I Am Always With You
The Viewing Platform
Local writers Stevan Eldred-Grigg (Kaput!) and Tina Shaw (The Black Madonna) have found imaginative inspiration in wartime Berlin, and now Philip Temple – like Shaw, a recent recipient of the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers’ Residency – gives us his account in I Am Always With You, a novel based on the true story of Maria Scholz.
An aspiring writer who moves to Berlin in 1933, Maria is drawn into a lively circle of artists based at the Klosterstrasse Studios. She marries sculptor Hermann Blumenthal, and they have two sons; she’s also drawn into a passionate affair with Noa, wife of the publisher Gustav Kiepenheuer. And meanwhile ordinary life in Berlin dissolves – artists are denounced as “degenerate” as the city becomes a place of violence, deprivation and mistrust. Maria is an emotionally raw young woman, prone to depression, struggling with the conflicting roles of writer, wife and mother. When a reluctant Blumenthal is conscripted into the army, she is left alone to protect her boys from the dangers of the war and its aftermath.
Such a story has obvious dramatic potential but, in the substantial autobiographical afterword to I Am Always With You, the author feels the need to explain his choice of subject matter and the thoroughness of his research. He cites endorsements for his project, and describes the story he is telling as “poignant, tragic yet inspiring”, as though, after reading the book, readers need to be told why they struggled through to the end.
For struggle through we must. Temple says he “did not know what kind of book” to write – “biography, history, personal memoir or fiction” – and settled on “a documentary novel”. Unfortunately, too much of the book reads like the careful conjecture of biography, or excerpts from an uninspired monograph, rather than a work prepared to make a wholehearted imaginative leap. Too often the author relies on summary rather than scene:
In the new year of 1935, the poems and stories began to flow. It was as if Maria’s new sense of belonging, of having a special person and purpose in her life, gave her the confidence to write with fluency after all the years of uncertainty.
The result is one very long march of a book.
The wandering point of view doesn’t help: Maria dominates, but other minor characters are allowed to pop in for part of a scene or even a paragraph – once just to describe Maria’s eyes as “dark with longing”. Their milieu in pre-war Berlin is presented through dense passages of contextualizing summary, during which the book appears to decamp altogether to biography’s corner.
In fact, the methods of the biographer slow this book down to a crawl. The chief documents in this “documentary novel” are letters from Maria and Blumenthal: often the other half is missing – for example, letters from Noa. A novelist can go much further than a biographer: he may imagine and invent. In fact, the novelist must imagine and invent in order to create characters out of ghosts, to contort real life into the constraints of a dramatic structure, to bring to life a time and place that is not his or her own. But here the authorial impulse to document is greater than the desire to construct a satisfying narrative. Temple denies us Noa’s letters, so we can’t assess if Maria is misreading them or deluding herself, and misses the chance to draw us into this fraught bohemian love triangle and make Noa a character who reveals herself to Maria and to us.
The over-reliance on letters is a misstep that the book keeps making. We read Blumenthal’s letters from the Eastern front, but – even though the novel often swerves into his point of view – we only read his reports, and are not taken to the cold, swampy, demoralised camps themselves. So much dramatic potential is confined to brisk summary, back story or truncated scenes, from bombings and deaths to all of Maria’s sexual encounters with Noa. The scenes that work best are … well, the scenes: Maria and children in Klosterstrasse during a bombardment; Russian soldiers bursting into the cellar of Maria’s apartment building. But, for the most part, the author hangs back from the story, handing us letters when we’re hungry for scenes, listing names when we’re longing for characters. Here research, the servant of the historical novel, is its master.
But this is not really a novel. The author has not committed himself to the novel’s imaginative scope or met its imaginative demands: there’s too little selection, too little invention, too pallid an attempt to turn historical figures into characters who come alive on the page. The result is earnest but plodding and, despite the story’s tragic turns, not nearly moving enough: from this dry tale, readers can only conclude that Maria is not a great writer, that her relationship with Blumenthal is not a great love, and that this is just the story of two minor artists caught up in a war. So why are we reading this epic-length book when we could be reading an actual epic of love and war, like Dr Zhivago or Suite Française, or a book that truly brings this place and era to life, like the anonymous diary A Woman in Berlin or Isherwood’s classic Goodbye to Berlin?
Temple tells us he wanted to “reach the end of my own journey of understanding, acceptance and reconciliation” by telling the story of two “unexceptional” Germans, but he has not succeeded in bringing readers along with him. Unlike the author, not all of us grew up viewing Germans as the “sworn perpetual enemy”, or refusing to visit that country. Now, with the fervour of a convert, the author imagines us all to be equally blinkered. He underestimates contemporary readers in New Zealand if he thinks we can’t grasp the contradictions of history: it’s possible to see millions of ordinary Germans as complicit in Hitler’s rise to power while understanding that, at the same time, millions despised his politics; and that all Germans suffered because of the ruling party’s evil lunacies. He also underestimates our desire for three-dimensional characters, a vivid setting, revealing scenes, and a shapely, dynamic narrative.
Ian Wedde’s fourth novel, The Viewing Platform, offers a different hybrid form: this novel “combines satire, essay and roadtrip storyline”, according to the strange English of its back cover. Call me old-fashioned: I prefer my novels neat, without dilution-by-essay. For an author with points to make – or targets to hit – isn’t satire sufficient?
Readers familiar with Wedde’s actual essays and reviews won’t be surprised by those targets: “Hands-On”, a smug and inept Minister for Tourism; the “media-coached” Museum CEO who spews platitudes about “purity, identity, authenticity, beauty, adventure and hospitality”; and the misguided, acronym-strewn bureaucracy they represent. These are the sponsors of the novel’s sort-of protagonists, the members of the CTI (Cultural Tourism Initiative) team touring New Zealand’s tourist centres.
The team – described by Stan, the driver, as “a “busload of wankers whingeing on about the views after pissing up nightly in bars on the project tab” – are project leader Pat; William the branding specialist; Outdoor Adventure Specialist Joris; Nancy, an Australian professor of Diaspora Studies; manaakitanga expert Hinemoana; and Mr Biswas from Bangladesh. In between nightly piss-ups, the team is:
poleaxed by images and discussion concepts. By visitor experiences and audience focal points, by strategic opportunities, by key communication objectives, by secondary cognitive and affective objectives. By key performance indicators, points of difference, by value-adding potentials. Grade one assets and distinguishing brand values. Their eyesight stripped out by the many thousands of viewing platforms.
Before bad luck and investigative reporter Richard Brawn can catch up with our gang, it’s easy for the reader to get poleaxed as well. This novel is idea- rather than action-packed; as a result, sometimes it’s provocative, at others merely didactic. It’s easy to grow weary of both its personnel and the stridency of its lessons, but The Viewing Platform is vigorous and smart enough to persuade us to stick around.
Paula Morris is an Aucklander and the author of two novels.