About The Author
Ida Hattemer-Higgins was born in Ohio and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. She left the USA in 2001 and has since lived in 8 different countries. She spent several years in Berlin, the setting for her debut novel, as a tour guide and student of literature. Her debut novel, The History of History, the first in a planned trilogy, tells a tale of obsessive love, family ruptures and a nation's ongoing grief in the wake of the Second World War. And it is an elegy to 'the history of history' - the role of the German past in the psychic life of the present age.
Exclusive Q&A with Ida Hattemer-Higgins on The History of History
You've tackled hugely ambitious themes of guilt, trauma and the Holocaust. Wasn't that very daunting for a debut novelist?
There are hundreds of reasons not to write a novel about the Holocaust, aren't there? Stanley Fish once said: "The minute you bring Hitler into an argument, you automatically lose." But I didn't have much choice. I hope that this won't sound glib or disingenuous: I wrote the book I burned to write. The years in which I was working on the first draft, I was a guide at the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. One might assume one would become inured to it; I found the opposite effect. I met survivors; I met the families of survivors. Previously I had begun writing a novel of Berlin that was not concerned with the Third Reich and Holocaust. I do think the city richly deserves such novels. But my brain was caught up in this instead. Finally it became impossible for me to write about anything else.
As its title implies, The History of History is not about the Holocaust per se but about the spiritual aftershocks of the Holocaust; about the paradoxes of a Germany today in which this history is both untouchable and omnipresent; forgotten but also so unforgettable that when my former boss at the tour company tries to launch theme tours in Berlin that have nothing to do with the Third Reich, they almost always fold for lack of customers, and where the German film industry still sets most of its big-budget productions during the twelve years of Hitler's power. It's this problematic that interests me most. It's precisely this strange fact of losing an argument when you bring Hitler into it by which I'm most fascinated.
Your book is full of ideas - what was the starting point?
At first I wanted to write a modern re-telling of Goethe's Faust. It was to be from the point of view of Margarethe (Gretchen). This is why my protagonist is named Margaret, and the alert reader will notice that the book is dotted with details and plot points from Goethe, some of them more tricky to detect than others. However, as I stated above, I had a certain type of day job, and I couldn't keep the two separated. If Gretchen were living in Berlin today, and had gone mad and lost her child, then this history might well cast its shadow into her mind.
Where did the inspiration come from for the surreal images that pack such a punch in the novel, notably the buildings of Berlin turning to flesh and Magda Goebbels stalking your protagonist, Margaret, as a bird of prey?
I'm influenced by German expressionism. And in fact I had a strange dream in 2004. I dreamed that I went to an ancient doctor high over the roofs of Berlin, and without anyone's permission, the woman reversed the positions of my conscious and unconscious minds. When I left the office, the streets were rolling with blood like sunlight. The idea is in some ways nonsensical, but it was so vivid and frightening that I remember every detail even today. This happens to Margaret, and the things she begins to see are both intensely weird and yet also symbolically predictable, rich with meaning - predictable because they spring from her own psyche, a psyche that is turned inside out in the expressionist tradition.
Margaret is a tour guide in Berlin, a role you yourself have played. How did you get into that and how did it inform your writing?
I first came to Berlin to study German in 1998. I felt a great affinity for the town. I decided to come back and study German literature for a semester in 2000, and during that second stay I met a German and fell in love with him. I went back to New York to finish my degree, I moved to Tokyo, I moved to India. But I couldn't forget him. Finally I came back to Berlin in 2003. I enrolled at the university and took any odd jobs that came my way. I worked in a bookshop, I worked as a translator (which I still sometimes do), I worked for Harvard University's Berlin office as a girl friday. Then I got the job as a tour guide because I already knew a lot about German history, and pretty soon I was focused on becoming a crackerjack tour guide -- reading obsessively about all aspects of German history. The job informed my writing in the sense that it gave me monomania. I think monomania is a wonderful thing for a novelist. Rage, heartbreak, incurable disbelief -- these things help you to stay focused on one book for several years.
Your book reminds is reminiscent of Toni Morrison's Beloved in its trajectory of memory loss followed by the horror of recalling a personal tragedy involving a child, linked to a broader tragedy on an unprecedented scale. How conscious were you of other writings about trauma or books on a similar theme?
I wasn't very conscious of similar writings as I wrote the first draft. However, I completely re-wrote this book five times, and in the course of the editing process, I became very sensitive to what else had been done with the themes. My forerunners became a board off of which I tried to play. They fuelled my interest. I trust readers will be able to notice allusions to a wide range of works, and in some cases rejoinders to them, arguments with them, and efforts to pick up where they left off.
As far as Beloved, it was my favourite book when I was 12 years old. Since then I haven't read it again. But I do think that type of early exposure can so much infiltrate your DNA that you produce variations on it for the rest of your life, perhaps without knowing it. I would not under any circumstances deny the influence.
What allows some people to live with guilt while others seek refuge in forgetting or madness, or crave some kind of externally imposed punishment? Why does Margaret fare so much worse than Dr Arabscheilis, the sinister gynaecologist she consults, who has a secret past of her own?
This is about as complicated, and about as simple, as whether or not you become sick when exposed to a dangerous virus. It depends on where your weaknesses lie. Suppose you've committed a terrible crime. If you have a conscience, your psychological health will depend on whether you find absolution -- whether you can regain a sense of cleanliness. So then the questions become: Can your society offer you absolution -- do you have a society? Can your God offer you absolution -- do you have a God? Can you offer yourself absolution -- do you have a self? Guilt is the feeling that you are dirty in a way that other people are not. The comparative, social element is crucial. It should be noted that both soldiers and non-sociopathic criminals often develop symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) after gunning people down. In short, whether in wartime or not, killing other human beings is a traumatic experience for the normal human brain. However, there was an interesting study that was done on PTSD in which it was discovered that PTSD was almost non-existent among Finnish veterans of WWII. Of course, it can only be surmised as to why exactly this is the case, but it appears significant that Finns were fighting for independence from Russia, a cause that had almost universal public support both during and after the war. The soldiers had extremely strong community bonds both among themselves and with the larger society. They were applauded during and after the war. In contrast, Vietnam was a very unpopular war with the American public, and there are extremely high rates of PTSD. I think this speaks to the question. There's no sense of guilt without a sense of abnormality. How abnormal do you feel?
Margaret is an American who was not born until after the war and yet she feels an enormous sense of guilt for the Holocaust. Is this an event future generations have yet to come to terms with?
To answer simply: yes. Let me put it this way. After years of reading, I'm sure the Nazis didn't have the foggiest idea what Judaism was. Just to give one example, their "expert" on the topic within the SD was Adolf Eichmann, a known nincompoop. Although tragically, the fascist imagination led to an identification of Jewry with a host of myths, and this led, in the real world, to unfathomable tragedy for the Jewish people, the Nazi onslaught was in fact an attack on something much larger than one group of people. If you look carefully at who the Nazis were, what they valued, and the characteristics of the chimera they believed they were battling, certain patterns emerge. The Holocaust was an attack on rational scepticism, an attack on humanism, and an attack on the Enlightenment. And I think this is well recognized in the collective unconscious today. We can feel that our civilization and its values were sent down the garbage shoot. Relatively recently and relatively easily. Of course that makes us insecure. I'm not saying it should make us insecure. I'm saying it does. We just don't always recognize the symptoms of our insecurity.
You have already lived in 6 countries (USA, Japan, India, Sweden, Germany and Russia). What keeps you moving and how has this impacted on your work?
I also spent a semester in the Ivory Coast, where I learned French, and in China, where I studied Chinese at the Beijing language institute. You know the lines from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? 'When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.' I've made a strong effort to fly by those nets too. It's always humbling, the ways in which such a flight is hampered by one's own limitations. But I've done my best. I stopped believing in America early on. I wanted to educate myself. Now I speak six languages, some better than others, read novels in several more languages, and I know what sorts of cultures convene to my personality. That's all I ever really wanted. My work is changed by this lifestyle in the sense that I have been changed by it myself. I'm not really the person I was raised to be.
Is there another novel in the works and can you tell us anything about it?
The History of History is going to be one of three novels. In these three books, I want to make a very personal reckoning with the 20th century. That means coming to understand three things. Three things that I would want to come to terms with even if I didn't write fiction. The Holocaust and the West's mantle of guilt -- that's The History of History. Failed dreams of Communist utopia in Russia -- that's the next. And finally, the relationship between the United States and the Middle East, particularly Iran -- with a focus on the role of oil. I want to make manifest the freighted mythologies behind the socio-political, expose the biblical. And I want to do it autobiographically. All three books will be lyrical, all three will be love stories, and all three books will be a transformation of my own experience. Right now I'm working on the Russian one. That's why, right now, I'm living in Moscow, learning how to make a life there.