By Ron Hansen
HarperCollins; 310 pages; $25
How do you like your Hitler, gentle reader? Radically evil, such that to try to explain him is to excuse him? Fashionably banal, humming Wagner and scratching his scalp while he plots the destruction of a race? Or do you like him denatured and historicized, the inevitable vessel of German resentment? Well, no matter how you’re inclined to see the killer of 6 million, Ron Hansen’s new novel, Hitler’s Niece, offers at least a passage or a page to back you up and another to offend you. Taking on the ultimate loser’s game of fictionalizing, and faintly humanizing, the man whom no novelist would dare invent if he hadn’t existed in the first place, Hansen has produced a book so grossly inadequate to its infamous subject that even its title sounds like a bad joke. Knock, knock. Who’s there? Hitler’s niece… . Or maybe this: Stalin’s nephew and Hitler’s niece were waiting for a train …
Morally, there are only three basic options when reimagining Hitler, and none of them is a winner. To qualify his evil is an outrage, to compound it an impossibility, and to avoid it a sin. Artistically, the situation is worse. From the opening sentence of Hansen’s story, the narrative runs psychologically backwards, from what the reader already knows of Hitler to what he’s being told for the first time. The weight of so much foreshadowing is crushing, and so Hansen adopts the only posture left: that of the summarizing documentarian. “She was born in Linz, Austria, on June 4, 1908, when Hitler was nineteen and floundering in Wien, a failure at many things, and famished for food and attention.” So far so, so good. All major traps avoided. But only for so long. A novel is not a newsreel, and it can’t simply serve up conventional wisdom, either; eventually it must grow subtle, personal, and choose for itself a model from literature.
How Hansen runs this particular obstacle course, and where it trips him up, and how, is far more suspenseful than the story he tells. His nominal focus is Geli Maria Raubal, the beautiful Austrian daughter of Hitler’s half sister. Her infamous uncle first lays eyes on her in paragraph one, which indicates a love story – one that we’re not sure we’re ready for but that our trashy side, steeped in genre, can’t help but start imagining the outlines of. As Geli reaches puberty, grows curious, and begins casting longing glances at the führer, which he returns in his fish-eyed way, our minds put together all the elements of a late-night S&M revue. And Hansen delivers; he isn’t shy about it. Here’s Hitler with his dog whip, wearing lederhosen. Here’s Hitler in his big red Benz. And Geli, who’s gone to live near him in Munich, shivers all over. Pure pornography. To make the foreplay even more perverse, it’s synchronized with Hitler’s slow ascent from small-time rabble-rouser to big-time party boss. The story shuttles between beer-hall speeches, observed from a factual, black-and-white distance and smacking of authorial index cards, and private, wholly imagined color shots of Geli and Adolf cooped up in his apartment or shopping on Munich’s couture boulevards.
For Geli, it’s a fairy-tale existence: a life of limo rides, high-society parties, and charged liaisons with wolfish Nazi bigwigs. Goebbels, Göring, and Himmler are introduced in alphabetical order, pretty much, and each is tagged with some disgusting attribute such as bad breath or a quivering fat gut. Hitler, too, repulses physically. He’s pale and he has B.O. It’s a medieval style of characterization, making the archvillains smell bad, too, but given the enormity of their eventual crimes, the impact’s trivial. It does set a stagy music-hall tone, however, which Hansen strengthens as the book goes on, until the book starts to resemble a footlighted melodrama or one of those old-time English novels about an innocent young serving girl trapped in a castle with a creepy master.
And that’s Hansen’s Hitler: a strutting little creep. Like his lieutenants, he’s sexually blocked, recoiling from physical contact while craving darker things. He’s also a masterly demagogue, of course, and a few years away from almost destroying the world, but this side of Hitler is dealt with lazily, in prose that seems straight from a Time-Life World War II book: “Exalting warfare and struggle as ‘the father of all things,’ insisting that death in battle was a soldier’s highest duty, stressing his own ruthlessness and brutality … Hitler was far less a politician than a ferocious prophet of wrath.” Hansen puts these lame deep thoughts in Geli’s head, or roughly thereabouts, but they read less like the instinctive first reactions of a young German woman of the Weimar years than the conscientious editorials of an American novelist of the nineties. For turning the story of Hitler and his niece into classy erotica, Hansen feels he must do penance, apparently, by adding a few long-view condemnations. The baldest of these comes from Geli’s own mouth, once her affair with her uncle has started in earnest, complete with lots of whip play and stamping jackboots. “You hate! You destroy! You’ll do to Germany just what you’re doing to me!”
An allegory? It certainly looks like one, with Geli playing the too-seducible fatherland and Hitler playing, well, Hitler. And who would that be? Despite the ferocious-prophet-of-wrath stuff, Hansen concentrates more on Hitler’s icky side; his effeteness, his infantilism, his thin white limbs, his nerdy fascination with the occult. What he wants in bed is humiliation, naturally, and when he finally wheedles Geli into dishing out the big abuse, we’re shocked at ourselves for expecting nothing else and settling for nothing less. It’s a Greenwich Village Halloween that Hansen has been leading up to, and maybe it’s measure of our corruption, like that of the Weimar Germany itself, that we’ve hung around so long to see it.
Despite the peep-show climax, which even Hansen seems to shrink from, compressing what might have been endless graphic scenes of leathery toilet play to a few pages, the novel does run a remarkably long distance on its descriptive finesse. The documentary interludes are fluid and informative, satisfying the reader’s historical sense, and the close-ups of Hitler at play with his supporters remind us of Nazism’s New Age glamour. One scene of a party picnic chills especially – the fine fresh air, the chitchat about health, the atmosphere of pagan connoisseurship. Hansen writes natural, tumbling prose, making strangely radiant fetish-objects of the clothes, the food, the drinks, the cars. We can see how a girl from modest circumstances could work up a fatal appetite for such things. But why drag Hitler into it, and why this Hitler? To learn that the century’s vilest mass murderer was also a kinky, spoiled little perv, and to get a sneak peek into his dank boudoir, is anticlimax on a whole new level.