A.N. Wilson: Winnie And Wolf
The good thing about wanting to read all Booker nominees is that it introduces you to new authors who you may never have thought to read, and A.N. Wilson definitely falls into that list. However, there’s a downside, and that’s not every novel is going to be to your taste. Wilson’s Winnie And Wolf amply fills that category, for, if there were two topics that could have me breaking the land speed record to escape their mention, it’s opera and politics. How was I meant to live through this?
Relatively easy, it seems. That’s not to say I was overly engaged by much of the content which felt, at times, more like a lecture on Wagner’s operas than a real narrative and I often had to come up for air given how abundant in information the prose is. It’s not fair to blame Wilson for my own ignorance of its subjects and, again me, stubborness to remain slightly ignorant, but there’s just so much to take in, most of which is mere garnish, although the themes of several Wagnerian operas do harmonise with the sections of the novel.
Winnie And Wolf takes as its story the years of friendship between Winifred Wagner, daughter of composer Richard, and Adolph Hitler, referred to throughout, in private scenes, as Wolf, or otherwise H, “the polite German convention of referring to him merely by the initial letter of his surname.” It begins wonderfully, presenting an engaging scene where Wolf (Uncle Wolf, to Winnie’s four children) demonstrates some of the qualities he later became known for (his charisma and oration, his magnetism) in the telling of a fairy tale:
If he had cleverly impersonated the fisherman and his wife, he did more than convey the storm. He became it. I think everyone in the room sensed Wolf’s tempest, his elemental powerfulness. When the fisherman had to shout against the noise of the billowing ocean, Wolf himself bellowed, and it was as if we heard in that cry, not only the noise of the man, but of the elements themselves against which he contended. For, of course, this time the flounder cannot answer the wife Ilsebill’s outrageous request, and replies, “‘Go home, man! She is back sitting on her pisspot…’ And there they sit to this very day!”
And from here we’re off into character studies of both title characters, the private Wolf of the Wagners’ house in Beyreuth, and the public H of a depressed Germany, flitting backwards and forwards in time, as told by the Wagners’ secretary. Winnie is a woman who is fully enchanted by the man she believes will improve Germany’s lot and H is the astute Wagnerian, loyal friend to the family of the composer he idolises. Through H’s early dabblings in politics through his rise to Chancellor and onwards to the declaration of war, Wilson’s narrative tells the story of a benevolent woman who can see no wrong in H’s atrocities, for he was always Wolf to her.
Winnie And Wolf, begins with an introduction from Hermann Muller, assisant pastor at a Seattle church, who received a manuscript from a woman named Winifred Heidler, now deceased. Upon translating it he believes her to be the daughter of Adolph Hitler, although he doesn’t rule out the notion that it may all be fantasy. From there, the manuscript tells all in manner similar to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, an extended letter from beyond the grave explaining the intricacies of the writer’s life (a man known only as Herr N—) and the truth of the addressee’s circumstances.
There’s certainly parts to enjoy in Winnie And Wolf, notably scenes that pop up every now and again, whether they be imagined by the author or engrained in the history books. Emotions are evoked from scenes of brownshirts recklessly attacking Jews, of the public turning a blind eye to it, and, given that history tells us all we need to know of H, just how human monsters can be. It’s just the sheer volume of knowledge that Wilson (or should that be Herr N—?) wants to share that bogs it down, a problem I rarely get when reading someone like Umberto Eco. But overall it’s a fair novel taking a look back at the differences of the last two centuries (of Wagner; of Wolf) and proving itself a:
…reminder that art outlasts politics, that the sordid and cruel things we human beings have been doing to one another in the last century in Europe are not the last word, that music outsoars it and is stronger than it: that Bach outlasts Frederick the Great and that Wagner, too, outlasts his more outlandish patrons and admirers.
Ah yes, Wagner! He may outlast them, but in Winnie And Wolf he more than stays his welcome.
August 20, 2007