“God is dead”
As a German philosopher of some little note once said, and for many people, that’s probably as much as they know about Nietzsche, the quotes. There is, after all, a lot of them, he is the most quotable of philosophers. Yet even having studied philosophy at a university level, and touched more than a little on his work I knew next to nothing about the man himself and his life. Which is a strange blind-spot as the man’s life, loves and passions must have influenced his works after all.
Katie Salvo, a friend of mine, indeed, the main proofreader on my last novel, has written a novel drawn from meticulously researched fact which go no small way to rectifying this blind spot. Though I approached reading the novel and now reviewing it with a certain amount of trepidation because Katie has been a huge help with my own writing. I hate writing glowing reviews unless I am been utterly honest, yet I had no desire to disappoint a friend when reading and reviewing their own work. I was, I will admit, a tad afraid I would not enjoy the novel. As it turned out I need not have worried at all…
The novel follows the life and tells the story of, not Nietzsche himself but of the woman who exercised the most influence on him throughout his life. His sister Elizabeth. A woman of somewhat singular determinations and passions herself. Through his sister, we learn a great deal about the character and flaws of the great philosopher. As well as his sisters own flaws and the flaws of the fledgeling nation of German in which they lived.
I have always held a keen interest in history, the history of the German people before 1914 is not something I have read in detail. Which is surprising when you consider the influence of Germany on everything that came after. Before the early 1900’s the world was dominated by the great European powers of France and Britain. Germany in comparison was almost a bit part player. Important in Europe but with little influence beyond it compared to the vast colonial empires. Yet it had its own character and was going through its own growing pains as a nation to be. It is that missing period, the foundations of Germany, it’s political struggles and ideologies that form the backdrop to the life of Elizabeth and her brother, and it is this strange alien world which drew me in as much as the characters within it.
The circles that Elizabeth and her brother move in are among the elite of this dawning German. Wagner, the composer of Germanic nationalism in more ways than one, is one of Elizabeth’s several lovers.As indeed was her brother himself. They had a consuming, destructive, and utterly incestuous affair that threatens to ruin them both, and their relationships with others. Indeed Elizabeth is a woman who, while she maintains a public facade of Victorian virtue, is never short of lovers among people of influence and power. It would be easy for the author to have focused on these affairs and done so without a delicate touch. Instead, they are alluded to, never hidden but never dwelled upon for the sake of it.
Like all great books should, this is one that will teach you much about its subject and it’s setting. The alien way (to me) in which the Jews of Germany were vilified long before the rise of national socialism, yet somehow they were vilified with a strange politeness of the Victorian era. The seeds of anti-Semitism which in years to come lead Germany down far darker paths are easy to see. Yet they too are not dwelled upon luridly. They are part of the story but not sensationalised as they easily could have been. While the characters various views are expressed there is a balance to the way this is done which avoids characters been dominated by them. Making them living breathing pieces of flawed humanity on the page rather than cliches.
In the end, this is a story about love, and its tragic consequences told with an elegant flourish. Through its pages, you can slip into a different time and place, its tone and style in keeping with the writing that feels Edwardian in places, though not to its detriment. It is told in a way that fits the era being described. The affair between brother and sister which is at the heart of the story, was a scandal then, as it would be now. But as a German philosopher of some note once said:
‘Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil.’