The Undertaking by Audrey Magee is a highly anticipated debut novel by an Irish journalist about a German couple who marry, sight unseen, during WWII.
Right off the bat I should say that I am fascinated by WWII, always have been, and I’ve read more books about the conflict than I care to remember. So, I was impressed that Magee found an angle on the conflict — the experiences of two ordinary Germans who marry during the war, are together for about 3 weeks, before he returns to the Russian front — that hasn’t been overly exploited and told many times before.
Both partners have different motivations for wanting to get married. Katharina Spinell wants to escape the influence of her parents, and be in line for a widow’s pension if her husband is killed; Peter Faber wants a few weeks leave to escape the madness of the war. They marry in odd, simultaneous services held hundreds of miles apart: she in Berlin, he in Russia, after which he is granted honeymoon leave. When they meet, they are both pleasantly surprised to hit it off and find they genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
The surrounding cast of characters is fascinating, and provide much of the historical context and serve as magnets of our disapproval in place of the protagonists, who after all we have to root for at some level otherwise we wouldn’t finish reading the novel. Katharina’s father is perhaps the most despicable character in the book: completely amoral, he fawns over a local Nazi official, and sees his new son-in-law as a chance to rise within his patron’s esteem. He engineers the family’s acquisition of a luxurious apartment after a Jewish family are taken away, barely bats an eyelid when his only son comes back from the Russian front with a bad case of shell shock, and only sees Katharina as a means to advance the family’s comfort and status.
Katharina is no saint: she moves into the stolen Jewish apartment without a qualm, and she enjoys the physical comforts their closeness with the Nazis provides. But, as she gets pregnant during their short honeymoon, she spends the next few years with the tunnel vision of a new parent trying to care for her son in a crazy world, so that aspect was perfectly understandable. However, I didn’t get the impression that she was any more socially concerned or politically active before getting pregnant.
Oddly, the most moral character is book is Peter, the soldier, and it’s his marriage that seems to change him for the better. After learning he’s going to be a father, he internalizes the Nazi propaganda and justifications for the war and rationalizes everything on the grounds of taking care of his new family. He gets angry at the cynical attitude of other soldiers, he refuses to participate in rapes and killing civilians (although he’s willing to steal their food), and he basically builds up the myth of his family and their perfect future in order to get himself through the war. Of course, as he is destined for Stalingrad, we have a very good idea how his war will play out. He’s really rather a sad figure, mouthing empty propaganda and trying to deny the horrors he sees around him.
Magee has written that her motivations for writing the novel lay in trying to understand the mindset of ordinary Germans who insisted they knew nothing about what was happening regarding the final solution and other atrocities during the war. In that respect, The Undertaking is very successful in depicting the realities of personal survival. Early in the war: the Spinell family are mostly interested in bettering their lot (getting luxurious food or finding a better apartment) but this gradually switches to a desperate focus on survival: getting any food, keeping their shelter, and finding medical care. In either case, they don’t spend any time worrying about things outside their direct influence — if they can truly be said to have any influence at all! It’s an attitude that has resurfaced during the financial crisis: where many people are desperate to take care of their own and don’t have time for other considerations.
It’s an interesting challenge for a novelist: to try and understand and communicate the point of view of unsympathetic people who by most objective standards “benefited” from the war. Audrey Magee has done her job well when I find I could make a case for both outrage over their privilege and also over their manipulation by the Nazis. This is a fascinating novel that will provoke strong reactions in its readers.
Buy The Undertaking in the US…
The Undertaking is published in Ireland and the UK by Atlantic Books…
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