on 25 August 2014
The literature of war is written by the victors. Later, the victims, and eventually, the vanquished. There is a space in which to explore how ordinary housewives, everyday soldiers and those who conform to socially accepted norms of civilisation behave in times of conflict. Do they gradually succumb to an erosion of those values, becoming cruel and cynical in order to survive? If so, what do they still hold dear?
This is a story of WWII from two German characters’ perspectives. At first they are strangers, then lovers, then talismanic memories.
Soldier Peter Faber weds a woman’s photograph in the bitter cold of the Eastern Front. Katharina performs the same ceremony with Peter’s picture in Berlin. The undertaking confers favours on both. Peter gets three weeks’ leave from the German army, Katharina gains a soldier husband (and his pension). Yet when they meet in person, their mutual attraction surprises them.
Katharina’s family has connections. Sheltered by powerful friends in the Führer’s inner circle, Peter is co-opted to the cause. It doesn’t take much. Two weeks into his marriage and he’s smashing down doors to drag Jewish children into cattle trucks.
The story is bleak and brutal. Peter’s return to the hopeless advance on Stalingrad through a Russian winter is contrasted with the selfish opportunism and weakness of Katharina’s own family as they enjoy the privileges of Berlin’s protection. Until even that is stripped away.
This is a harsh, grim tale of the horrors of war. The use of dialogue places the reader in the heads of the characters most effectively. But sometimes, that’s the last place you want to be.
on 17 April 2014
I'm not sure that it would be accurate to describe Audrey Magee's `The Undertaking' as a story, maybe it's more `theme', tracing the descent of the soul in two connected people, one on the front line, one on the home front, into a kind of hell that they could not have imagined when they started out as, respectively, a village schoolmaster and a bank clerk. The choice of Stalingrad for Peter, and east Berlin when captured by the Russians for Katharina, could not have been bettered.
The writing is spare, even bleak, but that suits the circumstances. The fact that the dialogue is not quite realistic must be deliberate, and seems to give the narration a certain distance from reality. But this is wholly effective, because Nazi Germany would have seemed impossible to us if we hadn't known that it happened; so too with the terrible fighting and cruel winter of Stalingrad in 1942, and again when the Russians vented their lust in Berlin in 1945. The style of writing suits those horrendous events perfectly.
`The Undertaking', not an easy or comfortable read, is thoroughly recommended.
The undertaking is Peter Faber's marriage "in absentia" to Katharina Spinell, a Berlin bank clerk whom he has yet to meet. The motives are mercenary on both sides: he wants ten days' leave from the Russian front which makes more sense in the following chapters recounting his ordeals in Kharkov and Stalingrad, whereas she is attracted by the prospect of his war pension if he dies. As loyal followers of the Reich, accepting Nazi propaganda without question, they are happy to fall in with Hitler's half-baked scheme for keeping up population growth at the height of battle. To their surprise, although perhaps partly because of the unreal situation, they develop the mutual love which motivates them to survive many vicissitudes.
Apart from this spark of hope, "The Undertaking" pulls no punches when it comes to the portrayal of war, as the pair begin to realise, in their very different situations, that German soldiers are not invincible against an inferior foe, the Russians are not the useless, cowardly peasants they have been led to expect, and the war will not be a rapidly won victory. It takes a while for the penny to drop with two main characters who are portrayed in a realistic rather than flattering and heroic light. Without any compunction, Katharina joins her callous parents in occupying a luxurious flat from which a Jewish family has been driven; on his "honeymoon", Faber takes part without question in the nocturnal eviction of Jews organised by the sinister fixer Doctor Reinart and he persists in believing a fellow soldier is a communist of doubtful loyalty because he is Russian - unable to grasp the tragedy that, as a Russian born in German territory, the poor man belongs nowhere. Yet the reader knows that Faber and Katharina will be punished more than they deserve, since Faber is on a march to Kharkov and Stalingrad, while Berlin is destined to be looted by drunken Russians who will perpetrate mass rape out of revenge.
The author is quite clever in glossing over historical details which does not matter, as she seems true to the spirit of the times: the moral confusion, the reduction of human beings to a basic animal state under duress, and the inescapable hand of chance. Gripping but bleak, well-constructed with some excellent dramatic moments and insights into the main characters' thinking, the story reaches a well-judged conclusion, which leaves the reader with a good deal to mull over.
"The Undertaking" is in my opinion superior to a number of recent novels which have received much more attention and hype.
on 22 February 2014
I admit to an obsession with WW11 related books and The Undertaking is an excellent addition to the list of books I've read relating to the period. For a first book it's a superb & original effort and I was in its grip from the first page to the very last word.
Set in 1941 as the invasion of Russia rolls forward, Peter Faber is a young German soldier craving some home leave. He selects a Berlin woman, Katharina Spiller, from a marriage bureau and they proceed to marry by proxy. He gets his three weeks home leave and she gets the "status" of married woman, the promise of a widows' pension should he be killed & the prospect of fulfilling her duty to Hitler & producing children for the Reich. Important considerations for a young woman in the Germany of the time!
Most of the book is written as dialogue and it moves along at a lively pace - I really liked this style of writing & I liked that the author resisted, what must have been a temptaion, to fill in background details. The sparseness of the text is for me the defining feature of this book.
There is much great writing in this book but I will single out just one particular scene which I found truly heartwrenching & especially memorable as an example - Katharina's brother has been on sick leave with clearly post traumatic stress but the military command insist he is fit to return to the fighting. Katharina & her parents are obliged to deliver him to the train for the Russian front, he is clearly barely conscious & has no idea where he is or where he is going. They have to leave him in the carriage with his gear and walk away knowing he is going to his death - an amazing piece of writing IMO.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the period but also to anyone interested in more that just a simple love story & I really hope someone makes a movie version.
on 6 September 2014
Finding books told from the perspective of a German man or woman during World War II is quite rare – both in fiction and non-fiction, but I’ve noticed several of them emerging over the last few years. I can imagine various reasons why these subjects weren’t written about, but it is a shame because it’s a subject with so much potential – and Audrey Magee has chosen a story that tells it from two perspectives – Peter and Katharina.
Peter is a soldier on the Eastern front when he decides to marry Katharina before they have even met in order to take honeymoon leave to Berlin. Katharina has decided to marry under the pressure of her parents so she will receive a pension if her husband is killed. Their romance when they do finally meet is rather awkward – their time together is limited and they are in Katharina’s parents’ house. This is perhaps the only part of The Undertaking that didn’t really work for me – they met so briefly, for a marriage of convenience and fell madly in love – I wasn’t completely convinced personally, but in the plot it’s also understandable – conflict abounds.
The vast majority of the book is spent with Peter and Katharina being apart – Peter returns to the grim eastern front at Stalingrad, and Katharina remains in Germany with her disapproving parents. The relationship is maintained through letters, and also through their own longing for each other, which both energises and sinks them simultaneously.
Magee uses rather sparse language to tell the story, and both Peter and Katharina are very economic with their dialogue, but it lends a real sense of setting to the story – the war is stressful, food and energy are severely restricted, and both are simply trying to survive their current circumstances in the hope that the future will bring something better.
Sparse and understated yet moving and captivating, although I didn’t love The Undertaking, it is definitely a book I would recommend to any lovers of historical fiction who are looking for a more unique perspective and storyline.
Audrey Magee's impressive debut novel focuses on Peter Faber, a German soldier fighting at the Eastern front, who makes the decision to marry a woman he has never met in his desperation to leave the fighting for the honeymoon leave he is entitled to on his marriage. Katharina Spinell, the young woman he is to marry, considers this a marriage of convenience, knowing she will be eligible for a widow's pension should Peter be killed in action. Before the couple meet, neither Peter nor Katharina expect to be especially attracted to each other, nor to fall in love, but when they do meet in Berlin at Katharina's parents' home in the October of 1941, they soon find themselves becoming intimately involved with one another. When Peter returns to Russia and learns that Katharina is pregnant, his resolve to survive the war intensifies and this helps him to endure the tortuous conditions ahead of him, but will that resolve enable him to survive?
Meanwhile back in Berlin, Katharina, whose father becomes increasingly involved with an influential Nazi, Dr Weinart, described by her father as a man of great integrity and connections, enjoys a lifestyle that is far removed from her previous existence. However, Katharina is not blind to what is happening around her, as she witnesses the psychological breakdown of her brother, Johannes, who although suffering from intense mental stress is sent back to the front. And as time passes Katharina, who has undertaken the decision to wait for Peter, suffers from the worry of not knowing whether he is dead or alive or whether he is undergoing ordeals of which she can only imagine. And then with Germany's defeat at Stalingrad, the tide turns, and Katharina's life changes irrevocably.
Filled with dialogue which, in this instance, is used very effectively, this is a gripping and involving story where, in addition to recounting the horrendous battle at Stalingrad, the author also deftly contrasts the devastation of war at the frontline to that of the situation at the home front, cleverly showing how humanity can be undermined or even totally removed by the brutality of war. Anyone who knows anything about the Battle for Stalingrad, where the soldiers' greatest enemy was not necessarily the opposing army, but the deadly freezing conditions and extreme lack of food, will realize that parts of this novel make for uncomfortable reading, yet this is a compelling and very readable novel and, as a debut, a rather remarkable one. I shall be interested in reading more from this author in the future.
on 22 February 2014
I could not put this book down. I am now puffy from weeping so it may not suit the over sensitive! This is such an unusual book telling the story of the Eastern Front by a German soldier and his new wife through an arranged distance marriage ceremony. It is so layered and sympathetic to the characters, and brutally honest too, as they struggle to live with their ideology and culture, and of course powerful self interest. The plot is carried largely by dialogue between the characters, families high and low in Berlin, and the soldiers at the front towards Stalingrad as Germany suffers defeat at the hands of the Russians. An amazing read which leaves one enlightened!
Google Audrey Magee to watch a good interview with her as she explains her thinking.
on 1 March 2014
A book that doesn't hold back on the realities of war. The confusion, the starvation, the degradation, the terrors, the fighting, the injuries, the death and the deprivation. The constant questions of humanity, as to what is the point? What are we fighting for? The striving to try and survive. And the stories of those left at home for ever waiting, years of waiting. Facing the same war in a different way, but equally as scared, degraded, deprived, confused and hauntingly hungry for food and good news.
This story revolves around a German family, their story, their emotions, their hopes, their fears, their sacrifice, their tragedies, their loss. Their humanity.
on 29 March 2014
This is a beautifully researched book. describing the war for.a.family in Berlin, the choices they make, and the decisions of the father to support the party and how his daughter is used as a convenient pawn in their ascent into Nazi society, thus ensuring certain privileges like a nice apartment, good food, parties, all until such time as they lose their home in the.bombing and make some decisions that precipitate their fall from grace and then begins the hard survival without support as Berlin is bombed to bits, basics are scarce and ruthless Russians soldiers arrive. The narrative switches between events in Berlin and the appalling events of the Russian front where the husband of the daughter loses all his comrades and ends up surrendering just to eat, and becomes one of the 3 million Germans who end up.in Siberia, only half of whom return. the harshness of the Russian camps is briefly touched on, and then his return to Berlin ignominious. I could have read more of this story, and highly recommend The Undertaking.
on 26 May 2016
A couple evenings ago I finished reading The Undertaking by Audrey Magee. It's unusual for a book written in English as it is the story of a German couple who marry 'for the Fatherland' in a marriage arranged by the state before they have ever met. When they meet, they fall in love. The story then follows the man as a German soldier on the Russian front and the woman as the wife of a soldier in Berlin. The novel examines the political ideologies and beliefs of individuals and how they affect their lives as well as the human struggles of these characters. It's not a book for the faint hearted as the descriptions of the Russian Front are graphic. But it is a well told, gripping story. Has anyone else read it?