Summer 1997, and I was camping in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. I stood on a tree trunk, light falling around me like snowflakes, and I was infused with the idea for what has become J SS Bach.
E.M. Forster claimed that inspiration like this was from some genius loci: a ‘god of place’. When one such god visited him, he pushed out ‘The Story of a Panic’ in a week. My idea kept me in thrall for twenty years.
In truth, twenty years isn’t so long for me. I write nonfiction books to deadlines, but with novels I turn through draft after draft. My initial inspiration gave me two central characters and a dramatic conflict. He was a Jewish composer-cum-cellist, she was a musicologist. What bound them together was the concentration camp at Dachau, where he played in the secret orchestra and where her grandfather was the Adjutant. What drove the conflict was her fury that the cellist spoke on behalf of her grandfather at his war trial.
My reference library for this novel was as broad as for any of my nonfiction books. As a novelist, the Holocaust theme left me with a dilemma. The Nazis committed countless atrocities, most of which will be forever unknown, and to imagine more such atrocities into existence felt abhorrent. My responsibility, I decided, was to draw close and examine what was so repellent. Ultimately, a novel should lead you behind what is monstrous to the human domain in which the monstrous is formed. To restrain my imagination from committing excesses, I decided to source my points of action from the historical record.
The initial pillar of my book was the story of the musician Herbert Zipper, who was transported from Vienna to Dachau, where he formed a secret orchestra. I had presumed my character would spend the whole war in Dachau, but my research taught me otherwise. Dachau was emptied of its Jews prior to the Nazi pogrom of November 1938. Zipper was transported to Buchenwald, so my character had to go there too. Andrzej Panufnik’s autobiography gave me useful details of a musical education in the Vienna of 1938. George Clare gave me the soundscapes of Vienna’s streets.
It would have been easier if this character had been a pianist, like me. He refused. He was a cellist and a composer. His character rejected anything sourced in my own life experience. The Cello Suites of J.S.Bach are central to the narrative, and so for years they played as my surround-sound. On disc, I rooted out performers who would have been my musician’s peers so I could appreciate his cello technique. I delved into the works of twentieth century composers to understand his musical influences and what niche he would have filled with his own compositions.
All of my research needed space in which to mull. We have a small house in the Pyrenees, in a village of few people and no commerce. Much of this novel was developed there, on long walks through the mountains. These walks gave me my plot points. But the going was still slow, partly due to structural problems. With a completed draft in place, I knew that something was still very wrong. A night of beating my head against a French pillow told me to shift the start of the action back, and a new chapter formed that showed my female character arriving at Los Angeles airport.
With each new draft my focus turned to a character who had previously been in the periphery. At first I focused on the mother, the sister and the niece my musician left behind in Vienna, and my story followed their inevitable trajectory from that city to the ghetto of Terezín, and from there to Auschwitz. Then the women in the Nazi lineage stepped forward. Each had a vivid story to tell. What would have happened to the wife and daughter of a Nazi hanged for war crimes? I researched. They would have wandered through the debris of war-torn Germany as displaced persons. Eventually, the boats that ferried refugees to Australia mixed together Nazis and Jews. As the strands of characters’ stories developed, they also intertwined and enriched the plot.
I took trains and planes and followed my characters to Dachau, Terezín, and Auschwitz. Partly my visits were clinical – a way to collect detail, perspective and scale. But on my characters’ behalf, I also needed to learn what it was like to be a human living in such a place. The visits to the camps floored me. Tragedy blankets their remains, and it was impossible for me not to think of the millions of tales that had been left mute there, without expression.
A particular inspiration were my conversations with Helen Bamber, who I met in London. One of the first volunteers into the concentration camp of Belsen, Helen found that the keenest need of survivors was to have someone listen to their tale. Helen gave her life to being such a witness. In a way, writing J SS Bach was an attempt to be a witness too. Fiction has a way of recovering stories that were never allowed to be told. Perhaps that is why the writing of this book affected me more deeply than anything else I’ve ever written, and why it took so long.
Martin Goodman’s J SS Bach is published 6 March by Wrecking Ball Press.
Photograph © Tom Swinnen