Hugo Hamilton: 'Irish people saw me as this weird child with a German mother'

At the centre of the writer's new novel is Rebellion, a book nearly destroyed by Nazis

Irish-German writer Hugo Hamilton: ‘Writing about myself, it doesn’t work as well as fiction for me now.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Irish-German writer Hugo Hamilton: ‘Writing about myself, it doesn’t work as well as fiction for me now.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The inside of one house looks much like another down the barrel of a webcam, so when Hugo Hamilton tells me that he’s speaking to me not from Dublin, as I assumed, but Berlin, it shouldn’t be too surprising. (It’s only embarrassing to get the city wrong if you’re interviewing in person.) As to why he’s in Berlin, more of that later, but it’s apt enough for a writer who has always blended Irish and German interests in his writing.

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

The inspiration for The Pages, Hamilton says, was a true story. “I heard about this book [Rebellion] that had been rescued during the Nazi times, and had been kept safe.” Not only did he hear about it, but he encountered the book itself: “It was wonderful to hold this book in my hand and think of it as a survivor.” What it survived was book burning: like other Jewish authors, Roth’s work was destroyed by the Nazis in Germany.

Before he turned to fiction, Roth made his name as a celebrity reporter, particularly for the Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper, earning one Deutsche Mark per line

Having a book as narrator of The Pages is a neat trick: it can sit in the background of private conversations, unnoticed by the other characters and, best of all, it is unconstrained by a human lifespan. “It has allowed me to view the entire century, since the book was written in 1924. It’s a first-hand witness to an entire century.”

One pleasure of The Pages is in how Hamilton keeps several plates spinning, handing over from one story to another. He tells the story of the plot of Rebellion – helpfully, since the book is out of print in English and hard to get – which is about a first World War veteran Andreas Pum who becomes a barrel-organ player to make ends meet, but finds himself falling foul of the law and frustrated at every turn.

Rebellion reminded me, I suggest to Hamilton, of a realist version of Kafka, with its turns and twists. “You read Rebellion,” agrees Hamilton, “and you think, oh this guy must have read The Trial. But the Kafka book was actually published by the same publisher, a year after [Rebellion]. There is that neurosis, the bureaucracy and the small man not being able to contend with the power of the establishment that obviously fascinated Roth as well.”

Another strand of the book explores the lives of Roth and his wife, Friederike. (A note: I’ve read several of Roth’s novels over the years and had always said his surname like Philip Roth’s. In conversation with Hamilton, who is fluent in the language, I realise it is properly pronounced ‘Rote’, more or less.) Before he turned to fiction, Roth made his name as a celebrity reporter, particularly for the Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper, earning one 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, with Irmgard Keun and Stefan Zweig” – fellow star novelists of the Weimar Republic. Roth was never a man to settle down anyway: “He lived out of a suitcase. In the biographies there’s a moment where his publisher visits him in [his] apartment, and he’s just walking up and down in his coat, as if he’s at a train station.”

I went to the and asked for the case notes from the psychiatric 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 “eventually ended up in Paris, where he died in 1939” at the age of 44. “He became an alcoholic, like a lot of journalists in those days.” Indeed, Roth’s final, posthumously-published work of fiction, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, was pretty clear-sighted about his own travails, closing with the words, “May God grant us all, all of us drinkers, such a good and easy death!” But as a writer, alcohol “gave him a huge clarity”, says Hamilton, “and he kept his journalistic intuition, he kept politics, out of his novels.” Only Roth, he says, would have an everyman like a barrel-organ player as the central character in a novel. “You wouldn’t find Thomas Mann doing that!”

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

Hamilton says he felt Friedl “deserved better” than the dismissal previously given to her. “There’s a scene in the book where [Roth] goes to visit her, still believing that his love can rescue her from her illness.” So keen was Hamilton 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 psychiatric hospitals. And it was almost like meeting her in person, because she was interviewed by doctors all the time. You could see her failing, and her schizophrenia demonstrated in the files.” It was “extraordinary”, he says, “for a novelist to find something like that, which had never been written about before. So I was able to put those into the book.”

The third strand of The Pages is in the people who rescue the copy of Rebellion and look after it through the decades that follow. Here we get not only a thriller element – the bullet hole on the cover of The Pages is a clue to that – but several elements that show how our new century is not very different from the old one. In Germany in 1933, people were “rejoicing at this new anti-intellectual age in which you could stop thinking, when you no longer had to find out anything you didn’t already agree with”. On the contemporary subject of identity, in the book Roth “tries to shake off the construct of identity imposed on him from the outside”.

Irish people saw me as this weird Irish child with a German mother. And German readers thought, oh my God, there’s this German child stuck in Ireland! Having to speak Irish!

Roth’s writing on the Austro-Hungarian empire, says Hamilton, “describes a very idyllic diversity, which was all completely destroyed by the Nazis and the second World War. It’s the kind of diversity we now aspire to in Europe and America. It’s taken almost a hundred years for all that to come back again, for that wonderful mixture of peoples to be repaired.”

Hamilton himself is a one-man expression of cultural diversity. He was brought up in Ireland by a German mother and Irish father, speaking both languages but not permitted to use English at home. And although The Pages is his 10th novel, it was his memoirs of childhood and youth, The Speckled People (2003) and The Sailor in the Wardrobe (2006), that catapulted Hamilton into a wider readership. He doesn’t plan to write another memoir, he tells me – “there’s a limit to the amount of self-exposure” he wants to undertake. “Writing about myself, it doesn’t work as well as fiction for me now.” In any event, “all fiction is a version of yourself.”

For a writer who straddles two cultures, who sees himself, he says, as “a German-Irish writer”, I wonder how readers in the two countries regard his work. Are there any differences? “The responses are very similar in a lot of ways, but it was interesting with [The Speckled People], Irish people saw me as this weird Irish child with a German mother. And German readers thought, oh my God, there’s this German child stuck in Ireland! Having to speak Irish!”

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

The Pages is published by Fourth Estate on July 22nd

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