GERMAN HISTORY IN FICTION: A Conversation with Fiona Rintoul

Translator and German literary scholar Anne Stokes met Fiona Rintoul to talk about her translation of the WWI novel Outside Verdun by Arnold Zweig, Rintoul’s own debut novel The Leipzig Affair, set in the GDR, their mutual interest in translation and their shared experience of life in the GDR in the 1980s.


Fiona Rintoul, The Leipzig Affair (Aurora Metro Books, 2014). It is being serialised on BBC R4’s Book at Bedtime in March 2015.
Arnold Zweig, Outside Verdun, translated by Fiona Rintoul (Freight, 2014)

Interviewed by Anne Stokes

Anne Stokes: You’ve been extremely busy lately, producing literary commentary as a translator and novelist on two aspects of twentieth-century German history. Published to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War, your translation of Arnold Zweig’s Outside Verdun (Freight Books, 2014) provides a detailed and very welcome view of WWI trench warfare from the German perspective. And in the year in which Germany celebrates 25 years since the fall of the Wall, your own first novel, The Leipzig Affair (Aurora Metro Books, 2014), transports us to East Germany from 1985 onwards. I’d like to ask you about aspects of each of these works in chronological order, starting with your translation. At just over 400 pages in English, it was quite an undertaking. What led you to engage in this particular translation project?

Fiona Rintoul 3Fiona Rintoul: In many ways it was chance. Freight Books wanted to do the translation to mark the centenary and Adrian Searle, the publisher, knew that I wanted to do more translation. I’d translated a little bit of East German poetry for a project that took place at the Glasgow Film Festival back in 2011, and I had just been on a translators’ tour with the Goethe Institut, which would support the Zweig translation. Freight knew me, and it was just kind of serendipitous that the project was there at a time when I wanted to do a full-length translation and I knew the publisher and trusted him. So, I decided to take it on. But once I got started, I realised I had perhaps been a bit foolhardy because it was a huge project, but also a very fulfilling one.

AS: Yes, I can imagine, and, like your novel, it was also very timely, wasn’t it?

FR: Yes, it all fitted nicely into place. When I was in Germany on the translators’ tour at the Leipzig Book Fair and the project had already been mooted, I went to visit a friend of mine, who was one of the East German writers I translated for the Glasgow Film Festival event, and he pointed out his old school to me, which was called the Arnold Zweig Gymnasium. I thought, everything’s pointing in one direction here. I would’ve done the translation in any case, but I was interested in the fact that Zweig was a socialist and had gone back to East Germany after the Second World War and lived the last part of his life out there.

AS: Outside Verdun, situated during the First World War, obviously deals with the German attempt to break the French line at Verdun in 1916, which resulted in massive casualties on both sides. It contains gruesome details of conditions in the trenches and depicts the psychological effects of protracted trench warfare on those serving in them, as well as the devastation of the French countryside and the suffering of the war horses. It’s also described by David Midgley in his introduction, though, as “the most sustained single literary exploration of the social dimension of the war in any language.” More generally, then, it exposes inhumanity and injustice within German society at that time, as played out in concentrated form in the trenches. To a large degree therefore it’s a novel about class or social divisions as much as trench warfare, isn’t it?

FR: Yes, I think that’s right, and what it also provides, especially perhaps to an English language or a British audience, is an insight into the big regional differences that there were in Germany, which at that time was a pretty new nation. Bavaria and Saxony, and so on, had relatively recently been independent states, and I think the big differences among them really come across in the book. And I suppose that here we often think of Germany as a much less class-ridden society than our own but the big class differences that were prevalent at that time are certainly evident in this book. Also, Arnold Zweig was a Jew, and it’s interesting to see the depiction of Jews in German society. I know that a lot of Jewish men who fought in the First World War considered themselves to be German first and Jewish second. I’m not sure if Arnold Zweig would have been in that category, but it’s interesting to see that Jews were very much integrated into German society, although you do see the prejudice that was there as well.

AS: You mentioned that Zweig himself was Jewish, and in that respect as well as others, the novel is autobiographical. Its protagonist, Private Bertin, is a young, myopic Jewish-German recruit, who, like Zweig, served at the front as a non-combatant soldier. Zweig, moreover, was already an established author in 1914, and the same is true of Bertin. The novel was published in 1935, when Zweig, a socialist Zionist, was living in exile in Palestine, in the wake not only of Germany’s defeat in WWI but the seizure of power by the National Socialists. The picture of Germany that emerges both during and after the battle for Verdun, is, unsurprisingly, rather bleak. The old lie, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, is unveiled – the men face danger and hardship and can eventually think about nothing other than their own survival – and it isn’t clear where Germany’s headed after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles either, is it?

FR: No, it isn’t. The book ends the day after the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Germany is celebrating but there’s a sense of foreboding in the novel. Perhaps it’s impossible now to read a book that ends with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles without feeling a sense of foreboding, but I think it’s there in Zweig’s words too. He began the book in 1928 and by 1935, when it was published, he’d been expelled from Germany so it must have been somewhat clear where Germany was headed even if the full horror of what was to come was not yet evident.

AS: Certainly not. A further theme explored towards the end of the novel is the mythologizing of the war, which starts in the trenches already: “The German nation only just formed had performed miracles…” And, despite the fact that many of the soldiers are completely disillusioned at the end, there is still some variance of opinion, isn’t there?

FR: Yes, quite a bit. While the socialist Pahl is trying to get Bertin signed up for the cause, military heroism is embodied in Lieutenant Kroysing, who, ironically, meets quite an unheroic death. And I suppose Bertin goes from really believing in the war, and admiring someone like Kroysing, to viewing the war as very bleak and pointless.

Outside_Verdun_Cover_visual_2AS: Yes, Bertin is torn between the Left and the Right throughout the novel, but the war is eventually summed up for him in Sergeant Süssmann’s dying words: “Tell my parents it was worth it. Tell Kroysing it wasn’t.” The truth, Bertin elaborates, interestingly, lay somewhere between these two poles, but not in the middle. In the end, though, this seeker of truth decides to trust the new government to disseminate the facts about the war. His wife Lena, though, doesn’t share his confidence. Indeed, the female take on war is quite different as offered through her and also Sister Kläre’s eyes. What do you think of Zweig’s depiction of these two female characters, who are introduced towards the end of the novel?

FR: They do come in rather late on in the novel, and otherwise there are no women at all. But what was interesting to me was that both of the women are very much real women, in particular Sister Kläre, who’s the love interest. She’s a proper grown-up woman who’s getting divorced and has had children and abortions, we’re told, and uses contraception. She’s not a “girl,” and although she’s depicted very positively, she’s not idealised. She’s a proper woman with conflicts, and a body, and consequences.

AS: Yes, and she definitely knows what she wants.

FR: Yes, I think that’s very interesting. And that made me warm to Arnold. His female characters are well-rounded and not ciphers, as they so easily could be in a book like this, that’s really about men. And Bertin’s wife, Lena, even though she only appears quite briefly, is also a three-dimensional character, and I felt very much that the authorial view would’ve been that Lena was right in the comments she makes in the final chapter.

AS: The image evoked in the final line of the novel certainly suggests that, doesn’t it?

FR: Yes, her yellow dress shining through the trees. And what is also very interesting about the depiction of Lena is that Bertin, thinking back to the time when he effectively raped her, perceives what he did as rape, which means that Zweig, the author, also perceived it as rape, at a time when it would not have been perceived as such in law.

AS: I agree. The novel’s very progressive in that way. I’d like to go back to the parting image, though, which contrasts the outlook of Lena and Bertin. The colour symbolism in the closing line is quite unique in this earthy, cynical work in which people and nature are described in a realistic way: “Her yellow summer dress shone through longer than his blue-grey suit.” This final sentence surprised me as a reader, and I wonder if you were jolted as a translator by the switch in tone that occurs here?

FR: Well, certainly I noticed it, and I spent a long time agonising over the translation of the final line because it was actually quite hard to translate. And I really liked it. In fact, I made a secret reference to it at the end of my own book because I liked it so much, this idea of her dress shining through. I suppose it’s quite a metaphysical image, isn’t it?

AS: It certainly stays with you. There’s a continuation suggested in the military blue-grey of his suit, but perhaps also a flicker of hope in that the yellow of her dress outlasts the blue-grey. Lena, it seems, sees things more clearly and is moving forward without delusion, which must be positive.

FR: Yes, perhaps the civilian actually sees things more clearly. Bertin is obviously still demented by what he’s experienced in the war. Lena offers a female way of looking at the world perhaps.

AS: A different one for sure. Let’s turn now to the question of translating. You mentioned that this final line was challenging. What were the other main challenges?

FR: Well, there were a number. The first was that I didn’t know anything about the army, the British army never mind the German one. So I was on a fairly steep learning curve with that. Some of the language is also a little bit archaic. And Zweig uses quite a lot of humour and quite a bit of dialect, so there was the question of how, and how much, of that to try to convey. And the final problem was that he’s dead, so you can’t ring him up to ask what he meant by x, y, z. On the other hand, there was an existing translation that was done in ’36 by Eric Sutton. It’s a little bit stilted by today’s standards, but it did prove useful nonetheless.

AS: Of its time perhaps?

FR: Yes, it’s of its time, and it skips over some details. But I came to realise that it was pretty reliable on the military vocabulary, so that was very helpful. Also, regarding the style of the novel, a lot of the sentences are quite elaborately constructed, not overly elaborate, but there aren’t very many simple sentences. Sometimes I could get to the meaning of the sentences more quickly by referring to the existing translation, but I had to be careful, of course, not to rely too heavily on it or to repeat mistakes.

AS: Referring to other translations is just part of the research, isn’t it?

FR: Yes. David Midgley also helped out towards the end with some of the phraseology. His in-depth knowledge of the period was very useful. For example, he was able to tell me that the phrase “bei den Preuβen” meant “in the Prussian or the Kaiser’s army,” which I wouldn’t have thought of. I wasn’t entirely happy with what I had, but I couldn’t find an alternative. His input really helped me to fine tune the translation.

AS: Yes, the input of subject specialists is invaluable at times, isn’t it? You mentioned already the presence of regional accents, and I noticed that you render these at times with various British ones, and, at others, by saying simply “he said in a Berlin accent,” for example. What were your considerations concerning the translation of the many dialects which made up the Kaiser’s army, whose existence at this historical point, we’ve established, is a theme of the novel?

FR: To be honest, I sort of played it by ear. I wanted to try to give a flavour of the different dialects. That’s really all you can do. And I didn’t want to get constrained by rendering all of the dialect from Saxony in Scots and the Berlin dialect in another way, because I think that would give the wrong impression. I once interviewed Christa Schuenke who translated some of James Kelman’s novels into German. She said that she used a range of German dialects to try to convey a flavour of Kelman’s writing and had avoided matching Kelman’s Glaswegian to any particular dialect because that would make it sound as if the book was set in Hamburg or somewhere, which would create the wrong impression. I was slightly guided by what she had said because she obviously had a lot of dialect to deal with when translating Kelman.

AS: You certainly get the sense when reading your translation that it’s the existence of a range of dialects that’s important rather than which particular dialect is being spoken at any one time, which supports the thematic point that this linguistically fragmented army is the product of a recently created state, which is taking on one of the established players at Verdun.
Moving on now, you mentioned earlier that after the Second World War, Zweig settled in the Soviet Zone, where he became a member of parliament. As a pacifist and socialist who’d become disillusioned with Zionism during his exile in Palestine, he clearly had faith in Communism, which was true at one time of the East German protagonist of The Leipzig Affair, your debut novel. At a basic level, it is an account of a doomed love affair. At a political level, though, it’s a doomed relationship between a young Scottish postgraduate student visiting the GDR in 1985 and a young East German woman who has become disillusioned with Communism due to the issue of doping in sport, which affected her at a deeply personal level. In the novel, which extends into the post-GDR period — the first part takes place before the fall of the Wall, the second in the aftermath — there are other political issues addressed, but could I first ask you: Why the focus on the GDR in the mid-eighties in the first part of the novel?

THE Leipzig AFFAIR front AUG 20FR: I think it’s really a personal thing in that I studied in Leipzig in the mid-eighties, and it made a big impression on me. So, when I came to write my first novel, I wanted to write about that. I found East Germany really fascinating, and I still find it fascinating, and Leipzig was and is a wonderful city, which is why I decided to set the book there.

AS: I visited Halle myself around the same time. I only spent a month there, but the society was so different that the experience went in quite deep.

FR: Yes, for me, too, and it made me think much more deeply about my own country and the society that I came from. It made me realise that much as East Germans had been socialised in a particular way, so had I. I’m not trying to suggest equivalence — though I might have done at the time — but we in Britain were also socialised in a particular way and we had a particular way of looking at the past. I suppose going to East Germany made me more aware of that. I was quite young when I went there, only 21, and coming from Thatcher’s Britain, which I wasn’t an enthusiastic participant in, and neither was my family, I was quite open to hearing about other ways of organising society, although, in the end, I had to concede that perhaps East Germany wasn’t a model to follow.

AS: That’s certainly true, as your novel demonstrates. Without giving too much of the plot away, the East German protagonist, Magda, becomes a Stasi target. Shortly after German reunification, the “Stasi” became a familiar and infamous term. How conscious of this were you as a visitor to East Germany in 1986, however?

FR: Very conscious. I always say that the first new word I learned when I arrived in East Germany was “Stasi,” and that’s true. Within days of being there, the other British visiting students and I all knew about the Stasi and we knew where the Stasi headquarters were in Leipzig. It was a word that people didn’t like to say out loud, like “cancer” or something. People talked about it in hushed tones. I remember being in a student club in Leipzig with two girls from Manchester and we were speaking to some East German friends and there were a couple of guys sitting behind us listening in because we were speaking English and obviously from the West, and one of the girls from Manchester got annoyed with them and asked if they were from the Stasi. They were absolutely affronted by that. It was like asking if they were Nazis or something. The surveillance was also quite noticeable in the student residence. We were living there four to a room, and we were paired up with people who were “linientreu” (party liners), and some of them were definitely watching us and reporting on us. Not that we were doing anything particularly interesting. It was all a bit amateurish. For example, a friend of mine’s East German room mate got drunk once and told her she was writing weekly reports on her. Not very professional.

AS: So, the Stasi network was obviously considered to be quite extensive at that time.

FR: Well, yes, people used to say that one in four was an informer. That wasn’t the case, however. When I went back to Leipzig in 2004, a guide at the Stasi archive said that she thought the Stasi had put that rumour about themselves. It was more like one in a hundred who were unofficial informants, which, as an East German friend of mine once said, is quite enough. And it is. But it’s not one in four.

AS: An attempt to rally recruits no doubt. Returning to your novel: As a book dealing with East German versus Western relations — in a private as well as a wider political sense — it is, to a large extent, a book of contrasts, as signalled in the narrative structure. Could you explain why you opted for first and second person narrators in alternating chapters, and why the first- and second-person voices were assigned as they were.

FR: It was partly chance, I think. I started off writing the book in Robert’s voice because I was worried that it would be difficult for me to write as an East German woman. I’m obviously not a man either, but that’s wasn’t as difficult somehow. Then I began experimenting with writing Magda’s story in the second person. I suppose I imagined Robert telling her story, and it just kind of worked so I went with it. The second person also conveys the sense of her being watched, I think, by the Stasi, by her parents, and in the end by Robert too. Originally, Robert also had more weight in the narrative, but I got more interested in the Magda character and opted for alternating chapters in each voice. I also decided that the chapters shouldn’t be too long, so that the reader wasn’t hearing one voice for an extended period and then having to adjust to a different one in the next chapter.

AS: Was the Robert character in any way autobiographical?

FR: A little bit, yes. I went to St Andrews like he did, and there are a few other details from my life in Robert, but he is a fictional character. Fictional characters usually start off with someone you know, and then take on a life of their own, so he’s definitely not me in male form. Or you amalgamate different people. For example, I once knew someone who was an alcoholic, and I did use some details from his life, but Robert is not that person either.

AS: Let’s turn to Magda now. Her position as an object of Stasi surveillance has consequences not only for her but for those around her, including the young Scot, and not only in 1985 but well beyond that time. Could you comment perhaps on your decision to include broader political themes outside of the GDR context?

FR: In terms of the political and thematic context, one of the main things I wanted to explore in the novel was the fact that the collapse of Communism and the whole experience of reunification was a bit more nuanced than how it’s sometimes presented. We saw this with the anniversary recently. In this country, all the attention was on the Wall coming down in Berlin and people joyfully streaming through to West Berlin, which did happen of course. But to my mind, the main event was the demonstration in Leipzig on the 9th of October 1989, when the people went out onto the streets in spite of the very heavily armed security presence there. Their defiance was an enormous display of civil courage and was really the beginning of the end of the regime because the demonstrators looked it in the eye and said “You know what, I’m not scared.” But the people who demonstrated didn’t necessarily want reunification. I know that the majority obviously voted for the CDU in the free elections, so we have to assume that the majority wanted a united Germany, but a lot of people didn’t. They wanted instead a better socialist alternative, real socialism, not the Stalinist kind, as the writer Stefan Heym said when he spoke on Alexanderplatz on the 4th of November 1989.

AS: Yes, democratic socialism was the desire of many.

FR: Exactly. What they got was not what a lot of them wanted. Annett Gröschner, a writer the same age as me who grew up in Magdeburg, said recently that the East Germans wanted freedom and got neoliberalism. So, thematically, one of the things I wanted to address was the fact that reunification was a difficult process, even for those who wanted it at the outset, and that it doesn’t represent the absolute triumph of free-market capitalism over every other way of doing things. There were obvious problems in the GDR, but, looking back, there were also worthy aspects to East German society that people missed. There is also a distinction to be made between the East German state and East German society, as the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records, Roland Jahn said recently. People made a life for themselves and made the best of it, and if they have a certain affection or nostalgia for their former life, it doesn’t mean they want it back wholesale, or that they loved the Stasi.

AS: I agree. There were certainly aspects of life in the East that would have enhanced German life after unification had they been carried over. To conclude our discussion, I’d be interested to know: Since you spent time in the GDR in 1986, and you thank Sigrid Grünewald who was imprisoned by the Stasi for talking to you about her experience, how much of the novel is fact and how much is fiction? And why did you, as a journalist primarily at that time, choose to explore these and other issues in literary form? Or did you also explore them as a journalist?

FR: No, my journalism focuses on finance and investments, quite different stuff, so I didn’t write about these issues. I would say it’s all fiction. I interviewed Sigrid Grünewald to get an insight into what prison life was like, to get details to make the prison scenes authentic, but none of the things that happened to Magda actually happened to Siggi. I wrote to her recently to tell her that the book had appeared, and she told me that she’s written a book about her experiences in prison. That’s the book to read if you want to know about that.

AS: Well, yours is certainly a very compelling fictional account. Thanks for your time, Fiona.

FR: You’re welcome.

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