The History of History

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Overview

A ferociously intelligent debut novel about a young amnesiac’s descent into madness in contemporary Berlin, and a country wrestling with its dark past.

A young woman named Margaret stumbles one morning from a forest outside Berlin, hands dirty, clothes torn. She can remember nothing of the night in the woods, nor—she soon realizes—anything of the previous months. She returns home to her former life.

Two years later, she receives a letter from a...

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The History of History

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Overview

A ferociously intelligent debut novel about a young amnesiac’s descent into madness in contemporary Berlin, and a country wrestling with its dark past.

A young woman named Margaret stumbles one morning from a forest outside Berlin, hands dirty, clothes torn. She can remember nothing of the night in the woods, nor—she soon realizes—anything of the previous months. She returns home to her former life.

Two years later, she receives a letter from a mysterious doctor, who summons her to an appointment, claiming to be concerned for her fate. Margaret keeps the appointment, but when she leaves the doctor’s office, the entire city is transformed. Nazi ghosts manifest as preening falcons; buildings turn to flesh; reality itself wheels.

This is the story of Margaret’s race to recover her lost history—the night in the forest, and the chasm that opened in her life as a result. Awash in guilt, careening toward a shattering revelation, Margaret finds her personal amnesia resonating more and more clamorously with a nation’s criminal past, as she struggles toward an awakening that will lead her through madness to the truth, and to the unanswerable agony of her own actions.

Ida Hattemer-Higgins has written a novel about amnesia—individual, cultural, historical—about memory and oblivion, fantasy and reason, myth and redemption in our time. An unforgettable story from a bold and prodigiously gifted young talent.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A promising premise flatlines in Hattermer-Higgins's overwrought debut. Margaret Taub, a young American woman awakens in a forest outside Berlin in September of 2002 with a several-month-long blank spot in her memory. Two years later, after a letter, addressed to a "Margaret Täubner," arrives at her apartment, confirming an upcoming appointment with a doctor Margaret has never heard of, she meets the doctor, a gynecologist, who treats Margaret with uncomfortable familiarity and insists on serving as her "memory surgeon." The next morning, Berlin has "transformed into flesh," and, as Margaret negotiates the menacingly alive city, she is plagued by a mysterious feeling of guilt, all the while becoming increasingly obsessed with Magda Goebbels, the wife of Hitler's propaganda minister, and the possibly parallel story of Regina Strauss, a Jewish woman who committed suicide along with her husband and children. It doesn't take long for this novel to come undone, its magical realism and overly precious tone mixing uneasily with its ponderous claims about ethics and memory. Also problematic are the final revelations about Margaret's past, which are intended to be shocking and enlightening, but are instead burdened with insistence on meaning. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

Praise for Ida Hattemer-Higgins’s The History of History
 
“Hattemer-Higgins rangy assemblage of narrative voices is virtuosic. . . . The History of History offers persuasive evidence of an erudite and fiercely self-examining writer.”
—Jan Stuart, The Boston Globe
 
“[An] eerie, brilliant novel. . . . Hattemer-Higgins shows her kinship with H. G. Adler. . . . A remarkable achievement.”
—Sam Sacks, San Francisco Chronicle
 
“[A] profound and unsettling first novel.”
—Anna Mundow, The Boston Sunday Globe
 
“[A] bold debut novel . . . full of harrowing twists—and proves a brilliant rumination on trauma and identity.”
—Carmela Ciuraru, More magazine
 
“A multilayered narrative that finally resolves into a tale of personal trauma. . . . compelling, both in its lyrical prose and in the mystery that it lays out.”
—Charlotte Ryland, The Times Literary Supplement
 
“Take note of this novel. . . . An astonishing act of creation, and a remarkable debut. . . . It’s breathtakingly good, passionate writing, but at the same time it’s carefully considered, almost ruthless prose. . . . Hattemer-Higgins’s world building already reads like that of an experienced master. Her corporeal Berlin comes to life on the page. . . . She doffs a postmodern cap to Salman Rushdie, Kafka, and Angela Carter with her magical realism style, and . . . Yann Martel.”
—A. J. Kirby, New York Journal of Books
 
“A stunning portrait of a person sinking deeper into insanity.”
—Michael H. Miller, The New York Observer
 
“With unbridled imagination and exquisite command, Hattemer-Higgins explodes the concept of remembrance. . . . A bewitching and unnerving novel stunning in its artistry, audacity, and insight.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist
 
“An impressive creative exploration of the history of Berlin and the Third Reich . . . for adventurous readers.”
—Joy Humphrey, Library Journal
 
“In The History of History, Ida Hattemer-Higgins tells a profound and heartbreaking story about love and identity, but she also accomplishes something even more marvelous and rare: she conjures a world that is entirely her own. Hattemer-Higgins’s Berlin is hallucinatory and intricate dreamscape crafted over the ruins of history, an otherworld in which Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jorge Luis Borges, and W. G. Sebald would all feel right at home. As compulsive, beautiful, and revelatory as your most unforgettable dreams, The History of History is a masterpiece.”
—Stefan Merill Block, author of The Story of Forgetting
 
“Brilliantly disorienting and as pure-pleasure page-turning as any thriller, The History of History renews for us that old wisdom that the past is not dead, it’s not even past. Ida Hattemer-Higgins’s tale and talent will haunt you.”
—Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
 
“There is a melancholy in strange cities, an absence of anchors that lets an emptiness sift in. In The History of History, Margaret Taub is adrift in Berlin, her friends, family, and the last few years all lost to her, creating a vacuum that the shadows of the city and of her own family rush in to fill. This is a lovely, haunted book.”
—Zachary Mason, author of The Lost Books of the Odyssey
 

Library Journal
Margaret, a young American living in Germany, wakes up one morning in the Grunewald Forest, disheveled, disoriented, and with no memory of what happened. Then she slowly descends into madness. While giving walking tours of Berlin, she sees the buildings as pulsating flesh. She obsessively researches the life of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels's wife, Magda, and begins seeing her on windowsills as a monstrous bird woman who taunts her. She talks to mirrors and ponds, where she sees a dead Jewish woman who killed herself and her family during the Holocaust. As Margaret's frenzied search for her identity intensifies, the narrator unveils stories within stories that eventually lead to the horrifying truth of that day in the forest. VERDICT Hattemer-Higgins's debut novel is a heavyweight exploration of evil set in a delusional world that's at times oppressive in its relentlessness. That said, the author offers an impressive creative exploration of the history of Berlin and the Third Reich. Recommended for adventurous readers of historically themed novels. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/10.]—Joy Humphrey, Pepperdine Univ. Law Lib., Malibu, CA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307272775
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/18/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Ida Hattemer-Higgins was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. She studied German and Chinese literature in New York, then left the United States in 2001. In the time since, she has lived in Japan, India, and Sweden, and for the past seven years has been a student of literature in Berlin, where she has also worked as a walking-tour guide and translator. She now divides her time between Berlin and Moscow. This is her first novel.
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Read an Excerpt

Part I

Flesh

The coming awakening stands like the Greeks’ wooden horse in the Troy of dream.

—Walter Benjamin

one • The Persistence of Documents

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. On an early morning in September of that year, in a forest outside Berlin, a young woman woke from a short sleep not knowing where she was. Several months of her life had gone missing from her mind, and she was as fresh as a child.

She sat upright. Her hair was long, her clothes made for a man: stiff trousers, a slouch hat, and a long woolen overcoat, although underneath she wore a pair of high-heeled boots.

South of her chin was the body of a harem girl—a luxurious body moving lithely, ripe with the knowledge of its strength, youth, and loping good health. Her face, on the other hand, was the face of a mandarin, overcome with sensitivity and perpetual nervous fatigue. The dirty postcards of the French fin de siècle sometimes show women of this kind: even while offering their bodies with abandon, such females wear faces charged with the pathos of intellect, growing kittenish with leery, fragile, world-weary grins. All in all, Margaret looked like someone who would find trouble, or in any case already had.

The night hung low. Margaret cast her eyes about and saw the birches. She reached for her bag—a leather briefcase lying slack beside the tree she leaned against—and noticed in the movement that her hand ached. Both her hands hurt, and she did not know why.

For want of a better idea, she stood up and began to walk. Twigs cracked under her high-heeled boots. The sound startled her.

She came to a brook and put the bag on her shoulder and her hands down on the stones and picked her way across on all fours. The woolen overcoat dragged in the water. She saw by the aging moonlight that came through a break in the young pines that her palms and fingers were rubbed deeply with dirt, so deeply it looked as though they were tattooed with it, although the skin of her wrists was clean and shining.

Margaret found the edge of the forest as the day came, as the air turned grey and smoky. The slash of birdcall was shrill; it blotted out her thoughts for a while, and she stopped wondering what had happened in the night.

She found a dirt road, and then asphalt, villas, green awnings, slate roofs, wheelbarrows and hibernating rosebushes, and finally Grune- wald Station.

By the time she was riding the train homeward into the city, Margaret was becoming afraid again, but after a new style. No longer did the threat sit at her throat. Now it lay in the marrow of things. She saw a perfectly miniaturized beech leaf pasted with wetness on her sleeve, and it seemed a souvenir of bad and mysterious things. She looked at her dirt-printed palms and did not know why the dirt. She shifted her body on the plastic seat and felt the drag of wet fabric, pulled aside the overcoat and heavy red scarf. She saw her clothes patched with bluish pine needles sticking to the wetness, and on the hem a displaced ladybug made its slow way, and she did not know why there was evidence of so much nature, of so much disorder.

The roofers, the chimney sweeps, the deliverymen on the early morning train—they looked at Margaret’s windswept face and saw an expression rarely seen. There she was in her heavy wool, her face with its broken parts even heavier, and you could almost see it: she was crushing under the strain, trying to modernize herself to match the day. Some fine imperative had gone missing.

The S-Bahn train pulled into Zoo Station and paused. The cold air rushed through the open doors. With a heave of strength and puffed screech, an intercity train came to a halt on the neighboring track, and a platform clock struck six with an audible spasm of the minute hand. There was a chime over the loudspeaker: the announcement of departures to Lyon, to Trieste, even to Amsterdam, and the crowd on the platform shifted like a hive.

The doors shut and the train slipped into motion. Margaret looked out through the milky graffiti scratched in the window. There was the glory of the morning city, and soon, intermittent through the trees, the gilded angel in the park caught the light. A woman walked under the bridge in the Tiergarten, on cobblestones the same color as the automatic pigeons picking between them. She wore a narrow white scarf and pushed a pram, and her hair blew up toward the sky with the wind.

Margaret looked away. She looked down at her knee. She saw the red and black insect crawling there. She frowned. Her lips turned under. She felt a fury and an envy and a sense of starvation. She reched down, and with two fingers, she lifted the checkered insect and held it in her hand.

She closed her eyes, but there was no escape.

She hauled her eyes open again. Sleep frightened her as well. She looked out the window through smarting eyes, her right hand cradling the crawling beetle, and then she saw, but now in the far distance, the woman with the white scarf, and again the wind lifted the woman’s hair toward the sky, and it was like a scream.

All it took was a tightening—the red and black beetle became a streak of syrup on her hand.

She could not help it: Margaret slept, sinking deeper toward the window, her knees nudging the knees of the woman opposite, the membranes of her eyelids so pale they were translucent to the shock of the sun. She dreamt terrible dreams.

She woke up at the end of the line at Ahrensfelde, in the grasses and trees again, but the morning was no longer in its early tooth, and she was on the eastern edge of Berlin instead of the west. She had slept through her transfer at Friedrichstrasse. It was a train employee who woke her. He asked to see her ticket. Margaret jerked her head up. She reached into the breast pocket of her heavy man’s overcoat and found an American passport, soaked through and reeking. She fingered the pocket on the other side and found a laminated student ID with its semester train ticket.

When she got home to her apartment in Schöneberg, she was so light that, moving toward the bedroom, she hardly had to walk, lifted by a wave and thrown against the surf.

One Margaret, then, a more solid one, pulled herself under the covers and slept hungrily, and another one, a shadow of the sleeping girl, went into the wardrobe and took everything out. She carried it all down to the courtyard and heaved the clumps of clothing indiscriminately into the trash. She came back up to the bedroom, where she slipped in with the sleeping Margaret again, and they were one.

When the reunified Margaret awoke from the third sleep, it was a new planet. On this new planet, she went back to her old life.

TWO • The Glass Globe

Margaret Taub was her name, and she worked at Hello, Berlin! as a walking-tour guide. Every day she marched a gaggle of tourists across the length of Berlin—around Hackescher Markt and over the Museum Island, in single file down Unter den Linden, through the Brandenburg Gate, south beyond the dust-white construction sites, and along the path of the disappeared Wall. Later they cut through vacant lots to the remains of the Nazi ministries, and ended finally sometimes at the buried bunker of Adolf Hitler, sometimes at Checkpoint Charlie. It all depended on the tour’s theme.

Along the way, Margaret told the customers about the comedies and tragedies of Berlin: the erstwhile cabarets on the Friedrichstrasse and the tirades of Honecker; the night in 1989 when the Wall fell and the night in 1938 when the synagogues burned; the afternoon in 1967 when the students came out for the Shah’s visit; the night in 1919 when Freikorps soldiers clubbed Rosa Luxemburg with rifle butts and threw her into the canal to die.

In the weeks after her emergence from the Grunewald forest, Margaret gave the tours as she always had, and in some ways it was like old times. But the days grew colder, the trees wept their leaves, and—who could say why—she grew strange. She no longer made eye contact with her customers. And whereas before, if she had avoided their gaze, it was because she was either cocky or the reverse of cocky, something like a child frightened of its own precocity, now the inner mechanism had changed. When Margaret’s eyes slid off toward the far horizon these days, it was without a trace of flirtation.

The fact was this—she was entering a kind of trance. Walking the city, she encouraged the events she spoke of to crowd up against her eyes, and everything glimmered. Flames blackened the Reichstag when she looked over to it; on Friedrichstrasse there were nothing but dancing girls in nude tableaux; at the Pergamon, day after day, Peter Weiss was creeping in on his way to clandestine meetings with his fellow socialists, and it was all vivid, and it was all a balm.

Even the so-called present was unnaturally animated. On the street once called Hermann-Göring-Strasse, they were clearing a site for a giant memorial during the months of her “convalescence,” and every time she went by it with the tourists, the site had changed a little and seemed to be growing like a garden. All the pictures of the stages of its growth came together as she walked along its flank, and played before her eyes with the whirring breeze of a flip book.

As for her customers—not looking at them, it became possible not to notice a single one. Sometimes a bolder of their number, usually a gregarious Australian, would trot beside Margaret from site to site, and ask what she, Margaret, an American, was doing in Berlin. It was not that Margaret failed to answer, but these days she replied by rote, almost as if it were part of the official tour script. She had moved to Berlin six years ago to study history at the Freie Universität, she would say. No, she never went back to her native New York. To which the customer would show surprise. She was so young, never going home—what about her family? Didn’t they miss her?

At this, a strange transaction would occur. Margaret would fix the customer with a gaze of the profoundest curiosity and pity, as if the customer had not asked a question but rather confessed to some rare and grotesque character trait. A moment later, her face would change very abruptly again, and it would become apparent that the look of curiosity had been an act. Although there was no hint of malignance or mockery in the deception, the piece of theater would strike the customer, who had merely been trying to be friendly, as somehow cruel. This was the only sort of unkindness that Margaret ever served up, but it was something she did more and more.

And the customer, downright uncomfortable then, because after the disappearance of all expression, Margaret’s face gaze was likely traveling—with a bird as it crossed the sky, or flipping back and forth together with a flag at the top of a ministry as it rattled in an oceanic wind—the customer might continue to chatter, voluble and embarrassed, still banging on the same pot. But oh, were her parents still in New York? Didn’t she go home for the holidays at least? No, she would reply, somewhat dreamily. She never went “home” (you could hear the quotation marks in her voice); she did not get along with her mother. And her brothers and sisters? She did not have any. At which point, if it had reached such a point, Margaret would turn and pull back, her face white, and make a quick head count before leading the group further on to the next site, or beginning to lecture in her large, artificial voice.

If there had ever been a time when the customers might have made another type of miscalculation and assumed Margaret was one of those alert and artistic young expatriates of the kind that showed up in such numbers in Berlin in the 1990s—to open galleries in bombed-out ruins, found clubs under manhole covers, form neo-glam bands and squat in abandoned apartment houses as the ill-used city rose capersome, a recovered invalid, from its long stay in the hospital bed of the twentieth century—there was something about the smell of Margaret Taub, something sour and somnolent and quieted out, that suggested that she, no—this one had never belonged to that happy swelling. And she knew it, and they knew it, and maybe she even knew that they knew it.

Should Margaret have tried to discover what sinister chain had wrapped her life?

Perhaps she should have, but she did not.

The night in the forest and everything around it was an elementary blank. If pressed (of course, she was never pressed), she might have simply said: “Lately, I’m a little uneasy.” With no one did she mention how the city’s past was dancing before her eyes, nor any of her more alarming symptoms, which had begun to pop up, one after the other.

Margaret returned to her classes at the university in these weeks, but there she did not speak to anyone either. She rode the U-Bahn down to the dying meadows of the Freie Universität and sat by herself in the library. She wore an assortment of men’s dress clothing: moth-eaten woolen trousers and broadcloth shirts grown brittle with age, and always a particular grease-smeared topcoat that looked to be several decades older than the rest. And she wore a felt hat—perhaps to disguise that she was not in the habit of washing her hair. The effect belonged to no subculture anyone knew of, and gradually rebuffed the other students. Margaret did not mind. During lectures she sat well away from them, deep in her own thoughts, taking methodical notes from her perch at the back of the hall—notes which, not long after having been made, their blue, reptilian ink already fading, seemed foreign to her, not of her own hand. She memorized dates, causes and effects, uprisings and assassinations, theories and countertheories—this was for the sake of the tours in the city, where, if the customers quizzed her, it was distasteful to be caught out.

But she did not register for examinations that might propel her toward a degree, nor make any other frantic efforts on behalf of semester deadlines. She ignored the early notes she had made for her master’s thesis, which had been on the topic of Karl Liebknecht and the Spartacists.

Margaret was leaving something behind. She no longer suffered from ambition. Information was fodder for the tours, nothing more. She studied avidly but always remaining in place, and the university was large and remote as an unjealous god, and took no notice of her treadmill existence.

And though the calendar appeared to be continuing its slow plod whenever she checked it, Margaret was dogged by a peculiar sensation. She felt that somehow, somewhere along the way when she had not been paying careful attention (and how could she have been so heedless?), time had come to an end. Now it was only a matter of a short interval before the world faded out entirely. Sometimes she was even gripped by a strange suspicion, unlikely as it seemed, that every last thing was already gone. All that now met her ears and eyes was a vestigial flare or after-impression, like the shape of the sun burnt on the retina.

So in that case, the logical (and yet also illogical) conclusion was this: the more she looked, the less there was left to see. To observe was to eat. She had to ration.

This was difficult, as everything burned terribly brightly. The Berlin street came shining to her, whore for attention that it was, offering up this face, that reference, and it was all a magic lantern show, cheap and profligate. She began to feel, in a hallucinatory kind of way, that brightness and time were competing siblings, tugging resentfully at each other’s realms. Brightness was winning. The brighter the city burned, the more time as a linear ray exhausted its last dregs and died. And conversely, the more time narrowed and dropped off for reasons of its own, the brighter everything became.

It all filled Margaret with dread. She tried to control the terror of  the conquering brightness. First with the tours in the mornings, in this period of convalescence, the twinkling past was an opiate. But afterward, in the afternoons, the dread returned, and she was forced to distract herself.

Distract herself she did. She bought flowers for the side table in the long hallway of her cavernous, echoing apartment in Schöneberg. She cooked lentils. She went for a beer now and then, sat outside during the last of the lukewarm days, and as it grew colder, in smoky corners of pubs. Sundays, she walked around the Berliner flea markets, buying this or that or anything at all—a chalky pot for the kitchen, a flower box for the sill.

After that strange and terrible night in the Grunewald forest, the weeks went by and became months. And then the months flew by and became two years. Time will pass very quickly, if you are convinced it is already over. Two years rolled away, never to be seen again.

By the time autumn of 2004 pulled around, Margaret was so solitary, she was an almost unrecognizable version of herself. She had used the purgatory well, however. The dread that had been her constant companion—it was close to gone. At the end of two years, the terror was swaddled and buried; it hardly had a heartbeat. A mirror to the lips of the sleeper clouded so slightly, it might be thought nothing at all.

And this is where the real story begins.

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