The Challenge of Being a Serious Historical Novelist: An Interview with Lucy Beckett, Author of A Postcard From the Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany | Carl E. Olson | April 24, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
Ignatius Insight: What was the inspiration for your novel and its main character, Max von Hofmannswaldau?
Lucy Beckett: The inspiration for my novel was complicated. When I was at school in the 1950s some of my most interesting teachers were, one way and another, still recovering from the consequences of Hitler's regime and the war. I was taught music, German and Greek by a German refugee from a Junker family in Silesia who had left home for England in the 1930s because he couldn't bear the Nazi government and what it was doing to his country. He died when I was 18 and I never discovered much about his past. I have been interested ever since in the project of imagining his life at home, in a part of Germany that was ravaged by the war—his university city of Breslau, now Wroclaw, was ruined by the Russians in 1945 because the Germans, already beaten, used it in vain as a last stronghold. Secondly, my mother's family has German-Jewish roots and I wanted to explore the different kinds of Jewishness still flourishing in Germany east of the Elbe before Hitler came to power.
Ignatius Insight: The novel opens in 1914 and concludes at the end of the second World War. What attracted you to that era? What sort of research was necessary to write about it?
Lucy Beckett: Actually, the story told in the novel ends in the summer of 1933, eight months after Hitler came to power. It does not deal with the Second World War, nor with the Holocaust, which I couldn't possibly write about. The point was to imagine—this, I believe should always be the point of a historical novel—what life was like in a time and a place in which people were, as people always are, unaware of what was to come. No one in Germany in the 1920s could have foretold the scale or full horror of the Holocaust, nor the destruction of Poland on account of the Nazi-Soviet pact—nor the ultimate total defeat of Germany in 1945. On the other hand, the reader of the novel of course knows all this, and the collision of the characters' ignorance and the reader's knowledge is meant to make the reader think. I did something similar with The Time Before You Die and the history of the Reformation in England.
I did a great deal of reading before I could write the new novel: German and English history books, biographies, etc. A lot of high-quality recent historical work has been done on the period. I also used my own experience of teaching and learning, and particularly of German music familiar to me all my life. I used books and not the internet for all my research.
Ignatius Insight: What are some of the challenges facing the novelist who writes about Naziism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust?
Lucy Beckett: The challenges of writing about Nazism and anti-Semitism (the novel is not about the Holocaust as explained above) are the challenges facing any serious historical novelist: how to understand the pressures and prejudices of the time, their roots in history, in grievances and ignorance, in deliberate lies of one kind or another, in propaganda (the period between the wars saw an explosion in the use of the media by politicians). The point of it all is to imagine, and to persuade one's readers to imagine, what it was like to be there, then, to be as truthful to facts and to life as one possibly can. Fiction is something made, not necessarily something made up.
Ignatius Insight: There are many different conflicts in the novel, including the obvious background of two world wars. But is it accurate to say that the most important conflicts explored in the narrative are those in the realms of religion and philosophy? What are some of the key points of those conflicts?
Lucy Beckett: Twentieth century history was driven by ideas: Marx, Comte, Darwin, Wagner, Nietzsche, Freud, Lenin, Hitler himself: impossibly to be an intelligent German student in the 1920s and not to be aware of all these ideas swirling about, and of the intoxication (as well as the terrifying danger) that some of them were causing. My students do a lot of talking. Later Germans horrified by what had overtaken their country would look back to the 1920s and feel there was far too much talk, far too little action, especially political action, that might have saved the Weimar republic and stopped Hitler. This was the atmosphere I have tried to suggest: ideas were vital to it, and Christianity, among such students, was already a surprising and radical personal choice. I have also tried to suggest the difficulty for secularized, assimilated Jews, at that historical moment, of settling on any definite religious or political set of ideas.
Ignatius Insight: The novel often reflects your deep love for Western literature, art, and music. How does literature and music play a significant role in the narrative and in the development of key characters?
Lucy Beckett: The point of Max von Hofmannswaldau's (nineteenth-century although still in place after 1918) classical German education, the best in the world, is to demonstrate its value to him and to his Polish friend Adam as they grapple with the world moving towards totalitarianism. It takes them in different ways towards the Church: Adam, from a Catholic background and a Benedictine school before he comes to the Breslau Gymnasium (academic high school) has rejected the lot in favor of Nietzsche. The rejection does not last. Max himself moves from the patriotic Prussian Protestantism of his father, which had no hold on his soul, towards the Catholic Church because of Adam and because of the influence of a Catholic schoolmaster. That high German culture could not, however much the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had denied this, be a replacement for faith (or for Christian truth) is something the book explores at some depth. As for music, food always for the German soul, it is their string quartet and the playing of chamber music which brings this disparate group of students together. Among many other things, this book is an elegy for the kind of education I was given, which now scarcely exists on either side of the Atlantic.
Ignatius Insight: Near the novel's conclusion, a character states: "America likes to think of itself as innocent of all the evils of sinful Europe, but they took the evils with them." In what way, do you think, has America taken the evils described within the novel? What cautionary parallels can be fairly made between interwar Germany and the United States?
Lucy Beckett: The worst evil which crossed the Atlantic with European immigrants was racism, the assumption of racial/cultural superiority which led not only to slavery but to the treatment of native Americans through the nineteenth century and beyond. Hitler was directly inspired by trashy Western novels and films, and by the sense, not inaccurate, that whites had cleared the American west of primitive people just as he intended to clear lands east of Germany of primitive Slavs and Jews so that Germans, modern, scientific, evidently superior, could flourish there. The way Jews began to be treated in Germany after January 1933, "no Jews in this park/swimming-pool/hotel etc.", is, after all, the way blacks were treated in the South until decades later.
Ignatius Insight: What is the state today of Catholic literature—or literature written by Catholics—in the English-speaking world? Are you encouraged or discouraged by what you see?
Lucy Beckett: I'm afraid I can't give an informed answer to this question. I have read some excellent Catholic theology in the last couple of years (by the present Pope, and by Nicholas Lash, Nicholas Boyle and Aidan Nichols in England for example) but I haven't read a novel by a Catholic for several years. I do think it's important for Catholics to try to reach non-Catholics, even non-Christians, in what they write as in other ways. If we can't suggest to people outside the Church that there are good reasons for investigating what being a Catholic might be like, might mean, then we are letting down the Church and our own gifts.
A Postcard From the Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany, by Lucy Beckett
Beginning in 1914 and ending on the eve of World War II, this epic story follows the coming of age and early manhood of the Prussian aristocrat, Max von Hofmannswaldau. From the idyllic surroundings of his ancestral home to the streets of cosmopolitan Breslau menaced by the Nazi SS, Hofmannswaldau uncovers the truth about his own identity and confronts the modern ideologies that threaten the annihilation of millions of people.
A Postcard from the Volcano opens with the outbreak of World War I and the Prussian pride and patriotism that blind the noble von Hofmannswaldau family to the destruction that lies ahead for their country. The well-researched narrative follows the young count as he leaves home to finish his education and ends up a stranger in the land of his birth.
Both intelligent and sensitive, Beckett's prose explores the complex philosophical and political questions that led Europe into a second world war, while never losing sight of a man whose life is shaped by his times. A deeply moving historical novel that shows the horrific impact that two world wars had on whole countries, and how individuals struggled to deal with the incredible challenges presented by such devastation.
"Written with beautiful prose, a great pleasure to read. The prose is in the service of immense themes--but always in the context of a skillfully handled and greatly moving human drama. A gigantic, and splendid, piece of work." -- Thomas Howard, author, On Being Catholic
"In this extraordinary work, the mysteries of faith and hope and love, prevailing in a time of radical fear, teach us how to find our own humanity." -- Michael D. O'Brien, author, Father Elijah
"This astonishing novel is meat for the mind and manna for the soul." -- Joseph Pearce, author, The Quest for Shakespeare
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Interviews, and Book Excerpts:
The Prologue to A Postcard From the Volcano | Lucy Beckett
The Order of Love | From the Introduction to In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition | Lucy Beckett
Reading In the Light of Christ | An Interview with Lucy Beckett
A Must Read Papal Thriler | An Interview with Piers Paul Read
Citadel of God: A Novel About Saint Benedict (Chapter One) | Louis de Wohl
The Opening Pages of Island of the World: A Novel | Michael O'Brien
The Mercenary, from A Soldier Surrenders: The Conversion of St. Camillus de Lellis | Susan Peek
The Misunderstood Monster | Joseph Pearce | From the Introduction to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Ignatius Critical Editions)
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | Joseph Pearce
The Measure of Literary Giants | Joseph Pearce
The Power of Poetry | Joseph Pearce
Well-Versed in Faith | Selections from Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse
British author Lucy Beckett lives in Yorkshire. She as educated at Cambridge University and taught English, Latin and history at Ampleforth Abbey and College for twenty years. She has published books on Wallace Stevens, Wagner's Parsifal, York Minster and the Cistercian Abbeys of North Yorkshire, as well as a novel, The Time Before You Die, on the Reformation, a collection of poems, and In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition (Ignatius Press, 2006). She is married, with four children.
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