One should never claim to be so grizzled and cynical that the emotive force of a book cannot reach out and firmly tug the heartstrings, writes David Robinson
I’m guessing that Alan Little isn’t easily moved to tears when chairing Book Festival events. I’m not either, even in the anonymous dark of the back seats. Yet there we were, damp-eyed at exactly the same time, and the rest of the packed audience listening to Thomas Harding talk about his book, The House by the Lake, along with us.
And why? It’s odd, because all he was telling us about were the ordinary lives that passed through a little one-storey chalet by a lake half an hour west of Berlin. It was built by Harding’s great-grandfather, a Jewish society doctor, as a weekend retreat after he’d come back from the First World War, where he had won the Iron Cross. We knew what was coming, of course, how he wasn’t going to believe his fellow-Germans would fall for that toothbrush-moustached demagogue until was almost too late, but we didn’t know the details. And it’s the details that matter. Remember Anne Frank? We can’t comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust but we can understand a teenage Jewish girl who is banned from ice-skating because she has to wear a yellow star.
So those details pile up, and we see how the house by the lake at Groß Glienicke is a perfect microcosm of German history. The neighbour, a music publisher who has a good time through the Nazi years, who says he doesn’t support the Nazis but writes letters offering to buy Jewish businesses. The doctor’s daughters who suddenly find they’re not allowed to train as journalists. After Kristallnacht, when the first Jews in Berlin were marched off to concentration camps, the family flits to England.
Ordinary lives, all of them. And here come more, as the house, post-war, is now (just) in communist East Germany and occupied not by middle-class Jewish second-homers by two much poorer families, one with a ne’er-do-well father asked to spy for the Stasi. In 1960, the state builds the Anti-Fascist Protective Wall between the back of the chalet and the lake: barbed wire, roads, patrols – the works, and a pass needed just to live there. The local kids play at throwing stones to trigger the tripwires by the wall and set off alarm rockets. One grows up to be an athlete. The state pumps “vitamin pills” into him that wreck his health.
But now it’s 1989 and the Berlin Wall comes down and hippies move in and wreck the chalet. Harding knows that, to his beloved grandmother, it was a place of hope and remembered happiness and he wants to restore it to what it was. But his family is divided, some of them thinking it’s a waste of time, that the council can only get funds if it is declared a culturally important monument and well… is it? These were all ordinary, insignificant people, after all.
Yet this is where the story swings round towards hope, where the tears begin to form. Because the locals join his cousins in tidying up the place, getting rid of the old washing machines dumped outside, cleaning up the drug den. The day the Brexit result was announced, news came through that they’d got a 140,000 euro grant. Why? Because in the last two years Germany has been taking in millions of refugees. Nine of them are Harding’s cousins from Syria. So the house by the lake will now be a cultural centre not just for Jews but Muslim refugees too, with a new building that will house 50 students and an information centre about those very ordinary people who had once lived there. “My hope,” said one of Harding’s cousins, “is that in 50 years’ time, I can go back to my house in Damascus and do the same thing.”
I’ve spent so long on just one event because it answered questions that ran throughout Saturday’s events. What is home? What matters about our culture? How do we learn from history? What can we ever tell about the future?
Last question first, and here comes Lionel Shriver, “the Mystic Meg of modern literary fiction” as Ruth Wishart described her – accurately enough given that her recent novels have been ahead of the curve on topics such as school massacres, obesity and health care. Talking about The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047, Shriver fleshed out a dystopia beginning in just 13 years’ time in which America has defaulted on its debts and the line between civilisation and its opposite has proved every bit as thin and permeable as all those residents of the house by the lake found out that it was – so much so, in fact that Mexico has built a wall to keep the Americans out.
She wrote the novel, she insisted, before Trump started running for president (“perhaps he got hold of a proof copy”), and while it gives free rein to her inventiveness, there’s enough in there to worry anyone. All the stats about how few working people there will be to pay for the pensioners of 2047 are, she says, based on existing predictions, and they’re every bit as scary as the fact that only about eight per cent of all those billions we’ve been creating through quantitative easing seems to have found its way into the mainstream economy.
Yet the arts and the life of the mind is always more important than getting and spending, as any event with Jeanette Winterson will always make clear. Oxford academic Emma Smith had earlier shown, in what was effectively a biography of Shakespeare’s First Folio, how individuated and varied our responses to it have been over the last four centuries, but she could have used A Gap in Time, Winterson’s novelistic reworking of A Winter’s Tale, as a case in point. Shakespeare’s penultimate play is, says Winterson, is “basically Othello on speed”, but instead of having an outsider (Iago) do all the damage, Leontes does it all himself – so, in a way that anticipates Freud, he returns to the past to sort it out and seek forgiveness. And because that forgiveness comes through Perdita – adopted, remember, by a Bohemian shepherd – it’s small wonder that to Winterson (also adopted, albeit by an anti-bohemian fundamentalist) the play has always carried a deeper personal meaning since she first read it 40 years ago in Accrington library.
Earlier, in a hugely enjoyable event, journalist Melanie Reid and Gregor Fisher outlined another adoption story – a particularly complex one which meant that by the time he was four Fisher had three different sets of parents. He hates tabloid journalists and Reid used to be one (though she’s now one of Britain’s classist columnists): it hardly seemed an ideal pairing. Yet after a wary start, they took off together, untangling – in a different register to Harding, yet in a fundamentally similar way – the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. “Don’t make it like Angela’s Ashes,” Fisher told her at the start. She hasn’t; The Boy From Nowhere is a far better book.
Of all Saturday’s events, though, there was only one that ended with a standing ovation. Edinburgh being Edinburgh, these are always rare. Yet when the last bars of the music faded in Michael Morpurgo: The Mozart Question – in the children’s programme, but one of those through-the-line events with an equal number of adults in the audience too – I was one of the first on my feet. It was superb.
Morpurgo, as well as being the first children’s laureate and a compelling writer, is no mean actor too. He played a Venetian maestro who explained to an arts journalist (Alison Reid) why he had always refused to play Mozart. The adults in the room would have guessed ahead of the children that the answer was going to take us back to the horrors of the Holocaust that always lay just that little bit out of sight from the house by the lake. A young string quartet, The Storyteller’s Ensemble (Daniel Roberts, Sijie Chen, Charlotte Bonneton, Christopher Graves, with Daniel Pioro as soloist) played Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart brilliantly, but in a way I have never heard before – where the audience’s emotional response to it was both weighed down and then gloriously released – by the story. Yes, tears again. And I insist, I really am not the type.