The Confessions of Elisabeth Von S
Futura, London, 1979
The blurb on the back:
In 1933 Elisabeth, an innkeeper's daughter from Bavaria, marries Hugo van Stahlenberg, an aristocrat who works as a film director at the Ministry of Propaganda. For the next twelve years she records in her diary the rise and fall of the Third Reich as well as the daily life of a young wife and mother on the fringes of the Nazi hierarchy.
'Extraordinarily effective ... vastly clever and convincing' - San Francisco Chronicle
First up, you're going to have to forget the title, the subtitle and the cover, which all conspire to suggest something that might frankly be a little tacky. Focus your mind instead on the author, the very wonderful Gillian Freeman, creator of Jack Would Be A Gentleman, The Leader, The Leather Boys, The Undergrowth of Literature, and the screenplay for The Girl on a Motorcycle. Since she's one of Britain's finest post-War writers, you can surely trust that she's not going to let you down.
And indeed she doesn't. More than that, what she does is turn in an absolute solid gold classic piece of work, the best thing I have yet read by her. The sleeve notes set up the story (tell you more than they should, probably), but they don't capture the reality, the multi-faceted splendour of the character that Ms Freeman has created. At one level Elisabeth von Stahlenberg is a self-absorbed social climber, whose words read like a kind of Diary of a Nazi Nobody. Well, look, here she is being propositioned at a party:
Then again, there's the bathetic juxtaposition of the global and the local:
It's those wild swings between the personal and the political that make the book work. It feels so much like an authentic diary that for once the words 'a novel' on the cover look like a sensible health warning rather than a pretentious pose. And to enhance the feel, Ms Freeman has added footnotes to point out who's who and what's what, along the lines of 'She was quoting from memory. What he actually said was...' and so on.
Elisabeth is preposterous, but ultimately quite endearing in her ability to survive the vicissitudes of her era. Because the macro-story is so intimately familiar, the dramatic irony almost makes you sympathise with her as she plans for the future, and as she and her husband gaze upon their new-born son:
Ultimately the great strength is the thoroughly convincing depiction of a 'decent' German family in the midst of the Third Reich: she's completely devoted to Hitler, but worries about her son's ever-increasing interest in weapons and the Army and not quite sure why her husband (who works as a propaganda film-maker) has doubts over government policy.
I don't think I have the words to praise this sufficiently. It's a triumphant achievement that has forever coloured my perception of Germany in the '30s (particularly) and the '40s. Apart from anything else, the research is impeccable: you find yourself trying to catch it out and failing. (Though a footnote that mentions Litte From having 'a non-speaking role in the film version of Reinhardt's Sumurun in 1910' seems a tad tautological - weren't they all non-speaking roles?)
Recommended without reservation.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 5/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 5/5