Tales from the duvet


Graham Swift <em>Picador, 248pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0330450182

To say that the action of Graham Swift's latest novel is mostly horizontal might give the wrong impression. Tomorrow is set in a double bed, but the springs are squeaking through restlessness, not passion. While her husband and children lie asleep, art dealer Paula Hook is thinking about the day that is to come. Something will be revealed, the back cover promises, that "will redefine all their lives". It's her husband, Mike, that's going to do the telling. Their teenage twin children, her "angels", are currently unaware of what is about to change:

As he asks you to sit, side by side, on the sofa (we've even discussed such minor details), you'll do a quick run through in your minds of all those stories that friends at school have shared with you: inside stories, little bulletins on domestic crisis. It's your turn now, perhaps. It has the feeling of catastrophe.

Before dawn breaks, Paula thinks her way through her own version of events. "You're sixteen," she tells them, "and the night's not young, but here's a bedtime story." Given Paula's ominous hints - she admits that "we might be wrenching you forever from your childhood" - the narrative that follows could hardly be said to be soothing. It does, however, achieve an impressive level of banality. Paula thinks about the time she and Mike first slept together ("We were undulating . . . Not just pillow talk, you might say, but billow talk"), their first bottle of champagne ("I kept my cork. It's precious beyond reckoning"), and the purchasing of their first bedspread ("vast, crimson" and "slinky-thin"). She talks us through Mike's occasional pangs about his job as director of a popular science magazine when "he'll come over all self-searching and conscience-stricken about having deserted 'real' science to become a money-maker", and touches, on occasion, on her own knowledge of art history, on "lovely Poussins and a gorgeous Watteau". There is a long disquisition on the naming of their former cat, Otis, and the question of whether one is a "cat person" or a "dog person": "The world divides, they say: cat people and dog people."

Paula's sense of the world's other divides seems limited. She is not quite a snob, but this is partly because she rarely extends her consciousness far beyond Dulwich, or the duvet. It's a complacency matched by her narrative style - a mixture of mincing quotation marks, cliché and recherché puns. The problem is not, in the first instance, the way this irritates and rankles. In catching her voice, Swift attempts to convey the sense of her own particular dreariness. It's the timing that makes you incredulous. When it comes to breaking bad news, there's softening the blow with a few niceties and a cup of sweet tea, and then there's the narrative equivalent of Chinese water torture. If Paula is to be imagined to be rehearsing a serious conversation, she's doing a rotten job of it. If, on the other hand, you take the imaginative scenario more loosely - in truth, Paula is keeping no one waiting except the implied reader - one is still left wondering why it takes her so long to explain what the big secret is.

In Paula's defence, she does keep asking for forgiveness. "Forgive me," she pleads. "Will you be able to sympathise with me?" "After I've said a bit more," she admits, "you may think it's all the most blatant twaddle." Unfortunately, you often do. This is not because one thinks Paula is either deeply misled or deeply villainous. She never quite gains the dimensions that would allow us to form such judgements. Accidentally subjected to behaving in a certain way, due to the demands of Swift's narrative, it's rather hard to care about her "twaddle" at all.

Tomorrow has all the hallmarks of a novel that, rather like its narrator, prefers to have everything worked out in advance. Characters are set up to chime neatly with his main themes. The tiresomely ubiquitous upper-middle-class couple, with a scientist husband balanced by an artistic wife (it's always the men who are the scientists), allows for a nod to the art/science debate without ever fully engaging with it. There is a neatly poised quotation from Ulysses and a smattering of allusions to Macbeth. But acknowledging these various literary ghosts does not add the weight or depth this novel needs. In the end, one suspects that Swift has become so attached to his narrative form that the question of whether it actually works has been sidelined. This is not Swift at his best. "Life," as Paula says, "is short, my darlings."

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis