The Tristan Chord

Glenn Skwerer

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Review by Hugh MacDonald

THIS is a remarkable first novel. With an extraordinary assurance and innate grasp of form and character, Glenn Skwerer, a Boston psychiatrist, examines the early life of Adolf Hitler through the presumptive dictator’s friendship with an upholsterer’s son.

Inspired by The Young Hitler I Knew, the memoir by August Kibizek, The Tristan Chord is the testimony of Eugen Reczek who befriended Hitler when both were teenagers in Linz, lives with him in a pest-ridden flat in Vienna when both were students (Reczek at the conservatoire of music, Hitler in his own mind as art school rejected him) and meets him again after an absence of 30 years when the friend has become the most dangerous man in the world.

The Tristan Chord, from the opening phrase of the prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s opera, was considered by contemporary critics as a “descent into chaos’’. Reczek believes it creates ‘’a powerful feeling of brooding anticipation, of suspense, of gathering doom’’. It thus in phrase and title serves as a motif for the novel that takes its name.

But Skwerer has done much more than conjure up a Hitler of base emotion and unalloyed evil. He also does not impose his professional parlance, beliefs or theories on a lay audience.

Instead, Hitler emerges as intensely human, severely flawed and deeply troubling but never as a cartoon figure of one-dimensional malevolence. The author knows that to examine Hitler one must admit that he was part of the human race, not separate from it. There is an awful, enduring danger that society regards such men as outside humanity when experience shows that they are a regular, dreadful part of it.

“He is difficult and strange and lives in his own head,” says Hitler’s mother to Reczek, thanking him for the friendship shown to her son and warning him of the oddity of a personality that would grow into something of genuine enormity. Hitler is a brooding, frenetic pacer of rooms. An insomniac who is contemptuous of sexual relations, who finds even the most casual contact with other humans to be unsettling, even unwise. “I have myself. I always have myself,” he says in what is meant to be explanation but serves as awful warning.

Skwerer’s most notable achievement, however, is not his reconstruction of Hitler. Biographers such as Ian Kershaw and Joachim Fest have done this more comprehensively, with the latter particularly brilliant at illustrating Hitler as a human being with tastes and attributes that fall outside the category of “evil monster”. Skwerer, Kershaw and Fest know the dangers of caricature, that whisper that insists that because of the uniqueness of the perpetrator such horror can never happen again. It can and it does.

It is in this examination that the author excels. Subtly but with growing power, the ability of Hitler to seduce and move an audience becomes obvious and frightening. It starts, though, with Reczek.

The boy from Linz becomes an accomplished musician in Vienna before war and its aftermath intervenes. Intelligent, from a stable family, and with artistic sensibility, he is no monster. But he bows to his friend, accedes to his every wish, cowers before his every gesture or sigh. There is undoubted evil in Hitler but others, seemingly much more innocent, are complicit. The dictator’s appetite for power is insatiable but he survives because he has followers. He cannot be him without you or me.

The Tristan Chord is the memoir of Reczek as he faces “de-Nazification” in a camp after the Second World War. He was never a member of the party, he never fired a shot in anger, he was a friend of, indeed a lover of Jews. Yet he was part of a mass of humanity that saw his friend accede to the most awful power.

Is he an innocent observer? Or can he blamed? He holds on tenaciously to the more comforting of these categories. Yet he has the growing realisation that he has been part of something truly dreadful. Evil can and does reside in the individual. But the Tristan Chord deftly and persuasively shows this diabolical power is contagious, infecting even those who insist on innocence because their hands are not yet blood-stained.