Recently, Adam Mars Jones accused me in the Observer of being in some ways worse than Hitler, because at least Hitler had an excuse for idolising the German upper classes, namely race science, which I didn’t. I was outraged, and seriously considered suing him. I have since calmed down a little and see now that novels set in the recent past are particularly prone to judgments which are more about the history than the fiction, and sometimes even confuse the author with the fictional voice. This was the point Allan Massie made so eloquently in these pages a few weeks ago.
Dancing with Eva raises some of these questions. It is based on the account of the last days of the Hitler bunker given by Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary; Alan Judd insinuates into the story an account of a fictional secretary to Eva Braun, Edith Ashburnham, long since married to a British officer, now dead, and settled into her husband’s house in the shires with her housekeeper, Mrs Hoath. Her rural peace is disturbed by another survivor of the Führer Bunker, Hans Beck. Hans’s motives are clearly sinister.
The technical problem with what is in many ways a well-written novel is that right from the start, Alan Judd undercuts his enterprise: Edith divulges that there is a dark secret involving her and Hans, but not the nature of it, which is absurd, because hers is the voice of the narrative. Why, in her account, would she hold back information that is so vital when she discourses freely on everything else, her late husband William, her son Michael and his family, her life in the bunker with Eva and so on? The answer, of course, is that we are in for a revelation or two right at the end of the narrative. And the purpose of this is to make the novel a page-turner.
Even though she knows his intentions are not benign, Edith agrees to see Hans, last encountered as a young soldier in the days after she and he left the bunker after Hitler’s suicide with some others who were not prepared to die with the Hitler fanatics. When the elderly Hans arrives, they talk most of the night through, eating shepherd’s pie, walking around the garden, drinking Edith’s late husband’s whisky before, finally, getting to what has been signalled, but withheld: Hans’s real purpose in being here is to discuss secrets they are both hiding and to exact a price from her. Revelations concerning rape and paternity and a fortuitous death come in an unseemly rush. There are along the way some excellent accounts of Hitler’s last days, but most of this will be familiar to anyone who saw Downfall, itself based on Junge’s memoirs.
For me the book raised the question, once again, of how recent history and fiction can legitimately be combined. In Judd’s account, Edith’s story seems to be a sort of parasite on the historical facts: what Judd contributes to Junge’s account is really just the sensational ending, and none of it does what serious fiction should do, which is to increase our understanding not only of an historical period — in this case the wilful blindness of those Germans who surrounded Hitler — but also of the imaginative understanding of the complexity and ambiguity of the minor figures in a momentous historical drama. What W. G. Sebald, for example, has done with immense subtlety, in trying to explore the problem of evil and how it relates to Germans, is here just a rather improbable conversation between the two survivors which precedes the heavily trumpeted ending. A sort of thriller has been grafted on to some historical facts, in itself not a capital crime, but as art rather thin.
That said, are there any rules which should be applied in novels or films to recent events, particularly the Nazi nightmare? In the end I think it is an artistic judgment, a sense of the artistic truth: for example, I found the film La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) insulting, although many people I know loved it. The reason was that I wasn’t sure whether the underlying purpose was serious.
And I think this is where Alan Judd has come unglued: he has made a category mistake in trying to write a popular thriller and a serious historical novel in one.
Justin Cartwright’s latest book is The Song Before it is Sung (Bloomsbury, £16.99).