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52 Books #10: The History of History

March 15, 2011

Born in Ohio, Ida Hattemer-Higgins now lives and works in Berlin, the setting for her debut novel The History of History (Faber). Central character Margaret Taub — who, like the author, works part-time as a tour guide to the city — wakes in a forest one morning, amnesiac, dirt under her fingernails. She knows something must have happened to bring her here, but she is content to return to her home and remain ignorant of exactly what. Two years later, however, she is contacted by a doctor she’s never heard of, who addresses her by a slightly different name — Margaret Täubner — and is keen to find out ‘her fate’. Margaret goes to visit the doctor, a gynaecologist named Dr Arabscheilis, and in an uncomfortable chapter (named ‘The Speculum’, which is already enough to make this reader wince) is forced, as part of some mysterious therapy the doctor is determined Margaret undergo, to watch a bizarre film in which a boy walks backwards from a lake on fire.

So far, so surreal: but the next morning Margaret wakes to a Berlin transformed, every building in the city made into flesh, a vision only she can see, and which threatens to ruin her career as a tour guide. From there, Margaret Taub or Täubner is drawn into a dark and vexatious world of magical visions, the undocumented casualties of the Holocaust, and her own tormented memories.

A lot happens in The History of History, most of it inside Margaret’s head. The surreal passages — fleshy buildings, talking bird-people, ropeladders that hang from the sky — mingle uncomfortably with the discussions of Berlin’s past and Margaret’s own family troubles. The reader who takes care to use the opening chapter as a lens through which to view what follows (I’ll confess I didn’t) will be largely unsurprised by the resolution to the mystery of Margaret’s strange awakening in the forest at the outset; few, however, will be prepared for the appearance on the page of Magda Goebbels transformed into very literalised sort of harpy, or for Margaret’s ride on the back of the Magda-bird (which had me recalling a very similar, utterly ludicrous, scene in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series). This is all fine in its own way, but Margaret’s responses to these bizarreries, even allowing for the fact that she is clearly traumatised and grieving, sometimes utterly fail to convince, and Hattemer-Higgins even draws attention to this. Here’s Margaret at the doctor’s surgery on page 17, reacting to an apparent stranger’s claim to have been concerned for her welfare: ‘Now it must be said: these words should have puzzled Margaret, and in any case should almost certainly have been corrected. Instead, Margaret accepted them like a gift. I have been concerned for you. Margaret, in her strange state, was so soothed, her loneliness so instantly assuaged, that she was almost willing to go along with the doctor unconditionally from that moment on.’ Leaving aside the repetition of ‘almost’ in the space of a few lines (unnecessary on both occasions), and the tooth-aching over-the-shoulder irony of ‘Now it must be said…’ (and this is by no means the only time the author condescends to her reader and character alike in this way); instead the problem is that ‘strange state’, which allows for a lot of unbelievably passive or meek responses to be excused throughout the book. At other points, in what seem the most uncomfortable or dangerous situations, Margaret sits demurely and listens to stories because, we’re told, she’s a sucker for them; more likely the author’s a sucker for telling them, and the reader a different kind for having them foisted on him.

Margaret’s growing obsession with Nazism, which sees her acquiring a samizdat German-language copy of Mein Kampf and reading through it for any passages which seem to mirror her own philosophy (not so much to school herself in Hitler’s mindset as to somehow convince herself even Hitler had his moments of common humanity), starts to seem a pretty full-on way for a novelist to make her mark. This is not to say that Hattemer-Higgins (nor any other writer) ought not to have tackled the themes she does, but this is a book which works rather better in summary — because of the traumas she undergoes, Margaret feels compelled to vilify herself and find parallels between her own life and behaviour and those of the worst people history can imagine — than in the execution. The magical fantasias, while striking, don’t really go anywhere (once transformed, the flesh-buildings just… are), while the uncovering of Margaret’s own history is partially achieved via a very clunky device involving the Hausmeister (concierge) of her apartment block, who just-so-happens to have acquired a series of significant letters which cast incriminating light on what precisely has befallen Margaret. (A hint: though terrible, it isn’t at all comparable with the horrors of war she reads about and obsesses over.)

Furthermore, the doctor’s insistence on addressing Margaret by a ‘new’ name signals we are in Paul Austerish literary-games territory, and sure enough Margaret on occasion sits down to read a fully transcribed story which, intended to cast some kind of light on the plot around it, really only serves to slow the book. The worst of these is the first, ‘The Whale Ducks’, a cumbersome fable about a distant future in which super-evolved giant ducks (no, really) put on puppet shows starring the perfectly preserved skeletons of the extinct human race. One has the sense of some very short vignettes or stories being incorporated none too carefully into this novel. The film of the boy and the burning lake Arabscheilis shows her in that early chapter is similarly something of a red herring.

What also rankles is the writing style, which is precious and pretentious, and often vacuous. It’s a book which begins, ‘The oceans rose and the clouds washed over the sky; the tide of humanity came revolving in love and betrayal, in skyscrapers and ruins, through walls breached and children conjured, and soon it was the year 2002’, and ends, ‘A passion spun upon her mood; her eyes jumped over and past the rigorous face of things known’, and offers precious little respite from Significant Prose inbetween. What is the meaning of the ‘rigorous face’ in that latter sentence? This is a book and a narrator in love with sonorous phrases — in some ways it’s laudable, and The History of History is certainly never flat or lacklustre prose-wise. After three hundred pages of this unrelenting stuff, though, the reader gets to feel as run-down as hallucination-beset Margaret herself: and while the last thirty-odd pages see Margaret’s secret unambiguously revealed, the payoff doesn’t feel weighty enough to justify what’s gone before, nor to account for the portentous tone in which events — some of them related to Margaret’s tragedy, many of them only alluding distantly to it, at best — have been described.

There’s clearly no lack of ambition in a first novel which seeks to tackle the internecine complexities of a family’s life and the horrors not just of history but of this particular period of history. That Hattemer-Higgins doesn’t pull off the task she’s set herself is almost inevitable. I didn’t, though I’ve been harsh, hate The History of History (though the last forty or so pages were a slog), but its tone does the book no favours, and everything the novel wants to do is swaddled and stifled by the most appalling pretentiousness, in evidence even on the front cover: the sheer hubris of giving this book the subtitle A Novel of Berlin makes me want to find out exactly how much of my fist I can insert into my mouth. More than any of these things, the enduring problem I had while reading The History of History was the discomfort I felt about Hattemer-Higgins co-opting historical tragedies, both known and underexposed, to tell an undeniably sad but very commonplace story.

Other reading in Week #10:

Paul Farley & Michael Symons Roberts Edgelands (Jonathan Cape)

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