Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On Kate Atkinson's "Life After Life"

I hesitate to say anything negative about Kate Atkinson's recent novel, Life After Life, in light of its enthusiastic reception.  (Taking issue with a work of literature that's been described as "one of the best novels...this century" is a bit daunting).




That said, I have to say I found the book a bit of a slog.  I'm probably being unfair, insofar as I read the novel more for its counterfactual elements than for its character development (though even on that latter count, I found the book to be oddly un-engaging). 

As far as the "what if?" dimensions of the novel are concerned, they come in two forms: the personal and the political.  Atkinson nicely shows how the multiple lives of the novel's protagonist, Ursula Todd, end up subtly altering the lives of people she is connected to.  Family members and friends either live or die depending on her actions (the most haunting being Nancy, a family acquaintance and love-interest of her brother Teddy, who is alternately murdered by a pedophile or spared, depending on how Ursula's own life progresses).  

But at the historical level, the novel is something of a bait and switch.  Life After Life opens with a scene of Ursula shooting a German man (who discerning readers will recognize as Adolf Hitler) in a Munich cafe in 1930.  We are led to believe that the novel will explore the consequences of this classic counterfactual premise in some depth.  In fact, hundreds of pages pass before the premise is explored at all.

When Atkinson finally does so, she essentially punts, arguing that Hitler's death would not have changed the course of history in any major way.  This becomes clear when Ursula (who herself is shot and killed immediately after shooting Hitler) is reincarnated yet again and is shown greeting her brother Teddy (who in a previous life is an RAF pilot killed in combat in 1943) in a London pub in 1945, having just returned from a German POW camp in the east, accompanied by his girlfriend Nancy (who has avoided being murdered).  World War II, in other words, has still taken place even in Hitler's absence.  But Ursula's personal life is much happier by virtue of the survival of her brother and love-interest.

In principle, by arguing that Hitler's removal from history would not have changed its course very much, Atkinson accepts the prevailing view of many Anglo-American writers over the years (for example, Stephen Fry, in his novel Making History, plus many more, as noted in my book, The World Hitler Never Made, chapter 6), who have insisted that the forces of German nationalism would have led to political upheaval and war in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s even without the Führer's existence.

Atkinson alludes to this notion on page 474, where Ursula, after wildly fantasizing about the many ways that history might be improved with the removal of Hitler, catches herself and remarks: "But perhaps Goering or Himmler would have stepped in.  And everything would have happened in the same way." 

Atkinson has noted on her publisher's website that "We are all intrigued by ‘What if?’ scenarios, and one of the most potent and familiar is ‘What would have happened if Hitler had been prevented from coming to power?’ I’ve long harboured a desire to write something around the topic, worried too, that it would simply turn into a cliché, as the over-familiar usually does."

This all well and good.  Yet in striving to avoid clichés, Atkinson never really probes the possibilities of her novel's core counterfactual premise.  Although she avoids doing so for a noble goal (avoiding triteness), it represents an abnegation of authorial responsibility if one is going to embrace a "what if?" foundation for the whole novel.

On top of everything else, it is quite doubtful whether Hitler's death in 1930 would have really had such a minimal impact on the course of history.  One look at the conclusion of Henry Turner's book, Hitler's Thirty Days to Power, makes this abundantly clear.  Killing off Hitler in 1944, perhaps.  But not 1930.

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