Audrey Magee is a journalist, and choses to bring a journalistic style to her first novel, The Undertaking. Magee says she’d been brewing a novel about Germany in the war since she studied Germany and went to view a concentration camp with a Jewish acquaintance. She says she wanted to understand the war itself, and how people get caught up in war. And the title she’s chosen perfectly describes both the personal story in the book, and the setting she’s chosen for it; the advance on Stalingrad.
She says she met the aged ‘protagonist’ to her first novel in the restaurant he ran. He told her the story of how he’d married a photograph of his bride in a ceremony carried out by an army chaplain. The purpose of the marriage was to secure the leave for the groom and a widow's pension for the bride.
In her book, Peter Faber marries Katherina Spinell and is introduced to her father’s Nazi friend, Dr Weinart, who brings chocolate cream cake baked ‘by one of the Fuehrer's bakers’. Peter spends his honeymoon evenings beating up Jews and pushing then into the waiting trucks, and his nights making love to his new wife.
Magee says her decision to write in a taut, understated style was deliberate because she likes that sort of reading but also, as the new generation engaging with the past, was looking for a new way to explore the 2nd WW...and what it felt like to be a German at that time.
What she achieves is to create emotion in her reader without being emotional at all on the page. I found the darkness and the dry, bleak tone disconcerting, even frightening.
A considerable section of The Undertaking follows the advance of the German Eastern front towards Stalingrad. We see the siege through Peter’s eyes; starvation and disease followed by the chance to surrender, which he has to carefully argue through to enable himself to do this.
In the meantime, Katherina’s brother dies when he returns to the front still plaguing his battle fatigue, and their mother sinks into a deep depression, fuelled by the eventual discovery that her son-in-law has escaped death by surrendering. At home, the raids on Berlin lower the fortunes of the Spinell family, which had been increased by the removal of Berlin’s Jews to the camps. Katherina and Peter’s child dies of meningitis and, as Russia takes over their part of the city, she is raped.
This brings us to the ending, which was the only part of the novel I didn’t enjoy. I felt it was rushed and poorly thought through. I won’t spoil it for you, it’s enough to say that, in the body of the novel, the failure to explore the emotions of the characters – or rather the technique of exploring them only by reportage and dialogue – works well, bringing an honesty to the writing and reflecting the emotionless way the Jews of Berlin are dealt with…’Bloody thieves, the lot of them,’ says Katherina’s mother when she discovers the Jewish owned apartment they are given is bereft of jewellery. ‘They swallow it, you know. To hide it from us.’ But this lack of emotion doesn’t work at the close of the novel. I needed to see what the parties were thinking, and without the technique of interior monologue, there was no doing that. So we are left with decisions that felt weakened by our lack of participation in them.