Review: The House by the Lake

History reflected in water


By Thomas Harding
William Heinemann, £20

It would be hard to write an original and moving account of the tortured 20th-century history of Germany. But, in The House by the Lake, Thomas Harding succeeds remarkably. His narrative device is a small, wooden house in a village called Gross Glienicke. Harding tells of the lakeside villa built as a summerhouse by his great-grandfather, Alfred Alexander, after the First World War.

This place of retreat and solitude had to be abandoned by Harding's grandmother in the 1930s when she fled Nazism and settled in England. She and Harding revisited the house in the 1990s, and Harding returned to it a couple of years ago. It was abandoned and derelict.

His book is a combination of oral history and painstaking research into the five families who had occupied the house in the intervening decades. What takes this well out of the mundane in the field of closely observed history on an intimate scale is the fate of the families and the skill with which Harding ties it to Germany's turbulent history. All of the families, in one form or another, were driven out.

The most poignant passages of the book weave the fate of Elsie, the author's grandmother, with the nightmare of Nazi oppression that engulfed a nation whose history of culture and learning was unsurpassed in Europe. With historical hindsight of the eventual fate of German Jewry, it's a peculiarly gripping narrative of the pressures of time in the flight of Elsie and her family, especially given the Nazis' determination simply to fleece those they drive out.

As Harding tells it: "As so often happens in times of crisis, one person's misfortune provided an opportunity to another." The other, in this case, was a noted composer and music publisher, Will Meisl, hoping to get a good deal out of the catastrophe inflicted on the Jews.

And so the history of the lake house is told through his eyes, till the essential philistinism of the Nazis destroys his livelihood, too, with the theatres closed and musical talent driven out.

Harding's telling vignettes of German history trace the division of the country and the passing of the late house to a Stasi informer. I don't recall a more evocative, succinct description of the drabness and - in all senses - oppression of East Germany than his observation of "those [in the GDR] who didn't believe all they heard, who could see through the lies of the party bosses, and who sang the obligatory songs and abided by the laws they know to be inane or, worse, unjust and dangerous and yet kept silent".

The denouement of the book is the achievement of official recognition of the lake house - the soul place, as Elsie referred to it - as a monument. It is a fitting and moving epitaph on a tragic and beautifully told history.

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