Göring at Carinhall
Some of Göring’s looted art
The novel was written in the mid- to late-1980s (although significantly rewritten much later.) This was the era of Thatcher, and the influence of her policies is mentioned, but mainly in passing. It is certainly not a political novel in any ideological sense, although there might be some hints of a moral judgment.
The novel, for what it is worth, is more concerned with history and culture and the need for mystery and wonder in a prosaic world. These are certainly the preoccupations of Philip Hart, the main character.
As to the inspiration for it, that partly comes back, as so much still does, to World War Two. There are ignoble reasons for being obsessed with what was the worst event in human history, but it has a valid fascination.
It was not just a war of simple fighting. It was a war of technology, a war of spies, a war of resistance, a war of ideology, a war of propaganda, a war of civilians, a war of women. And a war of theft, and not just the theft of lives and land. The Nazis were also great plunderers of art, including works officially designated as degenerate and supposedly fit only for burning. (Lynn H. Nicholas' The Rape of Europa is probably the best book on the subject.)
Wherever they went they pillaged the great museums, of course, but also the palaces, the country houses and the hunting lodges, before reducing them to fire-blackened shells. Hermann Göring in particular benefited, filling his Carinhall mansion north-east of Berlin with stolen art. Another of his passions was hunting, which he indulged in at his country estate at Rominten in East Prussia, as described in the Prologue to my book, until war intervened.
In due course, as that war turned against them, the Nazis’ own cultural heritage suffered similar – if less pre-meditated – depredations. That included the old Prussian Junker estates recalled in the Prologue and symbolised by the atmospheric cover image of the Finckenstein Palace, home to the Dohna family, which was despoiled and burnt by the vengeful soldiers of the Red Army as they fought their way west towards Berlin.
For me, much closer to home, this kind of loss was evoked by Kirby Hall, near to where I lived in Northamptonshire in the 1980s. It had been the home of the Hatton family, very much in favour at the time of Elizabeth I, but debts rather than the ravages of conflict meant the building fell into disuse and disrepair, open to the sky, which is how it was when I used to walk round it, imagining the long-gone wall hangings, jewelled decorations and ancestral paintings.
There is, I think, quite a similarity in the two images, and the inherent sense of loss, although the downfall and ruin of Kirby Hall was much more prosaic than that of the Finckenstein Palace, which had once hosted Napoleon.
Around that time I took a booze-cruise boat trip (all in the line of sober duty) from Felixstowe to Gothenburg, so skirting the edge of the continent and prompting thoughts of its dark past. That combined with Kirby Hall as an example of ruin to produce a bad poem, albeit with a few good lines. The dumb idea occurred to me, given I had some time on my hands, that it could be turned into a novel, the better to explore the notion of a lost culture, and bashed out 90,000 words on a typewriter.
No-one thought enough of it at the time to publish it, and life intervened, so it was put away in a drawer for a few decades. Darwin did the same with On the Origin of Species, but I wouldn’t push that comparison very far at all.
I did write about a third of a second novel, and each new year promised myself I would finish that, but never did, and then in late 2018 I realised trying to improve the one I had completed was a better notion. Not least because I could expand on ideas from some of my reading in the intervening years to provide what I hoped was a greater resonance.
Most of these books are mentioned in the novel's Postscript, in relation to the light they shed on specific incidents or significant vignettes. The other factor was the arrival by then of cyberspace, with all the scope for checking historical details.
What had been planned as some delicate tinkering turned into extensive rewriting, taking more than a year and adding several thousand words. As the featured review on the Home page indicates, the resulting novel does not fit neatly into one genre. There is a mystery at its heart, but it is not a quest thriller.
As to my two epigraphs, Olaf Stapledon is perhaps not much talked about nowadays, but had a considerable influence on science-fiction writers such as Arthur C Clarke and Brian Aldiss. As befits a philosophy lecturer his books are speculative rather than machine- or alien-orientated, and Last and First Men charts mankind’s progress from what for Stapledon was then the near-future of the 1940s to its demise two billion years further on.
There may be some revival of interest in his books in the wake of a film inspired by Last and First Men directed and scored by the now sadly dead Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, with narration by Tilda Swinton. It is not a conventional linear work but eerie and meditative. My epigraph, although not used in the film, is the last sentence of what is in effect the funeral oration for humanity given by the last-born of the Last Men.
I did Vol de Nuit at school, although I cannot remember if that particular edition had the Gide preface from which the epigraph is taken. For those who don’t know the story, it concerns the extremely hazardous job of flying airmail routes across South America in the early days of commercial aviation.
St-Exupéry had done that job in North Africa, and later surveyed routes in South America itself. In Vol de Nuit the pilots risk their lives in what by modern standards are primitive machines, sublimating their freedom to the hard duty of duty of getting the post delivered on time.
Having survived some peacetime crashes, St-Exupéry disappeared on a reconnaissance flight from Corsica in 1944, with wreckage from his unarmed aircraft being found on the seabed near Marseille in 2000. Based on that location and the type of aircraft, a Luftwaffe fighter pilot, ironically an admirer of St-Exupéry’s work, came forward to say he believed he had shot him down, but there has been no corroboration. The significance of both Gide and Saint-Exupéry in francophone literature is evidence by the commemorative stamps shown here.
Finckenstein Palace in daylight