“The Irish saw me as this strange child with a German mother”

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The interior of a house looks a lot like another in the barrel of a webcam, so when Hugo Hamilton tells me he’s not telling me about Dublin like I assumed but Berlin it shouldn’t be too surprising. (It’s only embarrassing to be wrong about the city if you’re interviewing in person.) As to why he’s in Berlin, later, but it’s quite fitting for a writer who has always mixed Irish and German interests in his writing.

And it’s doubly fitting that we get together to talk about his new novel, The Pages, which might as well have Ich bin ein Berliner watermarked throughout its chapters. It’s a book narrated by another book, and done in the most charming way. The novel at the center of the novel is a copy of Rebellion, by Austrian novelist Joseph Roth, first published almost a century ago.

The inspiration for The Pages, says Hamilton, was a true story. “I heard about this book [Rebellion] who had been rescued during the Nazi era and had been kept safe. Not only did he hear about it, but he discovered the book himself: “It was wonderful to hold this book in my hand and consider it a survivor. What he has survived is the fire-burning: like other Jewish authors, Roth’s work was destroyed by the Nazis in Germany.

Before turning to fiction, Roth made a name for himself as a famous journalist, especially for the Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper, earning one deutsche mark per line.

Having a book as the narrator of The Pages is an interesting trick – it can remain in the background of private conversations, unnoticed by other characters, and best of all, it is not limited by a human lifespan. “It allowed me to see the whole century, since the book was written in 1924. It is a direct testimony of a whole century.

One of the pleasures of The Pages is the way Hamilton spins multiple plates, moving from story to story. It tells the plot story of Rebellion – helpfully, since the book is out of print in English and hard to get – which is about a World War I veteran Andreas Pum who becomes a barrel organ player to join the make ends meet, but finds himself falling under the law and frustrated at every turn.

Rebellion reminded me, I suggest to Hamilton, of a realistic version of Kafka, with its twists and turns. “You’ve read Rebellion,” Hamilton agrees, “and you think, oh this guy must have read The Trial. But Kafka’s book was actually published by the same publisher, a year later. [Rebellion]. There’s that neurosis, the bureaucracy, and the little man unable to fight the power of the establishment that obviously fascinated Roth as well. “

Another part of the book explores the life of Roth and his wife, Friederike. (Note: I have read several Roth novels over the years and have always pronounced his last name as that of Philip Roth. As I chat with Hamilton, who is fluent in the language, I realize that he is pronounces “Rote” correctly, more or less.) Before turning to fiction, Roth made a name for himself as a famous journalist, especially for the Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper, earning a deutsche mark per line, but, says Hamilton, the rise of the Nazi Party meant “he had to go on the run and ended up in Holland, along with Irmgard Keun and Stefan Zweig” – fellow star novelists of the Weimar Republic. Roth was never a settling down man anyway: “He lived in a suitcase. In the biographies, there is a time when his editor visits him in [his] apartment, and he just goes up and down in his coat, as if he were in a train station.

I went to and asked for the case notes from the mental hospitals. And it was almost like meeting her in person, because she was interviewed by doctors all the time

Roth’s life was short – he “ended up in Paris, where he died in 1939” at the age of 44. “He became an alcoholic, like many journalists at the time. Indeed, Roth’s last posthumously published work of fiction, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, was quite lucid about his own suffering, ending with the words: “May God grant us all, all of us drinkers, one so good and easy death! But as a writer, alcohol “gave him great clarity,” says Hamilton, “and he kept his journalistic intuition, he kept politics out of his novels.” Only Roth, he says, would have an ordinary man like a barrel organ player as the central character in a novel. “You wouldn’t find Thomas Mann doing this!” “

But what interested Hamilton even more was Roth’s wife, Friederike (known as Friedl), who had been overlooked by early biographers; they saw her “almost as a footnote in his life, as an imposition or ‘the wrong person’ for an author like Roth.” Friedl, as The Pages painstakingly and painfully portrayed him, succumbed to a nervous breakdown and developed what has been called “progressive schizophrenia.” She spent much of the rest of her life in mental institutions until 1940, considered by the Nazis to be incurable and therefore “life unworthy of living”, she was taken to Schloss Hartheim near Linz in Austria, where, like so many others. Jews, was “taken straight to the showers and told to undress.”

Hamilton says he felt Friedl “deserved better” than the dismissal he had previously been granted. “There is a scene in the book where [Roth] goes to visit her, still believing that her love can save her from her illness. Hamilton was so eager to tell Friedl’s true story that he thought he had already finished the book when “I went to the archives in Vienna and asked for the case notes from the mental hospitals. And it was almost like meeting her in person, because she was interviewed by doctors all the time. You could see her fail and her schizophrenia demonstrated in the files. It was “extraordinary,” he said, “for a novelist to find something like that, which had never been written before. So I was able to put them in the book.

The third installment of The Pages is about the people who save the copy of Rebellion and deal with it for decades to come. Here we get not only one element of a thriller – the bullet hole on the cover of The Pages is a clue of that – but several elements that show how our new century is not very different from the old one. In Germany in 1933, people “rejoiced in this new anti-intellectual era where you could stop thinking, where you no longer had to discover anything that you were not already familiar with. agreement ”. On the contemporary subject of identity, in the book Roth “tries to shake up the construction of identity imposed on it from the outside”.

The Irish saw me as this strange Irish child with a German mother. And German readers thought, oh my God, there’s this German kid stuck in Ireland! Must speak Irish!

Roth’s writings on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, says Hamilton, “describe a very idyllic diversity, which was completely destroyed by the Nazis and WWII. This is the kind of diversity that we aspire to now in Europe and America. It took almost a hundred years for all of this to come back, for this wonderful mixture of peoples to be mended.

Hamilton itself is an expression of cultural diversity on its own. He was raised in Ireland by a German mother and an Irish father, speaking both languages ​​but not allowed to use English at home. And although The Pages is his 10th novel, it was his childhood and youth memoirs, The Speckled People (2003) and The Sailor in the Wardrobe (2006), that catapulted Hamilton into a wider readership. He has no intention of writing another memoir, he tells me – “there is a limit to the amount of self-exposure” he wants to undertake. “Writing about myself doesn’t work as well as fiction for me now.” Either way, “all fiction is a version of yourself”.

For a writer straddling two cultures, who considers himself, he says, “a German-Irish writer”, I wonder how readers in both countries view his work. Are there any differences? “The answers are very similar in many ways, but it was interesting with [The Speckled People], the Irish saw me as this strange Irish child with a German mother. And German readers thought, oh my God, there’s this German kid stuck in Ireland! Must speak Irish!

Which brings us back to Hamilton’s whereabouts: he’s in Berlin, where his son lives. “My son is repeating my whole story now,” he says, “because he married a woman from eastern Germany. And they now have a child, who is almost like one of us in the 1950s in Ireland – speaking part English and part German. Well, almost repeating his own story, but not quite: “She doesn’t have Irish yet,” he laughs. “She has been spared this complication for the moment!

The Pages is published by Fourth Estate on July 22

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