I should probably apologise for not posting anything since October. The impending arrival of two new grandchildren meant that I was reading knitting pattern books and listening to the Radio (or audiobooks) but here is the New Year, the knitting pile complete and my readings are back.
My first post of this year deals with memory, one book is fiction – Sebastian Faulks new novel Where my heart used to beat. The other is a compelling exploration of history through a single house. The House by the Lake is a family history, a memorial and a history of Germany by Thomas Harding.
In his novel Faulks has combined two of his interests, the war and psychiatry. The narrator is a psychiatrist who has been invited by letter to visit an island retreat of another well known but slightly discredited member of the same profession. The hook is the fact that this person claims to have known Hendricks’ father.
His father having died in action during the First World War, Hendricks is minded to go, but hesitant. His mother has never explained fully what his father had done in the war, saying it was “all too painful”. Adult now and having had his “own” war, Hendricks feels conflicted. Will learning more about his father confirm or destroy the “hero” status that his boyhood fabrications had given this unknown but important absentee?
Suffice it to say that Hendricks himself has had a difficult and conflicted war, parts of which he has repressed and parts deliberately buried – there is a subtle difference. The author takes us on a journey through the mind of a psychiatrist who knows both how to manage emotion and conflict in others, but also is fully aware that parts of his own inner confusion are lying unexamined. Will “finding” his father help unblock his own lost youth?
Beautifully unravelled, this tale is about love, memory, madness and loss. It captures, in spare and perfect prose, the full incredible complexity of the human capacities of loving, forgetting and repressing memory and how that in leaving “stuff” unexamined we can twist our personalities and blight our lives irreparably.
Blighted lives, past histories and reconciliation are the subject of the other book. The house by the lake is real, the lake is Groß Glienicke, the house is a small wooden construction comprising several rooms looking on to the lake, bathrooms and a kitchen suitable for summer vacations and weekends, a small annexe for a chauffeur and a plot of land which has access directly on to the lake within easy reach of Berlin and Postdam.
The BBC have just broadcast this as a edited book on morning radio, it so annoys me when they do this. Do many people go out and buy the book afterwards? – It was already sitting in my pile, so each morning I had to quickly flick the radio off!
We first arrive at Groß Glienicke with Otto Wollank who is considering buying the whole estate when it was put up for sale by the owner who needed to raise money having fallen on hard times. Later on Wollank, himself, leases plots of land for building and the house is built by Alfred Alexander with Fritz Munk taking the plot next to it and building a similar wooden house.
Alfred Alexander is a well known, highly respected Jewish doctor whose patients (and visitors to the house by the lake) included Albert Einstein, James Franck, the actors Paul Wegener, Max Pallenberg and Sybille Binder and many similar. He marries and has several children, Elsie being the one who binds the author, Thomas Harding, to the house. She has clearly loved this place, a “soul place” she calls it.
So this is the interesting thing, Thomas Harding. Sounds thoroughly English? But only one generation back his family name was Hirschowitz, his grandmother Elsie and her husband Erich having escaped from Germany at the beginning of the Second World War, Erich Anglicised their surname.
Thomas Harding, after the war, after the reunification of Germany goes in search of this house which mattered so much to his grandmother and finding it began to research its history. When he first arrives the house is due for demolition and the City of Potsdam intend to use the plot for a low-cost housing development. Harding, through effort, determination and enthusiastic support achieves his aim and eventually the house gets Denkmal status.
The book contains his research into who had owned the house after his family had retreated. The Aryanisation programme, then the Second World War, then East Germany, the Berlin Wall – which ran right along the edge of the lake and ten metres away from the house itself, squatters, and a gamut of families – each one with a special place in its history.
Harding (and his research team) chases them up, interviews and excites them and finally wins over his family, the house will become a museum and reconciliation centre for Groß Glienicke. It is the history of a country seen through a single lens – the story of a house.
I cannot recommend it too highly. More information can be found at http://www.Alexanderhaus.org