Andromeda: Following our Obsessions

December 7, 1941—seventy years ago today.

All week we’ve been treated to news items about Pearl Harbor and the run-up to World War II, and I’ve felt the glimmer and pull of intriguing forgotten stories, trying to distract me from my current work, which is not set in the 1940s. (The current WIP has two storylines, one in 2004 and one in the late 1800s; one could average those two time-settings and come up with the 1940s, but that’s beside the point, I think.)

Over the weekend, I intended to read a relaxing novel (set and written in the 1970s—a real page turner) and found myself instead netsurfing in search of firsthand female prisoner-of-war accounts from Japan—or more precisely, letters from those former prisoners several years after the war, when they still didn’t feel well or fit in.

I’ve never painted a little tank or soldier model, can’t converse about famous battles, and tuned out in many of my high school history classes (though I did start paying attention in college, where my major was public policy). It’s the life just beyond the margins of war that have always interested me the most, the times before and after international conflicts, the personal storylines running parallel or perpendicular to the public storylines with which we are all more familiar.

Or maybe it’s just chance that I’ve written two novels set in the 1930s, and it has nothing to do with war at all, but only about the chronological distance, a matter of perspective. Stories set too long ago can feel like fuzzy costume dramas, inhabited by entirely unfamiliar personalities; ones set currently sometimes portray issues or foreground ephemera that don’t date well, creating a two-dimensional image of things that won’t ultimately matter. We all have our preferred vantage points, our angles of perception. For ten years, I’ve found myself inventing stories (not all of them by any means, just more of them) set two generations ago, in my grandfather’s time. Go figure.

And then there is the matter of that time period’s culture—a culture in which my other passions, art and classical music, were taken seriously. In the 1930s and 1940s, dictators not only used art as propaganda and policy, they often dabbled quite seriously on their own. Hitler was a failed artist. Churchill was an immensely successful one. Mussolini practiced violin every day.

My first two novels—one, about a cellist (The Spanish Bow), the other about a young enthusiast of classical sculpture (The Detour); both about people whose artistic desires end up having ethical and political significance—probably couldn’t be set in contemporary times. Our recent presidents have been more interested in basketball and jogging than art, and I can’t recall the last time a sonata or sculpture strongly impacted international policy—though if I’m mistaken, please inform me.

But my post today isn’t really about the World War II period. It’s about how we find ourselves drawn again and again to certain themes, questions, time periods, and places—and how, even if we try to ignore those fascinations, they just don’t seem to go away.

I’d already let Hitler play a bit part in The Spanish Bow and swore I wouldn’t use that mustachioed character again—he’s gotten too much press and screen-time already. Then I dreamed up The Detour, which happens to take place in 1938 Munich and Italy, and involves Nazi art policy. (Hard to keep Bavaria’s most famous failed artist out of that one). In the new novel, I never actually show Hitler in person and I did my best to limit mentions of the Führer at all, granting him an invented nickname, Der Kunstsammler—The Collector—to keep even the sound of his name off my pages. But of course, he’s still there.

Having mentioned concentration camps in my first novel and having edited a concentration camp scene out of my second—though I’d visited Dachau in 2009, in order to write that scene—I felt pretty sure I was done with camps. (Not that everyone knows about the Holocaust, believe it or not. There’s a reason German schoolchildren are required to tour the camps, for good reason. But at the same time, the Holocaust can feel like a too-easy subject for melodrama, so one proceeds carefully.)

Yet—what do you know—last month I was reading about the life of a significant filmmaker and discovered that she used concentration camp inmates in one of her films, allegedly returning them to their fates once she was finished with them. Suddenly, I was in research mode, turning up all kinds of fascinating new details that felt essential to my own thematic obsessions about moral decision-making and the development of 20th century artists’ careers. When my husband asked me what I was reading about one night, as he was heading to bed and I was still glued to my laptop, I said, “Oh nothing. Just an article in The Atlantic.” I didn’t add that it was an Atlantic article from years ago, about a tragic episode that took place many, many years earlier. For some reason, I did not want to confess that I felt the lure of another historical novel coming on, because I am trying—really trying—to stop living in the past. (Maybe. Or maybe not.)

As writers, we are surrounded with story ideas, questions, images. Nearly all of them will float past us, undetected, or touch briefly and melt, like snowflakes. Certain ones just keep sticking, or crystallize, or burrow under our skins, not just lovely floating things at all, but viruses that lurk, perhaps even changing our own DNA.

On this blog alone, I’ve mentioned Philip Roth, who writes again and again about Newark, New Jersey. Our own 49 writers friend, author Jo-Ann Mapson, wrote recently about including animals in her work (and she explained good reasons for doing so). We repeat ourselves not because it’s easy, but because there is some truth out there, some desperate urge still in need of expression, some new sketch that demands to be made after the subject has been turned around a few degrees, or lit differently, or placed into a new context.

When will I stop writing about the 1930s and 1940s? Not when I’ve answered my primary questions, but perhaps only when I feel that finally, I have framed those questions to my own satisfaction. The only questions that interest me have no answers, in the end.

Do you have a thematic obsession you’ve indulged or denied? A reason for reading books set in particular times or places? A philosophical question that keeps emerging in your own work?

2 thoughts on “Andromeda: Following our Obsessions”

  1. Obsessions: a great topic, Andromeda. Anyone whose read my stuff knows some of mine: the wild side of life and our species' complex relationship with our homeland, the Earth, and the planet's other inhabitants and manifestations (from chickadees, bears, and spiders to landforms and what some might call the "invisibles" of life). There's no end to the possibilities . . .

  2. Whether or not I intend to, my themes tend to lean to inner healing probably because of my own family situations and my past.

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