After writing four historical novels I feel that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have released their power over me. I think this has something to do with the shock and chaos of our dysfunctional political life these days. Historical novels are not exactly escapist — while you are writing them the past comes to seem as real, or more real, than the present. However, questions about what it means to be English have now come to seem very urgent. My next novel will be set in 21st-century London and two of the main characters will be refugees: a young woman who has recently arrived from Africa and the very old woman she looks after, who came to England from Germany as a child in the 1930s.
One of the triggers for the novel I hope to write is a vivid memory I have of being at my schoolfriend Jackie’s birthday party in North London in the late 1950s, when I was eight. I didn’t like the compulsory games we were expected to play so I retreated and talked to Jackie’s father, who asked me what I did enjoy doing. Reading, I said, adding boastfully that I was reading history, a series about famous people when they were young. If you like history, he replied, you should know what happened in the war. He then launched into an intense description of what happened to Jews in Nazi Germany. Very upset, I went home and asked my father, who was also Jewish, if it was true. He was evasive and embarrassed and it was years before I found out for myself what had really happened.
This confusing and painful memory has stayed with me all my life. I can still remember my fear that Jackie’s father was telling the truth and my father was covering it up. Of course, as I’ve grown older myself I’ve reinterpreted what happened and can now understand why both men reacted as they did. Jackie’s father must have felt frustrated by the blandness and complacency of most British people. My father was born in England and had not lost any immediate relatives in the Holocaust. My parents had married during the war and my mother’s (agnostic) family had tried to stop the marriage because they were afraid that Hitler would invade and my mother would be in danger because of her Jewish husband. We children were not baptised or bar mitzvahed, in fact when I went to secondary school and someone asked me if I was Jewish I had to go home to ask my mother. When the local rabbi or vicar came to the door to ask for donations she chased them both away with equal fervour.
All fiction is lies, a Catholic priest once said to me. As a professional liar I accept this; for instance, were I to write directly about this scene with Jackie’s father I would invent dialogue because I can’t remember exactly what was said, only the atmosphere around the words: his rage, which seemed to be aimed at me, and the uncomfortable feeling that the horrors he was describing were as real as the frilly dresses, jellies and musical chairs were not.
In a review of Colm Tóibín’s book of essays, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, in the New York Review of Books, Clair Wills quotes Conor Cruise O’Brien:
There is for all of us a twilight zone of time, stretching back for a generation or two before we were born, which never quite belongs to the rest of history. Our elders have talked their memories into our memories until we come to possess some sense of a continuity exceeding and traversing our own individual being.
I believe that traumatic events like the Troubles or the Second World War do affect people born just after them. As I said, my own father disliked strong emotions and was reluctant to talk about the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. Nevertheless, those tragic memories were in the air. From a very early age, three or four, I had a recurring nightmare that I was trapped alone in a burning city, a great port on a hill above a sea where even the ships were on fire. With my best friend Claire I played in the air raid shelter in our back garden and, because our parents were always worried about money, we dug for the treasure the Nasties had buried there.
When I was twelve we had an au pair, Renata, whose earliest memories were of hiding with her mother in a cellar beneath the firestorm raging above in the streets of Düsseldorf. I think she chose our family because we had a Jewish name. If so, she must have been disappointed, because we were utterly secular.
Renata had a circle of intelligent German friends who, like her, were trying to make sense of the war that had destroyed their country. Once a week they met in our house to discuss books and ideas and they invited me to read the voice of Anne in the Diary of Anne Frank, observing that I looked like her. Talking to these intense young people, I learned how much they had suffered during the war. My tendency to be a drama queen didn’t need much encouragement; for a few years I became obsessed with Anne Frank and convinced myself that I was her reincarnation.
That was when I started to read and think about the war that had ended five years before I was born. In British films, usually starring John Mills, heroic British officers foiled evil Germans. My grandmother used to say, the only good German is a dead German. But I already knew that there were sympathetic Germans like Renata and her friends, who felt a terrible collective guilt for crimes they had not committed.
I read Günter Grass’s wonderful novel The Tin Drum, first published in English in 1961. Through the eyes of the unforgettable Oskar Matzerath, who chooses to remain three years old and bang a drum, who can shatter glass with his voice and who may or may not be insane, I understood some of the complexities of that war and also that ordinary people are the victims of the wars their governments win or lose.
Much later there was a film that made a huge impression on me. Written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, it was called Die bleierne Zeit (The Leaden Time) in German. When I saw it at a London cinema in 1981 it was called The German Sisters. The scene I remember most vividly from this West German film is when the two sisters, Marianne (Barbara Sukowa) and Juliane (Jutta Lampe) go to the cinema together. They see a documentary film about the concentration camps and are so shocked that they throw up in the toilets, weeping and embracing. They reminded me of Renata, who so desperately needed to know what had happened, what it was the older generation wouldn’t talk about.
As an adult I met and made friends with several men and women who had come to England as refugees from Germany and Poland. They always seemed to me to be more grown up than the rest of us, as if we were the children at the party and their eyes had seen behind the painted scenery to look on terrors they could not forget.
All these various strands of memory have flowed together to make the formidable old woman in my head who is waiting to be realised. People often ask me where I get my characters from. It feels more as if they get me, these embryonic figures muttering to themselves and to each other. Some of them remain in the shadows, others step forward into the light where I can see and hear them clearly. Then it’s time to start a new novel.