Wednesday afternoon, British novelist Rachel Seiffert, will read as part of Spalding University’s Festival of Contemporary Writing. The festival, which lasts until June 1, features faculty and alumni of Spalding’s low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing program.
Seiffert, the MFA program’s Distinguished Visiting Writer, is one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary novelists in the United Kingdom. Several of her books, including “The Dark Room” and “A Boy in Winter,” deal with themes surrounding the Holocaust and World War II.
It’s a topic to which Seiffert brings a unique perspective because she is half-German and her grandparents were Nazis; she’s spoken before about how her writing is a way to make sense of what it means “to be on the wrong side of history.”
I spoke with Seiffert about her writing, which you can hear her read Wednesday at Spalding University at 5:30 p.m.
Q: How did you become interested in exploring these themes through your writing?
A: “Well, I didn’t come to write about them until I started writing, which was in my late 20s, but they’ve always been a theme for me because my family are German. My mother is from Hamburg, originally, and grew up during the Third Reich. Her parents were members of the Nazi party. Although for many families in Germany, this is a shameful thing — including for my family — my family were always very honest about it, too. I commend them for that.
“I grew up in Britain, but my mother maintained very close ties with her German family; we went to visit them every year, twice a year. And I always knew about my family’s past. It was always part of the family conversation. So, when I came to write, those were the stories that first came out.”
Q: Has this caused emotional response from you, or caused you to reflect on who you are or who your family are as people?
A: “I was a bilingual child. I grew up in Britain, as I said, but in a German-speaking family and I grew up in the 1970s, not so long since the war. Many of my school friends, their fathers or their grandfathers, would have seen active service.
“When I would be picked up from school by my mother, we always spoke German with each other, and they heard me speaking German and I was called a Nazi. This was the 70s and Saturday TV schedules were just full of war movies, so all Germans were Nazis in the eyes of Britain’s children. So, of course, I asked my mum, ‘What does that mean?’
“That was the start — even before the age of 10 — that was the start of those family conversations. It was the dissonance, I guess, that a Nazi was definitely a bad thing and that my family were people, ordinary people.”
Q: Did you know your grandparents?
A: “I didn’t know my grandfather because he died the year I was born. I never knew him personally, but I knew his paintings, I knew his image, I knew what he was within the family — which is complicated. He was a real joker, a source of great fun, a source of great pain. He was an alcoholic — partly because of the deep disappointment after the war, of losing the war.
“He was also in Russian captivity for many years and didn’t return to the family until the 1950s. He was a complicated character, and he was inevitably part of so many family stories that I do feel like I know him. I also feel I love him as well as abhorring him.”
Q: I think you touch on something that is present in your books — I’ve read ‘The Dark Room’ — but this concept that people can hold two realities at once, or that people are complex; maybe you could tell us what that book is about?
A: “‘The Dark Room’ is three stories in one; it is a novel with three distinct sections and three distinct main characters. The first is Helmut, who is a young man growing up in Weimar Berlin, and then through the 1930s through the Third Reich, he becomes a photographer’s assistant and photographs the city as it becomes more and more Nazified, as the society becomes more Nazified.
“This takes him through the war as well; he observes his community descending into fascism, and then his story ends at the end of the war with the Russians arriving in Berlin.
“When I finished that, I still had so much more to say… So then the next character is Lore. She’s a young teenage girl. It picks up almost as Helmut’s story left off in the summer after the capitulation. Lore has been evacuated with her family from Hamburg and has to make the journey without her parents, who were both in Allied captivity, across the ruined Germany. It is a rite of passage story, essentially. She comes to understand what her parents’ generation have done and comes to see the education that she has received at their hands is lies.
“When I’d finished her story, I still felt that this had so many ripples in the present day, that I had to write a present day story, too. And it was the 1990s, so the last section is set there, and the main character is Micha, who is a German English teacher, actually in Frankfurt in Western Germany. He becomes disturbed by the notion that he’s never interrogated his grandfather’s past.
“His much-loved grandfather, who died when he was young, and yet he doesn’t know anything about what this grandfather did during the war. He begins to investigate.”
Q: As someone who has delved so deeply into topics like WWII and the Holocaust, where there was such hatred of ‘the other,’ how do you feel watching society right now?
A: “It’s very scary, actually.
“I think the thing that knowing my family history so intimately, and my mother being so honest about it, has taught me — evil is very human. It is very easy, terribly easy, actually, to slip into fascism.
“I mean, fascism is a very, very strong word, but there wasn’t a point at which German ‘turned fascist.’ It was an incremental process, a slide and once it began, was very difficult to hold. The thing also that my family history teaches me, is you can’t distinguish between ‘evil people’ and ‘normal people,’ everyone has that capacity within them to turn a blind eye, to begin to hate, to justify hatred.
“My mother told a story to me when I was very young of looking out her kitchen window at neighbors of hers being rounded up. There were Roma neighbors — gypsies, I guess, in the common parlance — who were then rounded up by the Nazis and she just saw this on a normal day, people being taken away in trucks.
“Her mother said, ‘Look away, come away from the window, look away.’ That was my grandmother. That was somebody who I used to sit in her kitchen and help her cook. This is not somebody who was excessively cold, not somebody with a mental illness. She was an ordinary person and so we’re all, in my mind, I’m very clear about this, we’re all capable of justifying that kind of behavior if the situation presents itself in such a way it seemed logical.
“And politicians are very good at making the situation seem logical.”