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The Prologue to A Postcard From the Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany | Lucy Beckett | Ignatius Insight
Note: (September 2, 2010) A Postcard From the Volcano was named a finalist for 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize,
"the only international literary peace prize awarded in the United States. The Prize celebrates the power of literature to promote peace, social justice, and global understanding."
In the winter of 1961 Max Hofinann was dying. No one said so, not even the
doctor, who seemed to think that the promise of improvement, however empty, was
kinder than the truth. But Max knew. At least from time to time, he was quite
certain he was dying.
On some days, if he stayed downstairs and sat upright at his desk instead of in
a comfortable chair out of which it would be difficult to get, or walked for a
few minutes in the garden, he could persuade himself that he was getting
better, that ordinary years lay ahead. The leafless garden with its pinched
grass and dirty London brick walls: would he see spring arrive there? The
purple crocuses? The brash yellow flowers of the forsythia, the brash pink
flowers of the cherry? He didn't like town gardens, especially town gardens
planted with English enthusiasm for colour, any colour, the brighter the
better. He didn't think he would see the cherry blossom or the crocuses again.
Actually, he knew that he wouldn't. And that was fine.
His wife fussed in the daytime, and in the evening, as if to hold him back from
death, hugged him before he went by himself to bed. His clever, careful son and
his high-spirited daughter stopped bickering when he came into the kitchen and
from the narrow hall watched him with embarrassed anxiety when he stopped on
the stairs to gather a little breath to go up another step.
His favourite pupil came on Thursday at six o'clock, as she used to come for
her violin lesson. She was seventeen. She knew. To realism he had accustomed
"Where is your fiddle?"
By now he was in bed, sitting upright against four pillows.
"I didn't bring it."
"I see. A bad decision. Fetch mine."
She found it downstairs, tuned it downstairs, carried it up slowly as if it
"Play a little."
"Are you sure? What shall I play?"
She was learning one of the solo parts in the double violin concerto. Two weeks
ago he played the other part with her, stopping every so often to growl
objections to her playing. "Stay on the beat. Most of all when the beat is
slow." "Ach! The top F was sharp." "Listen for me. So, you
will not race ahead."
She played, by heart, for a few minutes with her back to him, standing at the
window looking out over two dark gardens at the lit kitchen window of the house
opposite. She reached a cadence and paused.
"That is better", he said. "Bach is for the end. Good."
She saw a cat jump onto the sill of the lit window. She took the fiddle from
her shoulder but didn't turn round. Standing with violin in one hand, bow in
the other, she watched a woman open the kitchen window, let in the cat, shut
"You're too young to die. People aren't supposed to die at fifty-
"No. There you are wrong. I am too old already to die. By many years I
have outlived my life."
"You shouldn't say that. It's not fair. "
"Probably not. All the same it is the truth. Later you will understand
this. Now close the curtains. Come here."
She shut out the London night and sat on his bed, the violin on her lap. The
silence in the room was close and warm, broken only by the soft popping of the
gas fire .
" I brought you some flowers ."
" Quite right. Where are they?"
"Jane took them, to put in water. She'll bring them up with your
"What kind of flowers?"
"From a shop."
He closed his eyes.
"I'm tiring you. Shall I go?"
"I am the one who goes." He did not open his eyes. "No. Stay.
Two things I have to say to you."
She looked at his hands resting on the eiderdown and wondered again how the
broad, blunt fingers of his left hand could fly over and stop with absolute
precision the thin strings over the thin fingerboard of his violin. His violin,
silent on her lap.
"The fiddle I want you to have. It is what I carried with me. The fiddle I
brought and a little satchel of books. But you are not reading German. Nor are
my own children, half-German though they may be. Never mind the books. It is a
good fiddle . Much better than yours . Many years ago it belonged to a good
man. It will improve your playing."
Her eyes filled with tears. His remained closed. She saw his hands tense, then
"The fiddle. This is simple. It does not matter so much. A violin is just
a violin. The other thing is not for you to have. It is for you to do."
"Anything. Tell me. Anything."
He looked at her, with a penetrating blue-eyed look she knew well. "It
will be too much for you. Too difficult . You will have your own life. I cannot
imagine how your life will be. But it must be your own."
"Tell me what you want me to do. I'll try. I really will try my best. I
He shifted uncomfortably and she moved his pillows so that he could sit up a
little. He regained his breath.
"Listen to me. When I left Germany I left my own life. Of course I have
not all this time been dead. I came, as you know, in 1933 to my friend the
canon and his wife. I was the tutor in the holidays, for their grandsons. I was
a terrible tutor at first . These good grandsons taught me English. At the
school I was teaching violin to little boys who had no patience. One or two
could learn. I am no teacher but what can I do? Who will employ a Prussian
lawyer? Then the war, and the camp. For enemy aliens. I am an alien. I am not
an enemy. After the beginning this camp is not so bad. There is music. There is
German to speak. There is also Jane. She is a nurse in this camp.
"Then some of us are offered to fight Hitler after all . Not as real
soldiers but digging latrines, loading trucks. After the war more teaching.
Better teaching. Better pupils. You, for example. Jane of course. A home. The
children. All this you know. A life. OK. For twenty-seven years I have lived, but—how
to say it?—with the left hand. No bowing arm. No sound. Half a life. My
own life Hitler took away. That life is only now here." He tapped his
forehead with a thick middle finger. "And even memory is not
reliable—how does one know? And will very soon be gone.
Pff! Blown out just like that, as one would blowout a candle."
"No, that's not true!"
He looked at her sharply. "Isn't it? God, you mean. God does remember,
does know. Well, perhaps. Perhaps indeed. Either way," he said,
"there you are. This is what I give you to do."
She met his look, but shook her head.
"I don't understand."
His face was pale, glistening from the effort of talking. He closed his eyes.
At last he said, "You do. You will. This life that is lost, that will be
altogether, finally lost, or not, when I die. You will find it, discover it,
even invent it. What is the difference? I leave it to you, what to do to find
it, because you have the application and the imagination and the sense for
truth. Perhaps imagination and the sense for truth are even after all the same
"But ... "
She sat still, thinking.
"I don't know enough. I will never know enough."
"Who ever does? You will learn. You will learn enough for what I am giving
you to do."
"But I didn't know you then, when you were young." "You know me
now. It is the same."
"But it's not, is it? Surely your friends ..."
"My friends. There is the whole point. They are dead. As, very soon, I
also will be dead. There were five of us. Perhaps six, but that you will have
to decide. And an old schoolmaster. All of them died. I did not. Only now I
die. Open the top drawer, on the left. Yes. Under the socks, and then under the
paper. There is a postcard. That's it. That is for you, to help you, one day
when you have grown up and have time for me. It will be many years, but that
does not matter. I should have done this myself if I had been by any chance a
writer. But I am not, and now after so many years I have no language left to
use for what is not simple."
She was looking at the card. On it was a list of names-seven lines, seven
names—with dates and places of birth and death. Only the last name had no
date or place of death. "Max Ernst, Count von Hofmannswaldau, born Waldau,
Silesia, March 1905."
He watched her closely as she read the list. When she looked at him he nodded,
"That's it. That's what you have to start from. Don't worry. Forget about
it now. But don't lose it. When the right time is arrived, that postcard is all
you will need."
"Is it really a kind of game you want me to play?"
"Of course, silly girl. It is a game and not a game. A story to make up
and a story that is true. Listen to me. Those names, they were people. They
were alive. They died. And now there is no one to tell their stories, our
story, how we were at one place at one time, from different countries, cities,
ruined empires. It was partly for the music we made that we were friends.
Friends, lovers, rivals, what have you. Then one way or the other, Hitler
killed all of us. Or Stalin. Even me. I lived, but was I alive? From time to
time perhaps." Another smile. " The story will be a good one. Quite
complicated. The world was a complicated place for us. The story you tell will
not have so many facts, but it will have as much truth as if I had been myself
the writer, perhaps more because you were not there. Or not yet. Do you
"I don't know. I think so." She saw that it mattered very much that
she understood. "Yes, I do understand. I will try. One day I'll try to do
what you want me to do, what you think I can do. I will."
His eyes closed. His head sank back on the pillows. His face was paler than
before and looked both smoother and thinner.
"Now go", he said very quietly. "I shall sleep now. Good. You
are a good child."
She didn't see him again. Nine days later, he died.
The funeral service was a Requiem Mass in a nearby Catholic church. His family,
a few of Jane's relations and some pupils and colleagues from the school, none
of them Catholic, found the Latin service impossible to follow. There was no
sermon, no eulogy; nothing was said about Max or about his life. Strangers
carried the coffin down the aisle, and then Jane and the children and three or
four others got into cars to follow the hearse to the cemetery. At the house,
when the family came back, those of the pupils and colleagues who hadn't gone
home stood about awkwardly with glasses of sherry or cups of tea. There were
sandwiches and slices of fruitcake. An elderly woman, perhaps an aunt, said to
Jane, "I never knew Max was a Roman Catholic."
"Nor did I till a few days before he died. He asked me to fetch a priest.
I had no idea how to find one. But there's a Roman Catholic family two doors
down. Five or six children—you know. They brought the local priest to the
house that same afternoon. He spent nearly an hour with Max. Goodness knows
what they talked about. Yes, the priest was the same one who did the service.
Quite a nice man. Very Irish, of course."
After a few months, Jane sold the house at a good price, for it was in a part
of London that was becoming fashionable. She moved with the children to a
cottage in Norfolk close to her brother's house, where she had grown up.
Knowing nothing of Max's wish, she also sold his violin, for a good deal of
A violin is just a violin.
A Postcard From the Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany | 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
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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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