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The Willi Münzenberg Mystery

In response to:

The Mystery of Willi Münzenberg from the November 3, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

Michael Scammell suggests [in “The Mystery of Willi Münzenberg,” NYR, November 3, 2005] that I might have “disarmed” critics of my book Double Lives by labeling it “fiction,” revising it to resemble Sebald’s historical meditations, or that splendid fact-heavy work of fiction (partly inspired by Double Lives) Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Sepharad. It’s an ingenious suggestion, interesting to me mainly because it pinpoints, with Mr. Scammell’s customary precision, a wide but friendly gulf that separates him from me over the proper way to write about the past.

I see the titles “novelist” and “historian,” here at least, as honorifics, and I shrug them off. My gifts and obsessions, such as they are, lie in the arts of narrative, and I prize narrative—story—as one highly useful means of discerning truth. Why do I think this? That, as they say, would fill a book. Here, it’s enough to note that the arts of fiction and history both meet and diverge in narrative, not just in my work, but everywhere.

Mr. Scammell and I differ over exactly how they meet and diverge. I risk a time-worn truism when noting that in themselves facts say nothing. Their sole—albeit massive—intellectual virtue is being real. One way to give facts coherence—just one, but still—is to organize them into a coherent story, using the narratives forms in which both fiction and history meet and diverge, melding in a difference that is never absolute. Of course, all the historian’s facts must be verifiably genuine: the novelist gets to pull some out of fantasy. Some histories—like Mr. Scammell’s wonderful biographies—rely on a very great density of fact. Other histories are less dense with fact. Some novelists write like Molina and Sebald; some lift off into wonderland. Beyond that—and there is a great deal beyond that—the divergences are not absolute. No novelist will succeed without reporting something real. No historian presents facts and facts alone. They are on a spectrum.

That my place on that spectrum is rather remote from the one held by Michael Scammell does not mean that I am or should be writing fiction. Mr. Scammell protests that because of my “surfeit” of imagination, Double Lives is filled with “hints, conjectures, and far-fetched hypotheses that read more like a suspense novel than a scholarly study.” Maybe so. Mr. Scammell cites two examples: my treatment of the significant evidence suggesting that there was Nazi– Soviet collaboration over the Reichstag fire trial of 1933, and my attitude toward the Comintern’s motives in mounting the Popular Front propaganda campaign in 1935. Actually, neither example is very well chosen. My discussion of the evidence about the trial is clearly, almost cumbrously, labeled speculation. And my views of the Comintern’s motivations are hardly those of a wild man: they are close to the currently received view.

Still, no quibbling. Let’s say that I really did decide to write a suspense novel about the Reichstag trial. Believe me, I considered it. It might have been fun. It might even have been better than fun. I may do it still. At length, I decided a novel about this murky event would lose too much in truth—not fact; provisional truth—for whatever gained in pacing.

Conjecture fills history. Every narrative, even the most fact-heavy, is some sort of hypothesis. No story—no history either—is tellable only one way. That many of the most important issues will never be decided does not mean we must consign them to silence. Using a great many facts, and some “hints and conjectures and hypotheses,” I have tried to tell a set of linked stories (not all by any means focused on Willi Münzenberg), about some conspiratorial events embedded in one tremendous moral disaster between the two wars. Mr. Scammell is not sure they are history. Maybe they are, and maybe they are not. But they are not fiction.

Stephen Koch

New York City

Michael Scammell replies:

I thank Stephen Koch for the friendly tone of his letter and don’t think we are far apart. That fiction and nonfiction use many of the same literary techniques to achieve their ends is a truism that I cannot quarrel with. That he and I write different kinds of nonfiction is also clear, though I hope my fact-heavy biographies are not entirely devoid of literary devices and narrative interest. The reason I made my comment about fiction versus nonfiction is not that I wanted Mr. Koch to write like me, nor for him to write “a suspense novel,” but that I felt Double Lives had fallen between two stools, and that genre confusion, as much as content, had occasioned some of the criticism to which the book had been subjected.

The point is that Double Lives, whatever the author’s disclaimers in his preface, comes equipped with an apparatus (citations, excerpts from archives, references to academic sources, footnotes, an extensive bibliography) that is drawn from the world of scholarship, and sets up corresponding expectations. Yet Mr. Koch also claims the right to exercise, within the same book, the prerogatives of the novelist. As narrator he purports to know, for example, that Countess Karolyi “gasped” when listening to a secret agent in Berlin (p. 110), and that Himmler and Göring stood “tense” and “clutching their lists” on the tarmac at Tempelhof Airport as Hitler landed on July 3, 1934 (p. 164), to give just two examples. His narrative is replete with qualifiers like “probably,” “likely,” “presumably,” “must have,” and other indications of authorial speculation, and his conjectures frequently outstrip the evidence.

The problem is that scholarly practitioners and historians can tolerate only so much conjecture with their facts, and require a higher degree of accuracy and a more exacting standard of verifiability than the general reader. The point of my reference to Sebald and Molina as successful practitioners of what I might call “fictional history” was to suggest that these two writers, not so remote from Mr. Koch in talent and interests, seem to have solved the problem of how to write speculative history without bringing down the wrath of scholars on their head. What these books have in common is that they place the narrator front and center, and send a clear signal to the reader that their exploration of history is to be pursued through a subjective meditation on the intersection between personal lives and historical events, and don’t bolster their speculations with footnotes and other props.

It goes without saying that Mr. Koch has the right to write in whatever way he likes. In Double Lives, however, I felt he hadn’t fully realized his intentions, and my comparison was intended as a friendly reminder that there might be a better way to do so.

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