2 May 2014
TWO BROTHERS by Ben Elton
I was quite looking forward to reading this book. Ben Elton is a well-known media personality, comedian, successful scriptwriter and with thirteen novels already to his name, an assumedly accomplished writer. Given such a distinguished background, how immensely disappointing TWO BROTHERS actually turned out to be.
Perhaps I’ve been spoilt, having previously completed Lionel Shriver’s masterclass BIG BROTHER (see my review of 25 April). That has its faults (as does every novel – no work of art is ever complete) but not on this scale.
It’s akin to comparing the BBC’s recent productions of 37 DAYS and JAMAICA INN. 37 DAYS gave us a tremendous history lesson about the run-up to the First World War and presented us with a fascinating character study in the form of Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary at the time. I often say that life is too short to digest any work of art more than once but in the same way as I could read REVOLUTIONARY ROAD again and again, I have every intention of watching 37 DAYS for a second time.
Not so with JAMAICA INN. Even allowing for the appalling sound quality and the historical inaccuracies, it neither told me anything new nor did it give me any insight into character. The plot was entirely predictable (I’m not sure I’ve ever read the book so I had no clues) and the characters were stereotypical to say the least. And as for that preposterous ending …
Much the same with TWO BROTHERS. If Ben Elton was trying to tell us something here then he certainly missed his target since I have no idea what it was. The bulk of the book is set in Germany during the rise of The Third Reich and its premise is that of the two eponymous brothers (Paulus and Otto), one is genuinely Jewish while the other is a pure-blooded Aryan and adopted into the same Jewish family. As children, they both fall in love with the same girl, a rich Jewess heiress (Dagmar), who together with the two boys and the daughter of a housemaid (Silke), form The Saturday Club, a bond which lasts for the rest of their lives. The tension in the book is derived from the family’s attempts to avoid The Holocaust and the rivalry between the brothers over Dagmar. Post-war, there’s a suggestion of involvement with the Secret Services.
So what is the book actually about? Nazi oppression? That’s a definitely a recurrent theme, but I didn’t feel I learnt anything new, as I did reading ALONE IN BERLIN (Hans Fallada). Is it a love story? Partly yes, but I never found it convincing, especially since we are never sure who Dagmar is in love with and really whether she’s actually in love with anyone at all. Is it a spy novel? Definitely not, despite the heavy-handed hints at the beginning of the misplaced time-slip sections of the book.
All this might not have mattered had we had some deep insight into character. At readings of my own novel, BIRDS OF THE NILE, I tell audiences that notwithstanding the title, it’s not about birds. It’s set in Egypt but it’s not about the country itself. It takes place against the background of the revolution of 2011 but it’s not about the politics of the region. It’s an exploration of the character of the main protagonist, Michael Blake, and what I hope to achieve by the end of the book is to have conveyed some form of understanding of his personality.
But if that was the intent behind TWO BROTHERS, then that comes to nothing too. The book fails to progress much beyond the point at which Paulus, Otto, Dagmar and Silke form their Club and for me they remain as children for the rest of their lives. Even their language seems to stay the same as grown-ups and at times they felt more like members of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons than they did as participants in one of the great tragedies of the 20th century.
All this is a great shame as it detracts from the real, and very moving, story that gives rise to the book. Elton's uncle, Sir Geoffrey Elton, the historian, was born Gottfried Ehrenberg to a secular Jewish family who fled Germany for Britain in 1939. Sir Geoffrey enlisted in the Army and anglicised his name. But there was a cousin, Heinz, who remained in Germany. Heinz Ehrenberg was adopted - and Aryan. When his parents fled the country, he stayed behind to work the family farm until he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. The two cousins both served in Italy and at one point fought within a mile of each other and it's only now that Elton has felt able to touch on this deeply personal part of his family's history. I fully understand his desire to do so (I would be the same) but I feel the manner in which he's done it doesn't do justice to the people involved. Better that he should have written a biography and told the story as it really happened since, as it stands, TWO BROTHERS is an unfortunate example of the axiom that fact is stranger and often more compelling than fiction.
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