Wednesday 13 March 2019

Paul Hedeen and The Butterfly

Paul Hedeen is the author of the new novel, The Butterfly (BHC Press), and he will be the featured reader at this month's Final Thursday Reading Series on March 29 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, IA (open mic at 7:15; Paul Hedeen at 8:00). In this interview, he discusses what drew him to writing about Nazi Germany and its aftermath in fictive form. Hedeen is also the author of two poetry collections published by Final Thursday Press, Under a Night Sky and When I Think About Rain.
How did you come to write The Butterfly and what drew you to the subject?
PAUL HEDEEN: This novel had been taking root in my imagination since the 1970s, when I learned from a roommate he had met someone writing a stage play about Eva Braun. I never learned if that play was finished or performed. I never even learned who the playwright might be. I did think it smart someone could come at a story with the enormity of World War II from an oblique angle, mix fact and fancy, and in the process ask us to experience something new. Since that time many books have purported to do just that and I’ve gobbled up a bunch: Grass’ The Tin Drum, Heller’s Catch-22, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5, Ransmayr’s The Dog King, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Hawkes’ The Cannibal, come to mind. All were speculative impressionistic fictions, exploring associated languages of dream, history, memory, and desire, a delirium in which we experience history’s affect, rather than its cataloging.   
            In 2008, thirty years after the original suggestion and five years after the publication of my first novel The Knowledge Tree, I was sure only that Eva Braun would occupy the center of my new novel. A few years previously to this, perhaps in 2005 or so, I’d become fascinated with Braun, even to the point of purchasing a few baubles in the memorabilia market I describe in the novel. I even learned of a collector of her clothing with whom I’m still friends. For many collectors, I’ve learned, her death was transcended by a legend seemingly accessible in her “things.” She “means” something and lives on in clothing, silverware, dishware, combs and brushes, and cigarette cases, a lot of it rather tacky, but some of it delicate and beautiful. This is similar to, but I think more personal than, some peoples’ fascination with historical sites.
            Truth to tell, my influences and ideas for The Butterfly at first had neither shape nor trajectory. Seemingly aimless, the story flitted about like a real butterfly. Not being Proust, I found it difficult simply to associate, to have no sense of a story’s direction. I even thought of abandoning the project. But then, a very crucial influence appeared. Ukraine. More precisely, Vinnitsa, Ukraine. Stuck in the beginning of this project, I went to Vinnitsa on a Fulbright, teaching the American novel among other things. I learned of Hitler’s eastern front bunker nearby and the famous unattributed Holocaust photo concerning Vinnitsa’s last Jew. I attended a conference about the Holodomar, Stalin’s deliberate mass starvation of Ukrainians. As well I learned that Vinnitsa was one site of Stalin’s mass executions during The Great Terror.
            Suddenly, I went from hardly any story to multiple stories. I understood I could enlarge Eva Braun by locating her in any of these narratives. All of them were at least indirectly associated with her and some directly with her and with her last-minute husband Adolf Hitler. Now I could explore what she means and might have meant to the world around her. But as often happens when the imagination enlivens many characters, they begin to vie for attention. Warren Hart, Olesya and Pavlo Aborovyk, Constanze Kochen, Dmytro Kapailenko, Fortunatus Carlyle, Katrina von Dehlens, David Eisenbraun, and Jürgen Blend shouldered her out of the way. Suffice it to say the canvas, so to speak, became crowded as characters clamored for attention.
How did the novel come to be titled The Butterfly?
PH: The title comes from Braun herself.  She took the “EB” butterfly as her logo.  It was actually designed by Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and armaments minister.  My press incorporated it into my book’s design.  I describe it in the novel’s notes.  It is represented to the right.   Braun wanted these humble and graceful initials to represent her. She put it on everything she could. If you have a piece of clothing with this monogram, it is likely she embroidered it herself, or supervised the process. That is how close you can get to her. As with all of us, an endearing pathos attends such overt attempts at objectification. To crave notice, to escape from the chrysalis of being hidden and ignored, is childlike and poignant.
            Just as in the 1963 world of The Butterfly, Braun has become the sought-after essence of Nazi erotica, beauty, tawdriness, and ruin. While it is difficult to imagine the upper echelons of Nazism as having any innocence, some seems to cling to her. Thus, Hitler, implausibly, is outside the fascination with her, which, like a lot of truths attending human behavior, doesn’t make much sense. She also represents loyalty and love unto death, if one believes the bunker story and can ignore her repeated attempts at suicide. She stood by her man, as it were.
            But what if this first lady of Nazism had secrets (there were rumors, after all) involving other lovers? What if she somehow survived the Berlin inferno (as Hitler had at first wanted)? What would she have survived to, and where? What if another scenario took over, but her past trapped her anyway, just somewhere else, as if the terrible energies that enlivened her pleasures and infatuations were inescapable? I am less interested in a straightforward answer to these questions (for the historians’ consensus is that she did not survive into the postwar era) than a new experience, an attempt at what the books I named above accomplished. I wanted something speculative (what if?), polyphonic (of many forms and voices), and impressionistic (associations of atmospheric details and almost accidental reference points). I wanted a book with vivid scenes and a thread of plot, but with enough expressionistic dread to give the reader the histories of those times in new ways. But what history? What new ways? What language in what shapes would create that “something”?

Would you call The Butterfly a work of historical fiction, since it involves a combination of research and imagination? How did you decide when you had done enough research and when it was time to use the novelist’s tools?
PH: The Butterfly is not historical fiction, as Georg Lukács would understand the term. Rather, it is what Mark McKenna would call “fictive history.” The difference, briefly stated, concerns the use of history. In historical fiction, the writer makes scrupulous use of history—the social scientist’s (or Marxist) sense of history—in order to bring to his/her fiction the power of the “real,” or what is assumed by numerous authorities to be real. The writer of historical fiction would never violate a generally accepted fact. The point of such fiction is creating or using historical understanding. Yes, Heisenberg (the physicist, not the TV character) would remind us that whenever we perceive something, we change it, but the epistemology attending historicizing is somewhat naïve. There are people who are unburdened by doubt
Fictive history, in contrast, uses history for the building of narrative. (Now Heisenberg is nodding yes, yes.) In fictive history, it is ok to speculate or to locate one’s story in the spaces between facts. Fictive history actually revises the past. 
I had a story I wanted to tell, facts notwithstanding. The novel’s “the thing,” to quote Hamlet, not the history. I’m interested in history, as the novel’s reliance on it shows, but The Butterfly is an impressionistic novel. Just as Braun wanted her “brand,” I wanted a speculative story that united some of the disparate places, situations, and emotions I was experiencing. This novel is an act of selfishness. I couldn’t get over myself—just like my narrator, editor, compiler Warren Hart can’t get over himself. The novel points toward what I believe to be a truth, but not a historical one. The truth is that truth is never absolute, but an approximation of ideas and forms of knowing and expressing.

One of the things I took away from reading The Butterfly is that the ideology of Nazism can’t be conveniently tucked away as an aberration of a historical moment, and former Nazis didn’t just disappear after the war. How did writing this book impact your sense of Nazism?
PH: To create Jürgen Blend I had to read and imagine how a mass murderer would persist even with the knowledge of terrible crimes. All interviews of former Nazis (and their Soviet counterparts) show them as resistant to reason. They were true believers and were able to select out of the welter of philosophy, history, biology, sociology, and etc. the little kernels of quasi-knowledge that supported their positions, rejecting the vast refutation of what they believed. And at the time, many were afraid of what might happen to them or their families if they refused to follow orders. Their legitimate fear (what we all might feel) became a deep cowardice as they rationalized the most unspeakable things. They often rehabilitated themselves—at least in their own eyes—by claiming they acted out of love, a transgressive love for a person, country, or belief. In the case of Nazism, person, country, and belief united in Adolf Hitler. Not only is this love transgressive, it is regressive—refusing the present (the outcome of their beliefs) and the future, a time or idea truly progressive. My challenge as a writer was to create a Blend that was believable, even sympathetic. All Blend wants is to reunite himself with his past. You know, when the people who worked for Hitler described him, he was not the inept strategist and psychopath of most historians, but a kind and considerate figure, a good boss. He was also a bold and direct speaker of fairly simple half-truths. People love a good boss, and they grab onto half-truths. My Zapruder character in The Knowledge Tree is in large part based upon Hitler.
Think of Nazism as the Big Mac of naturalistic philosophy, nationalistic politics, historical distortion, economic inequality, and socialistic belonging, all buttered with racial wishful thinking. It was engineered for consumption by the hungry, resentful masses. It lives on today everywhere people make claims for national or racial identity, hyper-masculinity, violence, and fear of the other. Remember what Faulkner said of the past: it wasn’t dead; it wasn’t even passed. The temptations of National Socialism are as aligned with liberals as with conservatives. Remember Vonnegut’s line about World War II: “everyone got a little something.” That’s true of the ideologies of the mid-twentieth century and the politics of our own.

This is a wide-ranging novel that not only covers different eras but involves different narrative forms (from straightforward narration to film synopses to endnotes). Was there something about this material that required a more experimental format?
PH: My critics, I suppose, will answer no, Hedeen is just being pretentious and obtuse. But I really wanted to express as fully as possible how we come to know things. As well, I wanted to enact Warren Hart’s point of view as thoroughly as possible. He can’t do what he wants to do: create a seamless narrative with the primary purpose of compelling self-exoneration. This is not just a question of competence. The pieces just don’t fit, even with generous intervention. For those of a theoretical or philosophical bent, think of this novel as the play of doxa (opinions and creations), epistemes (knowledge and thought formations), and gnoses (experiences). One way to understand Warren Hart’s situation is to see him as someone desperate to navigate all three forms of understanding (mostly given to him by his student Fortunatus Carlyle) as they pertain to his colleague Dmytro Kapailenko and the shadowy characters surrounding him. Carlyle is on a quest, and Katrina von Dehlens, a trafficked and abused daughter of the Nazi elite, is Carlyle’s fellow traveler. While there is a narrative thread and plot, I wanted also to encourage impressionistic association.
            Also, I was taken with the idea that every writing form has its own authority. A memoir, after all, has a different authority than fiction or history, even when about the same subject. Everything is different than film scenarios, which are immediate and in the present tense. And fairy tales, or anything with the supernatural, require the facility of belief. They are a repudiation of what’s real or historical. In a fairy tale, Hitler could be Mabuse.

The Butterfly is an ambitious and demanding novel. Why not be a little easier on your readers?
PH: The subject is huge. Think of Fortunatus Carlyle: how does the past live on in the present? How do we know even what is happening to us as it happens? I wanted to make a correspondingly huge book, like the ones I’ve been taught to admire: an Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Absalom, Absalom!. Alas, I wanted to make a masterpiece.

-- interview conducted by Jim O'Loughlin

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