading – in fact lit in translation generally isn’t my central focus of attention; I find it hard enough to try to cover the territory of English-language works. But this exilliteratur sounds powerful and important. The struggles of the thirties are still relevant, as we can see with events in Catalonia and elsewhere.

    • *chuckle* I hear your pain! My main focus is OzLit, of course, and I have trouble keeping up with my territory too – but I think my praise for Australian writing means more beyond our shores if people know that I’ve also read widely from elsewhere, and have a yardstick with which to compare it.
      And translated fiction – as I’ve found it with most of my recommendations coming from Stu at Winston’s Dad – is so exciting to read!

  3. I think it would be interesting to compare Henry VIII and Hitler. Henry didn’t have a Final Solution (which reminds me I’ve been meaning to write about the Jewish heroine of Scott’s Ivanhoe – yes I know, 200 years earlier) but he was murderous and dictatorial.

    • Sure, there are lots of evil men in history – our species has specialised in their production – but Hitler stands alone, I think, with Stalin and Mao on the dais just below him.

  4. I enjoyed Buddenbrooks, as well as the excellent German TV production (with subtitles) which I have on DVD. I also liked The Magic Mountain, especially the philosophical arguments, but Dr. Faustus not so much, probably because I don’t know music that well.

    Several years ago I picked up the novel The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger. It is the same theme as The Decision. A prosperous Jewish family in Germany cannot decide whether to stay or to go. Part of their conflict is their very real love for German culture and intellectual life. I won’t tell you how they decide, but it is well worth reading, especially when you realize he wrote it in about 1934, before the worse had happened.

    • Hello Nancy:) Thanks for the recommendation of The Oppermans, I’ve added it to my wishlist…
      But here’s something I must share with you!
      *Wry smile of the Day: I went straight to Google to search for a copy of that TV series, where my eye fell upon the preview from the 1984 NYTimes review of it: “It boils down to the undeniable fact that the series lacks a Joan Collins.” I’m taking that as a recommendation!!

      • Trust me. The series is totally unsuited to Joan Collins (that’s in its favor, I think).

  5. I was keen on reading this after Stu’s review – and now you’ve made me even keener!

    • He’s such a bad/good influence on our groaning TBRs!

  6. This sounds excellent Lisa. I can understand the decision being hard. After all, it’s home isn’t it? No matter how bad things are at home, it’s still home. As for enjoying ”tainted” art, I still like TS Eliot and Wagner but, knowing more about their sympathies, some of the gloss has defnetely gone. As it has from the performances of actors I’ve liked Spacey and Hoffman!

    • Ah, that’s a whole new thread, isn’t it! We had that same problem with the artworks of Rolf Harris, and the problem of whether to jettison his art or not was easily solved because it wasn’t very good and nobody is mourning its absence. But what if the book, music, film, artwork is good, or very good, or great?
      Just yesterday I read a very interesting piece by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore about problematic ‘culture’ at The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/nov/03/if-a-shakespeare-play-is-racist-or-antisemitic-is-it-ok-to-change-the-ending.
      The article’s author (who is herself Jewish, and yes, it’s interesting that she feels she needs to state that) argues that:
      “Surely the most powerful way to combat discrimination is to embrace old texts, artworks and movies as they stand – unadulterated – as artefacts of their time. Only then can we debate them, disagree with them and, finally, make a decision to accept or reject their ideas. To do anything else feels dangerously like censorship”.
      Food for thought…

      • Thanks Lisa, I’ll try to read that article, but I must say that that’s pretty much how I see it. And it would be best if that debating started in schools I think. That is, schools shouldn’t avoid texts etc that would now be controversial but should encourage critical thinking about them.

        Cultural organisations like the NFSA usually have disclaimers stating that whatever the work is – say a 1930s newsreel or documentary featuring indigenous people – reflects the ideas of their times etc etc. We can’t ignore what’s gone before but we can discuss it, challenge it etc, don’t you think? (As we’ve discussed with Bill on his blog regarding Arthur Upfield’s Bony?)

        • Well, yes, I do think that, but y’know, I am ‘privileged’ so that puts a discount on my opinion!

          • Yes, I take your point. I suppose it doesn’t hurt for us to be the ones whose opinions are discounted for a change. I feel I can’t get angry about that, because even with the discount I’m still privileged! However, it would be good to get to a point where all opinions are equal.

  7. This one sounds good but I’ve been eyeing a bio of the Mann brothers and I think I’ll stick with that.
    BTW have you seen Resistance yet? I haven’t but since it’s being compared to A French Village I was hoping for an opinion.

    • No, I haven’t. Is it a film or a TV series? And (more importantly) who made it?
      (I watched a Russian film called Stalingrad last week, with American GI voices dubbed over the Russians’ and English subtitles over the Germans. To say it was merely bad is to compliment this film. It was excruciating. One of the most crucial battles of the C20th reduced to banality.
      No, I lied. I didn’t watch it. I watched about half an hour of it…

      • http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3587846/?ref_=fn_al_tt_5
        It’s a minseries.
        Who was the director of Stalingrad?

        • I’m sorry, I don’t know, I’ve posted the film back to Quickflix. I’ll see if I can remember my password to get into the site and retrieve the details.

        • Ok, *phew* finally got into my account… The director was Fedor Bondarchuk. Someone else has reviewed it thus, and I agree: “When I got this I thought it was going to be a movie about the Stalingrad battle, however it’s only about a group of Russian soldiers protecting a House in the suburbs. The special effects are fantastic, the acting is wooden and the overdubbed English is corny. I was really looking forward to this, but I wasted my time, there are plenty other Russian movies out about the war that are way better than this. Give it a miss. “

        • PS I’ve tracked down of copy of that series, and ordered it. Fingers crossed it’s still in stock!

          • I saw it too. Loved it but I’m a fan of the director. The house being defended was known as Pavlov’s house–named after the sgt who took control of the house and defended it. It had strategic value as it was near the Volga and also a square. Plus it gave whoever held it a three way view with a clear line of fire.
            The house also pops up in Grossman’s Life and Fate.
            Russian cinema always seems to assume that the audience knows the background story and no doubt every Russian does. The house has symbolic value for Russians.
            For non Russians none of this is clear. Neither was it clear about the strategic importance of the Volga. A map with a short explanation at the beginning of the film would have helped non Russians.
            I’ll be watching Resistance soon too.

            • Well, fancy that! And I’ve read Life and Fate, too!! But it was the dubbing with the US GI voices that drove me crazy, so incongruous…

              • I’m a huge fan of Russian cinema, and I don’t understand why they don’t get the subtitles and dubbing right. I watched a Russian version w/o dubbing (it was an option I think but I passed on that).
                I recently watched Loveless which I was really looking forward to after Elena (director Andrei Zvyagintsev). It was a huge disappointment thanks to subtitles. The subtitles at best were a mess, at worst indecipherable.

  8. I went to a translation symposium once where Linda Jaivin spoke about the perils of translating Chinese subtitles, so I know it’s harder than it looks. Technically, it’s tricky to match the speed of events and dialogue on screen to text that people can read quickly enough. And from watching French film, where my French is not bad but not good enough to follow everything without subtitles, I know that they often don’t get that quite right either.
    But with Russian film, it’s probably a case of bilinguals getting the job when they say they know enough English and they don’t, (I encountered that with shop assistants and café staff) and translation is probably not paid well enough for anyone to care. After all, if you can sell a movie to the entire Russian-speaking world, why would you care about a few international sales, eh?

  9. You didn’t forget to blog, you were just holding it over for German Lit Month ;-)

    • Uh, yeah, of course, that’s it…


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