Erin Russell reviews Ellen Keith’s remarkable debut novel, ‘The Dutch Wife,’ which has been recently translated into Dutch.
There exists in Weimar, Germany, a remarkable double bronze statue of seminal literary figures Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. The former clasps the latter’s shoulder in easy friendship, stances are calmly confident, forward facing, certain. Completed in 1857, the monument launched a veritable German cult of – wait for it – monuments. Less than a century later, Hitler would harness this nationalistic impulse and, through historical revisionary sleight of hand, transform such revered cultural heroes into defenders of the German Volk – a so-called “hereditary racial bloodstock”.
Ellen Keith’s exceptional debut novel, The Dutch Wife, (and its recent Dutch translation), is high on bestseller lists of late. It offers an insightful examination of this phenomenon of high culture’s role in repressive regimes. The motif is present throughout the whole of the complex narrative, anchoring the reader even as Keith casts her characters in increasingly choppy ethical waters. Goethe, in particular, looms large here. Keith positions the writer and his legacy as a kind of foil to her characters. He probes their moral bearings, is at times recruited to justify them, and at others, to condemn them.
One of the novel’s main speakers, for instance, the Nazi Karl Müller, despite committing atrocities various and sundry, smugly assesses himself as superior to other officers who don’t read literature. He picks up Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther with some frequency, and for him the Goethe-Schiller monument is a locus of warrant:
“The classical Weimar architecture, muted in colour but bold and assured in presence, the monument to the poets Goethe and Schiller – all this reminded him what they were fighting for…. Hitler had made many speeches from that spot…. arm raised in a salute, promising to make Germany great again.”
This inquiry into ethics and their entry through high culture makes for a distilled examination and cross-examination of character motivation. In Keith’s hands, moreover, it becomes compellingly self-reflexive of the writing process and of character creation more generally. You can almost see Keith flexing writerly muscles, interrogating the complex mechanisms at work in a psyche that can separate what one does under orders and from one’s overall sense of self. Asking how far she might push the limits of believability when it comes to a character’s fluctuating moral compass.
Keith carries us confidentially into very dark places. If it is indeed an exercise in self-reflexivity, it is a tightly controlled, well-executed one and Keith can stretch our credulity pretty far: we are gripped, fascinated, as we watch her characters back themselves into corners from which they find it difficult to emerge. One particularly strong aspect of Keith’s writing lies in her ability to ground readers firmly in bodily descriptors: these are so exquisitely fine-tuned, we can’t help inhabiting her characters and their present concerns. We can’t help taking on their moral ambivalence.
There are three speakers in the novel. Karl is the Schutzhaftlagerführer, the newly arrived second-in-command at Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Many of his sections are stream-of-consciousness ethical negotiations rooted in a desire to please a stern father. Karl develops an infatuation with the second main character, Marijke de Graaf, a young violinist and Dutch resistance worker who was apprehended with her husband in Amsterdam. She is sent first to Ravensbruck but later given the choice to follow and possibly locate her husband at Buchenwald if she consents to work there – as a prostitute to other prisoners (this latter being one of Himmler’s more curious innovations to increase productivity at worker camps).
The novel’s final – and at first oddly disjointed – speaker is a young journalism student, Luciano Wagner, abducted by the civic-military junta in 1970s Argentina during the period of state terrorism called the Dirty War. He becomes one of the thousands of citizens known simply as The Disappeared. Here, as in the WWII sections, Keith’s treatment of violence under repressive regimes is brilliantly wrought: at once removed, precise, and devastating,
Luciano is perhaps the most compelling character of the novel. His is certainly a fresh voice in best-selling literature. He is naïve. The impulse to roll your eyes at his early navel-gazing obsessions is strong. You realize quickly, however, that Keith is doing something quite clever here. The novel is a bildungsroman in the fine coming-of-age tradition of Goethe’s Young Werther – another romantic figure whose musings are as childlike as they are lovelorn.
All three of the novel’s main characters are, in a sense, engaged in the project of growing up – some take into old age to demonstrate much moral or psychological growth, but all lie within the dictates of the “novel of development” genre. Marijke’s not-really-a-choice choice to become a prostitute forever alters her own development, and sees her a much-changed Dutch wife, as it were, by the end of the novel. In Luciano’s case, his trajectory of awakening sexual identity ticks the boxes for a further queer coming-of-age subcategory of the genre. His journalistic/writer’s impulses, moreover, might slot him into the artist’s version of the genre, the kunstlerroman.
Trauma is a funny thing. As Luciano navel-gazes, gets interrogated, lives with a hood over his face, languishes, gets tortured, and pines (all put on repeat), we quickly understand that he is no political dissident, but merely an immature youth who was trotting after a crush, the possibly gay student protest leader, Fabian. We watch as Luciano’s brain attempts to sidestep present abuse and deprivation. He mediates his desperate reality by means of extremely young diction, often employing pop culture references to bracket his experience. There is Clint Eastwood, absurdly, in Wild West films, and football matches overheard on TV. There is a grappling with issues of queer identity (a topic Keith handles head-on with sensitivity and insight, both in Luciano’s case and in the concentration camps). There are imaginary letters that Luciano writes to his father, replete with painful childhood memories. All excellent material for the therapy office. All strikingly, meaningfully out of place in an ESMA torture block. When the mind cannot make sense of the extraordinary it grasps for more banal touchstones.
These imaginary letters and epistolary entries, incidentally, are a fascinatingly abrupt and raw aspect of the novel. They serve in a sense to echo the brokenness of the man writing them and of the father being addressed: the compartmentalization enacted by the brain under extreme trauma, whether to cope with oppression or to distance the self from culpability. The form results in a lack of integrated psychology on the part of both characters and is, as such, deeply affecting.
Luciano becomes the bravest of the three characters and, after being raped by a homophobic jailor, he plots a stunning resistance plan. He is possibly the most unlikable character to begin with – a kind of self-involved anti-hero – but by novel’s end, he rises stirringly, powerfully. A coming-of-age character in excellent form.
In many ways the novel might be said to be an examination of trauma itself, and how it alters the brain’s capacity to cope, to act with integrity, and even to make choices in one’s own best interest. By the end of the narrative, readers are asking themselves the almost unimaginable question: might Marijke actually leave her longsuffering husband for Karl? (As a side note, what Karl has ended up doing to Marijke’s husband, when it is revealed, is poetically dark.)
And so the novel pushes the limits both of what a person subjected to repeated violence will accept, and, crucially, what a reader will believe about how trauma alters a character: their motivation, their moral gauge, their very ability to see what is in front of their own eyes. It is telling that the first time Karl sees Marijke, she is playing a game of I Spy and everybody is looking out for something grey.
As with a child’s toy View-Master reel that has gone slightly askew, the novel’s conclusion re-shifts everything into proper focus, and provides us with a surprising but redemptive ending. It brings our own wavering vision back into alignment – as if to say, “your perspective, too, can be tugged at, shifted.” Keith masterfully troubles our ideas of right and wrong, justice and retribution.
The Dutch Wife is published by Harper Collins and in Dutch translation by Prometheus. It is available for purchase at Amazon.