There’s an old cliché that relationships formed in times of emergency are tighter and more intense than those that come together in more natural circumstances. At least, they are at first. Audrey Magee’s debut novel “The Undertaking” begins with the marriage of German soldier Peter Faber and Katharina Spinell during WWII, but the couple aren’t physically together in the same place. In fact, they’ve never even met. Their marriage was negotiated through an agency for cold practical reasons. Peter wants leave from the battlefront to return to Germany. Encouraged by the parents she lives with, Katharina wants to receive a pension if Peter should die in combat. The two finally get to meet and, after some initial awkwardness, form an intense close bond. This hastily arranged relationship gives each of them something to hope for throughout the terrible war that ensues and it is incredibly brutal. At first the German forces and ordinary citizens smugly believe that their victory will continue and their empire will expand into the Russian territory they invade. The story follows the long bitter loss of this dream and cleverly portrays how the characters’ ideologies gradually shift with its withering.
The really striking feature of Magee’s strong writing is how incredibly spare it is. The novel is largely composed of dialogue. The conversations between characters are sharply distilled so that they evoke not only exactly what the characters are thinking, but the political ideologies behind what they are saying and the emotions thickly surrounding those words. The descriptions of location or events between these sections of dialogue are very sparse, simple and declarative because that’s all they need to be. It’s in the rich meaningful speech of the characters that the physical environment and entire culture at that time in history is evoked. This is a very clever writer’s trick and devastatingly effective for the subject of war. No poetics, interior contemplation or elaborate metaphors are necessary. The hard brutal facts and carefully chosen words spoken by the characters form a deeply felt, layered understanding of the personal dilemmas involved in life during battle.
At times I was on the brink of tears reading certain scenes in this novel because they are so blunt. A few terse lines in some scenes hit like a hammer. Characters celebrating moving into a richly decorated, spacious new apartment or the acquisition of a sparkling expensive jewelled necklace become something horrific because the reader knows that these have just been forcefully taken from Jewish people who have been rounded up by the Nazis. A temporary shelter with still smouldering fire and meagre meal for battered German soldiers in a tiny Russian village becomes revolting because the reader knows the helpless Russian civilians who just recently inhabited it have been forced out into the snow to freeze. These acquisitions taken by the characters seemingly without guilt don’t need any justification because it’s wartime. Normal moral impulses don’t apply. There is an enemy who is dominated and the spoils of war become the possessions of the victor. This steely merciless nature of battle comes through Magee’s story causing the reader to imagine the multitude of personal sufferings that are behind these physical takings. Scenes like this and ones where personal conflict actually occurs in a few short lines left me utterly devastated.
It’s fascinating how political beliefs and allegiances gradually shift throughout the novel - not because of the suffering the characters witness in others, but because of the gradual wearing down of their own minds, bodies and spirits. This isn’t a rose-tinted view of humanity. Magee shows how people act in a highly pressurized environment where desperation and necessity are the only things which motivate normal individuals. This isn’t a book about extraordinary heroes or viciously-minded villains. It’s about ordinary citizens involved in a war which we as historically-informed readers know they are doomed to lose. By dragging us through the battles both on the home front and fields of conflict, Peter and Katharina’s relationship which holds such a fiery aura throughout the novel is gradually, heart-wrenchingly demystified. I’m not going to say what happens or if the couple find each other, but what’s extraordinary is that the natural compulsion (for most readers, at least) to see a happy reunion is confounded by the way the society’s values shift over these wartime years.
I was having a conversation with someone recently about why Ireland produces so many distinctly strong writers. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of excellent new and established ones. Of course, any discussions like this inevitably fall into generalizations. Usually people cite the highly lyrical quality of Irish writing borne out of a long oral tradition and strong sense of culture. What’s striking about Audrey Magee is her writing doesn’t have any of this but is nevertheless intensely felt and still beautiful. I’m so happy that this book came to attention through its appearance on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction long list as I might not have read it otherwise. It’s a gripping, terrifying and brilliantly conceived novel.
Here is a wonderful interview about Magee’s thought process in composing the novel and her motivation for writing it: