For some reason, we subconsciously expect our heroes to be perfect—or at least free of major flaws. Perhaps it is a relic of childhood adoration of the father, a wish fulfillment that we ourselves might attain perfection, or even an unexpected outcome of the universal human love of story. Whether the hero in question is an athlete or a musician, a statesman or a soldier, we find it upsetting to discover that the great man has feet of clay. Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, but his regard for human rights did not keep him from abusing his fourteen-year-old slave girl—who existed outside his categories of those entitled to rights, since she was simultaneously female, African-American, and (in his mind) property.
Nor was Jefferson alone in his contradictions. Woodrow Wilson argued for the rights of ethnic minorities yet made racist comments about W. E. B. Dubois. Cecil Rhodes held a dim view of those under his colonial governance. And Johann Sebastian, like most religious Protestants of his day, expressed antisemitic views on more than one occasion, including in his choral pieces.
Curiously, heroines tend not to attract this kind of unconditional adoration. As I noted in “First, but not Equal,” female celebrities, especially women in power, more often suffer from slurs on their characters and allegations of adultery, scheming, and murder. That’s why I talked about fathers and great men, above.
Of course, times change, and standards change with them. The present exhibits plenty of unfortunate attitudes and behaviors, and the past even more so. Our task is to acknowledge both the virtues and the flaws in our heroes—to see them, perhaps, as evidence of how far we have progressed and how far we have yet to travel. As Lauren Belfer notes in my most recent interview, the question for us is how to interpret flawed genius and react to it. In Bach’s case, the music remains beautiful even when the libretto repels. We must find a way to respect the brilliance of the first as we reject the hatred implicit in the second.
The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
It’s May 1945, and a pair of American GIs in occupied Germany find themselves at what appears to be an abandoned estate. When they enter, they discover a resident, reduced to burning valuable books for fuel. Within an hour, the resident is dead and the GIs are speeding back to their camp, a few “souvenirs” in their rucksacks.
So begins And After the Fire, the new book from bestselling author Lauren Belfer, whose previous forays into historical fiction include City of Light and A Fierce Radiance. Through the independent but intertwined stories of Susanna Kessler and Sara Levy, Belfer’s third novel explores, among other things, the long history of antisemitism in Europe, beginning in late eighteenth-century Berlin and ending in twenty-first-century Manhattan. The link between Susanna, Sara, and the fleeing GIs is a previously undiscovered cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, hidden for three centuries because of its offensive and inflammatory libretto.
Bach’s missing cantata is fictional, but the questions it raises are very much part of today’s headlines. How do we deal with the reality that greatness and intolerance can exist side by side? How do we cope with the unpleasant relics of our own past? For this reason—and for its compelling portrayal of Susanna and Sara, so alike yet so different, in part because of the times in which they live—And After the Fire is a novel not to be missed.
On another note, the four-way post on writing historical fiction that I mentioned last week is now up on the Writer’s Digest blog: Brian Klems, “The Writer’s Dig.” You can find my full original post, with links to the others, at “Party All the Time.” The mixture of styles and approaches is quite fascinating. Thanks to all those involved—especially Brian, for agreeing to publish us, and Kristen Harnisch, for convincing him.