A.N. Wilson is to me a curiously unknowable writer (perhaps intentionally, given his decision to be known by his initials): the author of twenty novels none of which I’ve heard of, and an all-round literary figure who hasn’t been sparing in his criticism of others’ books. He was reportedly surprised that Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, was upset by a bad review Wilson had given him: “I thought it was possibly the worst thing I had ever read. … Most critics will not tell you that the vast majority of books published are crap.”
Most recently he was in the news for falling victim to a prank by a rival biographer. Wilson had criticised Bevis Hillier’s biography of John Betjeman (“a hopeless mishmash of a book”) and wrote his own, which prompted Hillier to fake a letter from ‘Eve de Harben’ (anag. ever been had) containing a supposed love letter to Betjeman, the initial letters of which spelled out A.N. Wilson is a shit. Wilson was taken in and put it in his biography.
So will Winnie and Wolf have Wilson’s detractors rubbing their hands in glee? Probably not, as its longlisting for the Booker Prize has assured it some success already. I suspect, however, that it will be one of the least loved titles on the list.
It tells the story of a relationship between Adolf Hitler and Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of German composer Richard Wagner. This in itself, whether true or not, might not seem particularly novel news: Hitler’s love for Wagner’s operas is well-known, so he might be expected to have associated with his descendants, and Wagner himself more than flirted with anti-Semitism.
In fact this central relationship doesn’t feature very strongly for much of the novel, which is more concerned with Wagner and his family and admirers, and the operas themselves. Wilson treads a line between filling in the background for the ignorant (such as me) and flooding us with unfamiliar names and an accumulation of detail. For much of the time, despite its quasi-gossipy and anecdotal tone in places, Winnie and Wolf seems more like an essay than a novel.
Nonetheless there are effective moments of drama, such as the account of people in Beyreuth stopping the destruction of a synagogue during Kristallnacht, or a scene between a Nazi and a Jew on a bus, and the overall depiction of the slow strangulation of the Jews in Germany is well done. Wilson also gives us a human and sometimes ridiculous Hitler (or ‘Wolf’ as he is mostly referred to), with a full complement of fear of flying, sexual peccadilloes and uncontrollable flatulence:
With each phrase proceeding from the orator’s mouth, a phrase which moved the crowd below to an ever-greater sense of patriotism, his body gave a jerk, and the buttocks let out the quickfire whumps and cracks that accompanied the volleys firing from the mouth, and the room gradually filled with a gaseous sulphur odour.
There is also interesting discussion on how “all the terrible qualities … praised as quintessentially German were aspects, the worst aspects, of Britain. … We Germans never had an Indian empire and we never put down uprisings with the brutal severity used by the British in their Indian mutiny in which they fired human beings out of cannons and even slow-roasted them on fires. It was the British who invented racism and, in South Africa, concentration camps.”
There is much impressive erudition on display, though the difficulty for a reader who knows little of European philosophy and less of Wagner’s life and works, it’s impossible to know how much of it is real and how much invention. The narrative lacks tension because we know as much about the main thrust at the beginning as we do by the end, and the narrator adopts an uneasy position somewhere between impartial observer and active agent in the drama.
It’s safe to say that of the twelve Booker longlist titles I’ve read so far, Winnie and Wolf is the one I’d be least likely to finish if I’d read it on my own initiative. As a novelist then, A.N. Wilson isn’t as bad as Bevis Hillier’s assessment, but he’s not quite a hit either.