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When Imagination Fails

Writing fiction about the Third Reich poses moral quandaries for an author. Must the Nazis’ crimes stand front-and-center in a narrative if they’re going to appear at all? How much creative license may authors take with the historical record, if any? Two new novels arrive at very different answers to these questions.

All That I Am by Anna Funder (Harper, $25.99) movingly demonstrates the challenges of dramatizing this fraught era. The novel is a marvel of construction, with four main characters and a large supporting cast from the 1930s brought to life by a pair of narrators. The first is Ruth Becker, a German-Jewish refugee in London, whose circle of socialist dissidents risks their lives to expose the Nazis’ crimes to an apathetic world. Remarkably, these brave men and women, even Ruth’s cousin Dora, a feminist and socialist firebrand far ahead of her time, are drawn directly from history. The real Ruth was a friend of Funder’s and led her back to her old circle of famous friends and the copious, contemporary source material, all cited in Funder’s afterword, that captured their lives. Confined to what really occurred, Funder beautifully probes the psychological depths of her characters’ lives in a dramatic and detailed re-creation of how the Nazis rose to power and why the world, individuals and governments alike, failed to arrest the threat. The origin of Funder’s title gives a sense of the existential abyss at the center of the novel. “All that we are not stares back at all that we are,” the second of the narrators, Ernst Toller, a German WWI hero turned dissident, hears when the realization crushes him that, despite his efforts, Europe will fall to the Nazis.

The dismal but honest lesson of Funder’s book is how few people can even bear to stare down the abyss, let alone imperil themselves for the good of others. It takes the ability to see beyond oneself, which most of us lack. And, in Toller’s words, “when imagination fails, one is caught in a solecism as big as the world: the universe is reduced to a reflection of ourselves from which we cannot escape.”

Imagination fails for Elise Landau, the young Jewish refugee at the center of The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons (Penguin, $15). Elise’s descent from Viennese high society to English housemaid is a promising set-up. But when the heir of Tyneford begins to romance her, her daily concerns for assimilating and winning the hand of the heir come to occupy her more than the imperiled parents she left behind. Early in Tyneford there is a fascinating episode in a London employment agency where Elise encounters other Jewish refugees headed for domestic service. I would rather have followed one of the girls less likely to be distracted by the beauties of the English coast from the fire engulfing the world.

People like Elise, who allowed romance to blind them to war, were real and far more numerous than people like Ruth Becker and her circle. But Elise’s enlightened employers, who up-end the English class system and threaten their own position in order to permit the Jewish housemaid unheard-of freedoms, exist only in fiction. And when Tyneford devolves into a fairy tale, Solomons fails to remain true to history.

At the end of her life Ruth Becker reflects, “Imagining the life of another is an act of compassion as holy as any.” Here Becker refers to real people with their complicated joys and sorrows. Indeed, the responsibility of historical fiction is to carry forward the lessons of these real lives. Funder honors the work of the dissidents she represents by re-dramatizing for a forgetful world the Nazi crimes they tried to publicize. But Solomons lulls the reader back into the comforts of ignorance when she fictionalizes situations beyond what the historical record supports and mutes how her characters would have actually suffered. The problem is that a central lesson of the Nazi era is how easily people then succumbed to such white-washing and still believe there was far more goodness and bravery in that era than there actually was. Solomons’ novel may be a good yarn, but it’s Funder who performs the holy act of recalling the refugees’ lives as they really were for us, her readers, who inherited the world they endured.

Tammy A. Hepps is the founder of Treelines.com, a forthcoming web site for curating and sharing stories from your family tree.