Manja by Anna Gmeyner is certainly not one of the happy, domestic Persephone titles but it may just be my favourite. It is the story of five young children, four boys and one girl, the eponymous Manja, growing up in Germany during the inter-war period. The novel begins quite wonderfully by describing the conditions under which of each of these children are conceived in 1920; each conception scene, be it the tender reunion of lovers or marital rape, instantly provides the reader with a powerful and accurate profile of the family and the circumstances into which the child will be born. It does not follow each of year of their development, instead checking back in at key points, coming to a tragic, if somewhat expected, conclusion in 1933 with the five children on the cusp of adolescence just as the NSDAP comes into power.
Gmeyner wrote this novel while living in London’s Belsize Park in 1938, a period her daughter Eva Ibbotson would later draw on when writing her delightful The Morning Gift (which I reread immediately before beginning this). Gmeyner had lived in Berlin during the early thirties, witnessing first hand the social, political and economic conditions that ultimately resulted in the destructive rise of German fascism. Gmeyner was in Paris in 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and moved from there to London, never actually living in Germany while it was under Nazi control. Her timelines of events may not always be strictly accurate but she is excellent at evoking the changing mood and the tensions that arose as the NSDAP gained popular support.
I think Gmeyner did a wonderful job of illustrating the power shift as the Nazis came into power but also, at the beginning of the novel particularly, showing how the First World War had impacted everyone, what mindsets it created that allowed for the dramatic changes about to take place. Gmeyner very clearly shows how the War and the Peace have shaped each father’s character. Dr. Heidemann, father of Heini, remembers the suffering and the waste of battle, the inhumanity and stupidity that allowed them to commit such acts and cannot quite contain his disappointment that no one seemed to have learnt anything from that awful experience:
‘After the war, you know, when we came home, I thought that what we had been through was finished, and wouldn’t come back, that it had gone forever, like a fire that has destroyed part of the world. People were burnt-out and sad, but at one time it looked as if the country had changed, had become wise and more humane. I don’t believe that anymore. It wasn’t true. Things went on smouldering. And now, slowly, it’s creeping back from all sides, now voices that were silent for a while are making themselves heard again, terrible frozen trumpets blasting out appalling tunes.’ (p. 177)
Liberal and intelligent, his resistance is on a very small scale, a case by case basis in response to what touches his life. It is men like him who should be the leaders of countries, the level-headed voices of compromise and sober judgment, but life has ground him down, and whatever actions he does take are too small and come too late. Meissner, father of Franz, on the other hand, is a fool and a coward, a rabid anti-Semite who heartily endorses and spreads the stab-in-the-back legend. His fortunes rise with the Nazi party and he gains immense individual power and influence as part of the collective. Hartung, father of Harry, is a ruthless, successful businessman but also half Jewish. In many ways, he is the perfect Nazi caricature of the Jewish money lender: he is happy to cheat, to bribe and to lie in order to increase his wealth, neglecting and abusing his family all the while and desperately wishing to forget his Jewish heritage. But he is doomed by his blood to lose all that he has worked and cheated to gain. The sympathetic, though rarely seen Mueller, father of Karl, is a communist factory worker who is first often unemployed and then in constant hiding because of his outspoken political beliefs until he is turned in by a neighbour. And then there is David Goldstaub, Manja’s father, a young Polish composer who survived pogroms as a child and the war as a young man only to be destroyed by his depression, killing himself the night Manja is conceived during a one-night stand. Lest you forget all this while reading, there’s even a legend at the front of the book, kindly reminding the reader of each family’s ideological allegiances and thereby underlining their importance to the narrative as a whole.
Though she lent her name to the title, Manja is not a particularly strong character here nor are any of the mothers. This is really a book about the four boys growing up and of their four fathers coming to terms with their place in Hitler’s Germany. All that is done wonderfully but I do wish Manja had been more developed as a character in her own right, rather than as the vessel for male admiration, reverence, and chivalry. She is firmly on a pedestal and so, of course, she is the one who becomes the victim, thus giving the offenses against her the maximum shock value for the boys.
Gmeyner’s familiarity with Germany during the period she is writing about makes the story all the more vivid and authentic, her émigré status allowing her a freedom to write honestly about the terrifying realities of contemporary Germany in the 1930s. She has an interesting and engaging writing style, creatively employing tenses and script-style passages of dialogue (often unspoken) to convey her story. Very readable and very enjoyable, this is my favourite Persephone to date.