Winnie and Wolf

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

If A. N. Wilson’s novel Winnie and Wolf doesn’t alienate readers with its heavy allusions to German history and music, it might drive them away with its premise: The book chronicles the putative love affair between the grotesquely cuddly Adolf “Wolf” Hitler and Winnie Wagner, the opera-managing daughter-in-law of the infamous composer. But anyone who sticks with this story will witness Wilson, whose biographical subjects run from Tolstoy to Jesus, beautifully pull off a Wagnerian feat: He’s written a complex novel about history and art, and imbued his despicable characters with emotions that are believable (even when they’re loathsome).

The story is told in retrospect, in the 1980s, by Herr N——, a onetime Wagner family assistant, true believer in the Master (the composer, not the genocidal mastermind) and classically unreliable narrator. Now marooned in East Germany, N—— revisits the prewar glory days in Bayreuth, his hometown and the site of Wagner’s self-built concert hall. N—— is writing an extended letter to his adopted daughter, Senta, in an attempt to explain the truth about her birth and parentage (look to the title for clues). Wrestling with Winnie’s role in Wolf’s rise—“love and death, inextricably mixed”—the narrator skirts around his own culpability in the destruction of his family and country, and of the Jews and “pansies” who once peopled Bayreuth’s musical sphere.

“To say one has been bewitched is not to deny the power of whatever magic has worked the enslavement,” N—— writes in one of his frequent digressions about Wagner’s work. He’s purportedly commenting on a plot point in the Ring cycle. But he also invokes, with chilling restraint, Wagner’s egomaniacal devotion to his own work, as well as Winnie’s—and so many Germans’—love for Hitler.

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By A.N. Wilson. FSG, $25.