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Wednesday, 15 September 2010 19:19

Words speak louder than actions

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A Postcard From The Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany by Lucy Beckett. Ignatius Press, 2009. 520 pages

World War II has long provided Americans with literary meat and drink. The combat novels of men like James Jones, Norman Mailer, and Anton Myrer remain in print; scores of espionage novels centered on the War remain popular among readers; writers as different in temperament as William Manchester and Eugene Sledge have given us memoirs that will long be read as meditations on both the war and on combat and conflict in general.

In A Postcard From The Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany (Ignatius Press, 978-1-58617-269-5, $19.95), Lucy Beckett, an English teacher, author and mother of four children, has written a thick novel different from most other fictional takes on the war. Easily summarized — Beckett focuses on a group of young students, mostly Germans and Poles, who become friends in the 1920s and 1930s, and so stand witness to the rise of both Stalinism and Nazism — A Postcard From The Volcano is not so easily digested. Beckett takes us on a long, leisurely tour of battlefields — not the bloody arenas of Stalingrad, Normandy or the Blitz, but the battlefields of the mind and heart of intelligent young people who, caught up in the maelstrom of ideology and faith struggling for dominance in Europe at the time, are forced to pick sides in the growing conflict and then to live by their decisions.

What separates A Postcard From The Volcano from other books about the war is its emphasis on ideas. Beckett understands that concepts like Nazism, Communism, dialectical materialism, and even Catholicism and Protestantism do not emerge full-blown out of nowhere. These philosophies and the others she brings into discussion in her novel — the discussions among the students range from Shakespeare to Nietzsche, from Plato to St. Paul — supply the foundations for Europe’s cathedral of horrors and heroism: the Holocaust, the millions of deaths from war and aerial bombings, the brave but seemingly futile resistance to an all-powerful state by so many Germans, Poles, and Russians.

Max Ernst, Count von Hofmannswaldeu, a German from Silesia, stands at the center of Beckett’s story. Born 13 years before the end of the First World War, Max comes of age in a Germany torn by war and by the tribulations that follow in the aftermath of that war. His father, an aristocrat proud both of the Prussian military and of Germany in general, is murdered during a riot in a village near their home after the war; Max’s brother, a soldier of the Great War, joins the brutal Freikorps and eventually helps bring Hitler to power; his mother, who is Jewish, proves the cause of Max’s own fall from state approval; his mentor and tutor, Dr. Mendel, also Jewish, gives Max lessons in humanism along with Latin and Greek.

When Max goes off to the university, he befriends a group of students who will influence the direction of his life and his thinking. Strongest among these influences is Adam, a cosmopolitan free-thinker with whom Max debates religion, science and philosophy. He also falls in love with Anna Halperin, a Jewish girl who is forced by Nazism to return to Russia then to Lithuania, where she marries and has children.   

These two friends and others — medical and law students — are, by the end of A Postcard From The Volcano, swept up into the rushing current of history surrounding them. Each discovers the truth of the adage: “You may not be interested in war and politics, but politics and war is very much interested in you.” Each character in Beckett’s novel must play out the conflicts of politics and war while still trying to find meaning and hope in their philosophies and various faiths.

A Postcard From The Volcano will not appeal to a wide audience of readers. Beckett gives over much of her book to conversations, long discursive discussions about ideas and political events which will undoubtedly try the patience of many visitors to the book, particularly those who are accustomed to reading today’s fast-paced novels. Even readers who enjoy the book may find themselves wishing that Beckett had opted for more action rather than so much talk, that she had added more excitement to her novel, the thuggery, street fights, and violence that marked this European era.

Such an option, however, might well have damaged the purpose behind Postcard From The Volcano. As we follow the winding trail of opinions and ponderings highlighting Beckett’s novel, we begin to discern a special purpose in her prose, the reason behind so much wind and so little lightning. Beckett seems to offer to us the subtle message that ideas are more important than actions, for it is ideas, those creations of humankind that can shape and caress the lives of a million followers, that inevitably form the matchsticks and powder of action.

Ignatius Press, which normally puts out books closely associated with Catholicism, deserves commendation for publishing A Postcard From The Volcano. Few other publishers would be willing to touch such a collection of dialogues that at first glance seem part freshman bull sessions and part a recording of conversations taken from the teachers’ lounge in the philosophy department of a prestigious university. Despite this canard, A Postcard From The Volcano and its grinding historical recreation is worth the extra effort. Its analyses will stay with loyal readers for a long time, a reminder of our past, a reflection of sorts of our present, and a possible warning about the near future.

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