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Drawn to the flame

Art Winslow, a former executive editor and literary editor of the Nation, writes frequently about books and culture.

IT is an irony of history -- and perhaps of literature -- that Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist propagandists and the German officer who led the attempt to assassinate the Fuhrer on July 20, 1944, were both ardent admirers of the same poet, a cultish figure enamored of the idea of a “Secret Germany,” an elite-led, hierarchical Geheimes Deutschland.

You will find that poet, Stefan George (a mini-messianic figure in his time), and the failed assassin, Claus von Stauffenberg, invoked in Richard Grant’s “Another Green World,” a grab bag of a novel. It is partly a World War II thriller a la “The Guns of Navarone,” with the death camps of the Holocaust a railroad spur away; partly a gay coming-of-age story (George himself is presumed to have been homosexual); partly a consideration of artistic or aesthetic longing played off the German Romantic poet Novalis’ image of the blue flower; partly a greatest-hits list of the German literary canon from Goethe forward; and partly a sketch of the youth movements in the Weimar years, presaging the advent of Nazism.

Grant’s prose is studded with mythic references and fairy-tale motifs: Sorrowing young Werther meets Heinrich Himmler meets the Brothers Grimm, with Odin’s ravens -- Memory and Thought -- circling overhead. Inherent also is an attempt -- although this is more oblique -- to ponder what in literature and Teutonic myth might have contributed to Nazi thought. Midway through the novel, a self-important academic reports being asked by Himmler, “What is the key to understanding a people -- to knowing how they think?” To which he replies, “It is their literature, Herr Reichsfuhrer. The stories they tell of themselves. Above all, the very oldest ones, the stories that have no author.”

“Es war einmal” (Once upon a time), Grant intones more than once in the book, and in its diffuse way “Another Green World” ponders the specter, perhaps only imagined, of a golden age lost: of youth, of a time before Nazism, of a trueness to self. Grant writes too of the Zwischenstufe, an in-between time or state, and his novel is pervaded by that quality, as if it were caught between genres, unsure of what it was going to be. When Ingo Miller, the German American proprietor of a “beer-and-schnitzel joint north of Dupont Circle” in Washington and one of the book’s main characters, witnesses his first casualties of war, he thinks of a line from poet and novelist Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff: “Nevermore will you come out of this wood.” Ingo doesn’t know whether he will, and we begin to wonder whether we will either.

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The reputations of Herman Wouk, Alistair MacLean, Frederick Forsyth and Alan Furst are safe from assault by Grant; nor will the war novels of Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Irwin Shaw or James Jones pale in comparison with “Another Green World.” In spurts, Grant’s evocations of wartime atmosphere -- among partisans or a tossed-together band of Nazis hunting them in the Tatry Mountains on the Czech-Polish border -- are quite good. But what he has written is not principally a war novel, and when the plotting repeatedly tugs in that direction, it seems more a requisite of mise-en-scene than something close to the book’s heart. The real war in this novel is one of perspective: "[T]he entire corpus of German literature from the Nibelungenlied onward was ... one long breathless chronicle of heartache and loss....Then more loss, more betrayal, more loneliness. Ingo knew it, he had always known it; it was the worst-kept secret in all of Secret Germany.”

As Christopher Browning notes in “The Origins of the Final Solution,” “If one wants to know what Hitler was thinking, one should look at what Himmler was doing.” How clever, then, that Grant has invented a document signed by Himmler to drive his plot. The document has fallen into the hands of a mysterious resistance fighter in German-occupied territory who wishes it delivered to the West. For reasons that eventually become clear, Ingo is sought out as the emissary to retrieve the slip of paper, so slight and yet so weighty. By the report that reaches Ingo, it reads, “The Fuhrer has ordered me to” -- Ingo hesitates in translation; is it “destroy” or “eradicate”? -- “the Jews.” (“Der Fuhrer hat mir befohlen, die Juden auszurotten.”)

It is May 1944, and the plea for Ingo’s help comes from longtime friend Martina Panich, who is now “leaker-in-chief to the United States War Refugee Board,” an entity formed just months before by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., the only Jewish member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Cabinet. (Grant, a writer of science fiction, is here and elsewhere accurate on such historical details.) With some swashbuckling support from Hollywood impresario Ari Glasser; a rabbi named Harvey Grabsteen, who is involved with the Zionist organization Agudas Israel; assorted veterans (including, from the Great War, a trio known as Three Guys Named Moe); and some freelance hangers-on, Martina organizes Operation Smoking Gun. The plan calls for the insertion of a small group behind enemy lines to retrieve the incriminating document for all the world to see.

These irregulars begin military training and name themselves the Varian Fry Brigade. Being fiction, “Another Green World” isn’t strictly answerable to the historical record, but here one sees how eccentric history can be. Varian Fry, who studied classics at Harvard, was a 32-year-old editor and writer with no relief experience when he joined a private group, the Emergency Rescue Committee, to travel to Europe and aid refugees. Learning on the job, he and his colleagues managed to ferry more than 1,500 people out of harm’s way, including Marc Chagall and philosopher Hannah Arendt, before his deportation from Vichy France early in the war.

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Grant plays with such historical contexts, oscillating between the complex political spectrum of youth movements in Germany’s interwar period and the various resistance groups in Central Europe as Hitler’s forces begin to weaken. Time frames shift accordingly, between 1929 and 1944. The myth-soaked landscape of the Hohe Meissner, a revered mountain where the prewar youth groups gathered, and the Tatry Range are the chief settings -- both Magic Mountains in their different ways. Ingo follows the summons he received because somewhere, “hidden deep in the forest, was a secret crack in the wall of time, a passage from one world to the other.”

Critical to Grant’s cast of characters, whose lives are entangled both as youths on German soil and later, in the war, is an American journalist, a failed novelist and silver-spooner named Samuel Butler Randolph III. Butler is essentially an embedded correspondent with the Soviet forces, which allows a glimpse of the war from the Russian side. Through him, we are given the first view of a death camp, when he is invited to tour Majdanek. “The creepiest thing about this place,” Butler thinks, is “its humdrum normality.”

For reasons of their own, the Soviets are also interested in the Himmler document, and this sets up a search for the man who holds it, the elusive, physically diminutive Nazi fighter known as “the Little Fox.” So, a fox hunt is underway by the West and the East, and the hunt -- or the game -- becomes a leitmotif as “Another Green World” spins along, some characters hunting their past, some their future, some hunting simply because that’s what they do.

Through unfortunate circumstance, Ingo meets up with a ragged party of Nazis at a hunting lodge. Dressed in a German uniform, he is taken for a comrade in arms. He thinks of the promise of a Thousand Year Reich, whose reflected glory in “a collar pin here, a lightning rune there” had beguiled these men, who were once, “in their crisp Waffen-SS uniforms, citizens of the New Europe, in a war that was for them a great, dark irresistible romance.” As Stefan George wrote, “Whoever has circled the flame will forever remain its vassal.”

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In such fashion do Grant’s characters -- Ingo and Butler particularly -- think in literary reflex, citing not just George but Friedrich Schiller, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and his “Infinite Time,” Friedrich Holderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke, August von Platen’s “anguished verses,” Heinrich Heine (whose great quotation, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings,” does not appear) and others. Also mentioned in passing are Ernst Haeckel (notorious for writing that “politics is applied biology,” a foundational bit of Nazi thought) and 19th century nationalist fanatic Ernst Moritz Arndt and his acolyte Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl.

There is a stockaded village based on Arndt’s ideas, structured like a theme park of Hitlerism, toward which the prominent figures in the novel gravitate. The setting allows Grant to pit the past against the present, the ersatz against the authentic, as if every character were a walking theme park of his or her own. One Nazi, an enigma throughout the novel, taunts Ingo there: “Es war einmal, the world was wide and green and beautiful.... And in that world all things were possible.” Poor Ingo. There is a love story embedded here as well, but in the end little is what it had seemed to be. George again: “After nights of madness, mornings are grim.”


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