Winnie and Wolf: A Novel

At the end of the first “act” of A. N. Wilson’s Winnie and Wolf, the year is 1925, and opera fanatic Adolf Hitler is in his seat in Bayreuth, entranced as only Wagnerians can be by the production of the last drama in the Ring cycle, Die Götterdämmerung. Richard Wagner’s widow, Cosima, is still alive, which means that the stagings of the operas are frozen as they were first devised by the maestro himself (“the same moth-eaten furs, the same cardboard swords, the same creaking chariots and the same unconvincing Rhine waves”) and that deviation from those original productions is an unpardonable blasphemy. Which means that the horse playing Grane is a living, breathing beast, even if the steed is in “no mood for four or five hours of a loud musical mediation on the nineteenth-century metaphysical crisis.” What did Hitler, mesmerized by the portents and omens, think when the equine divo relieved himself during the first appearance onstage of Brünnhilde and Siegfried? Or more dastardly, during the last scene, when the animal completely lost it, leaping on the corpse of Siegfried and crushing the ribs of the tenor Rudolf Ritter, a real-life disruption of the action on the stage, just as Brünnhilde was to make her sacrifice at her husband’s pyre? “That night in the sixth year of the Weimar Republic,” the narrator of the story writes, “we felt dread in our stomachs. We had witnessed destruction without resolution?noise rather than music; chaos come again.”

The tragic farce, or farcical tragedy, of the unholy marriage of Nazism and the Wagnerian “total artwork” is the subject of Wilson’s fabulously imagined history of their knotted, twined paths. In the 20th century, plenty of artists and intellectuals were mutually besmirched by fascism, and in some cases — Ezra Pound and Leni Riefenstahl, Knut Hamsun and Albert Speer — the flirtation led to what the French cunningly dubbed collaboration horizontale. Among the better known of these grotesque couplings was the mutual friendship and support existing between Winifred Wagner, the Welsh-born director of the annual festival of her father-in-law’s operas in the Wagnerian town of Bayreuth, Germany, and Hitler, an opera junky and devotee of the queer cult of drama and anti-Semitism that the Wagner clan stoked in the years after the composer’s death. Wilson’s genius is to make the strange-bedfellows conceit literal: the union of Winnie and Hitler — the Wolf of the title — results in a love child raised by the novel’s narrator, identified only as Herr N, an ex-philosophy student and former assistant (the frequent term he uses is “dogsbody,” British naval slang for “gofer”) to Winnie’s late husband, Siegfried.

The story of Winnie and Wolf takes the form of a long letter written in the early ’60s by N, then living under the gray horizons of East Germany, to his daughter, a musician who has fled the country, to explain her true identity (the question of whether the contents of this “disturbing” tale are authentic is raised by the Lutheran pastor in suburban Seattle who was given the epistle by the woman at her death in 2006). N’s confession is an odd one — too novelistic to be taken at face value, yet too replete in fascinating detail and too eager to milk the compelling anecdote and digression of its humor and irony to be a hoax — but it nonetheless presents a compulsively inconclusive picture of what drew the two ultimate outsiders, Winnie and Wolf, together. In doing so, the story of the child they produced becomes virtually a cipher for the fate of Germany before and after the Nazi reign.

N’s text is an intellectual tour de force, weaving together the history of philosophy, the political story of Germany after World War I, and the particular place of “that most German of the arts,” high music, in the imagination of its greatest, if creepiest, enthusiasts and promoters. It encompasses biographical sketches of Liszt and Nietzsche, who pathetically embarks on shopping sprees for kitschy tchotchkes for Cosima and Richard; of the mad King Ludwig and the mad anti-Semite Houston Stewart Chamberlain; of Goebbels and Himmler and Ernst Röhm, the perverted SA leader purged during the Night of the Long Knives. No less than all that, it is a sort of cultural essay on Wagneriana, providing a fascinating foray into the composer’s biography and musicology, as well as a fabulously readable history of the operas, their dramatis personae, and the changing theories of their scoring, staging, and set design.

For all those cerebral balls in the air, Wilson creates a fictional narrator who is no less likable for all his inability to come to terms with the past, that hoary bête of the German soul in the wake of the greatest catastrophe of the century. Only slowly does N tell us of the tragic fates of his clerical family, all of them “good Germans” who suffer torture and death for their principled awakening and resistance to National Socialism. Nor is N’s Hitler a cardboard cutout of evil personified, the devil incarnate most recently portrayed by Norman Mailer, in The Castle in the Forest, as a young man fascinated by gassing bees. The Wolf of Winnie and Wolf is first seen as a doting family friend, a “playful uncle” to Winnie’s children as he constructs little puppet theater productions of stories from Grimm for them. If this Wolf — a sweaty, flatulent bumbler in a shiny blue suit — stretches credulity and is totally out-of-sync with the masochist the reader encounters peeking behind the curtain of N’s letter, the contradiction is key to N’s own particular disease of vision, which might be called a clear-sighted blindness.

Indeed, the dog-loving future Führer of Winnie and Wolf is among the most compelling Hitlers drawn to this point in literature. N spends a novel’s length in his letter trying to understand, or at least explain, his own spaniel devotion to Winnie and his butler-like inability to see the monstrous Wolf for what he is. If he fails ultimately at that task, he is provided a glimpse as to the reckoning of the two as he and his wife drive through Bayreuth after the city has been leveled by Allied bombers toward the end of the war. Refugees have inhabited the town, in search of food and clothing, and scavengers have ransacked the opera house, where they purloin the costumes. “So it was, as Helga and I made our painful pilgrimage across the remains of the city centre, that we passed fur-clad Siegfrieds and Siegmunds; Grail Knights in pale-grey cloaks adorned with scarlet crosses; medieval Nurembergers clad for a song contest; pilgrims coming from Rome to tell Tannhäuser that he was redeemed?. Wagner, who had come here to stage his dream dramas, now watched as they escaped the theatre and spilled over into a ruined word.” The moment of art filling up the bloody world, becoming virtually interchangeable in fact, is long anticipated by Wilson’s two titular characters throughout his novel — a moment the reader knows is always coming but is no less stunning when it finally appears.