« This was the book I... »
This was the book I found most demanding. The challenge lay in depicting and understanding a monster; the risk, in realising that the monster is never very far from oneself; the pleasure in saving, not the monster who remains forever unforgivable, but humanity, by assuming that everything might have been different; and the result? How uncomfortable it is being a man! The idea for the book came to me when I was in Austria for the Viennese opening night of The Visitor. The elegant, long-haired student who was showing me around town took me to a cafe for hot chocolate. When we sat down, he told me: "This is where Adolf Hitler used to come when he was working for the Fine Arts Academy entrance exam." "What a pity he failed" I said. Over the following days, it occurred to me that my quip was not as superficial as I had at first thought. How did a young man of seventeen with a passion for music, the theatre and painting, who cherished grand dreams of becoming an artist - how did this naive, idealistic, enthusiastic and respectable young man became a dictator, a murderer, a barbarian who spread world-wide destruction and disgraced humanity's self-image? What is the connection between the apprentice artist and the consummate tyrant? The young man is like us: we can see ourselves in him. But the dictator: is he still us? How is Hitler fashioned in the human forge? It occured to me that failure, frustation, exclusion and resentment were the elements, the mechanisms even, that made the transition from the young Hitler to the older one possible. It all started in Vienna, in October 1908, when the jury of the Fine Arts Academy rejected Adolf Hitler. At that period, Hitler was not anti-Semitic. For him, there was not even a Jewish problem. He became an anti-Semite when he felt the need to become one, the way one needs to put lotion on a wound. At that period, Hitler was already a loner with no real friends or fiancée and with no sexuality, but you could still put that down to his youth and his arrival in Vienna. The man was not yet cast… nor the world yet cursed.History was to shape Hitler as much as Hitler was to shape History. Hitler, who who had been living as a tramp in dosshouses, found his place in society again thanks to the First World War. Fighting kindled his sense of nationalism. Hitler's anti-Semitism started with the defeat in 1918, the Red menace and the iniquitous treaty of Versailles, and this hatred was to trigger his talent as a rabble-rousing orator, a talent he didn't know he had until that date. History moulded him, of course, but he put his own interpretation on History. He could have reacted differently, but this was the way he chose to react. My novel depicts two lives: the life of the real Hitler and that of the virtual one, Adolf H., the painter Hitler might have become.One was to commit suicide in his bunker in 1945. The other was to become a minor painter, respected but controversial. He was to reach old age and die in Los Angeles, living in a twentieth century that never knew Hitler and the Nazis. My novel follows two lives throughout, but in fact it's a novel of freedom. It's up to us whether we become racist or tolerant, pacifist or warmongering, lovers or destroyers. We are free to choose. It wasn't just the jury of the Fine Arts Academy exam who were responsible for what he became: it was just as much Hitler's interpretation of this rejection. Instead of seeing this failure as a lesson, instead of understanding that he had not worked hard enough, that maybe he was not ready yet or not gifted enough, Hitler's conclusion that day was: "I am a genius and nobody seems to realise it!" His being rejected could have put him back on the rails, it could have shown him the right way; instead of which, his reaction was insanely paranoid, the first in a long list of similar interpretations of which his life consisted. I gave my novel the French title La part de l'autre because it shows one Hitler and another one, Adolf H. But the second meaning of the title is clearly philosophical. The real Hitler shuts out other people, cuts himself off and becomes a demiurge, completely indifferent to everything that is not himself. The virtual Adolf H. lets other people in, discovering their point of view through sexuality, love, friendship, fatherhood, teaching and mourning. With these philosophical themes I tried to avoid arbitrariness - you can't get more arbitrary that wanting to invent Hitler's other life since you can imagine anything you want! The only way for me to avoid this trap, to control and channel this danger was to depict an ethical journey: Hitler shuts himself off, Adolf H. lets others in; Hitler turns men into instruments, whereas Adolf H. lets them play an increasingly important part in his life; Hitler's certainties go to his head, while Adolf H. is a prey to doubt; Hitler thinks he is exceptional, Adolf H. will discover his banality.I suffered over this book but I had a lot of fun with it too, and I couldn't resist making Adolf H. meet Freud and having Adolf H. lie down on Freud's couch at his flat at 18 Berggasse in Vienna. I risked a few other facetious episodes in the fourth part of the book, when I depict a world in which Nazism didn't happen. But none of these fanciful episodes is gratuitous or meaningless. With psychoanalysis sessions, I can tell Hitler's childhood and I show that you can cast off your childhood. With my geopolitical hypothesis, I was able to ponder the importance of Hitler's career for the history of the world. If the Second World War had not taken place, would the world have been divided between the USA and the USSR? If Germany had remained undivided, would there today be a European project? And the most supreme and sinister irony of them all: if there had not been a Shoah, would Israel have been created in Palestine? Novels only interest me if they have philosophical implications. They need to set one's mind working, stimulate ideas. This novel surprised me. I came face to face with thoughts and situations I would rather have avoided. In the course of writing, I became aware that this novel was a trap - a trap for the reader and a trap for the writer. Why? Because Hitler is not someone other: he is part of ourselves. He is what we might become if we accept simplistic explanations or cast about for a scapegoat. He is us if we always want to be right, if we never feel guilty, if we cut ourselves off from reality and follow some magic theory instead, and if we let our feelings of hatred win over our altruistic impulses. Our worst enemy is ourselves. Man must fear man. This was the trap to avoid. In appearing to describe the life of another Hitler, Adolf H., I was showing that the real Hitler is not another entity, someone other than ourselves. We are that man; the monster lives in me as he lives in every one of us. It is our responsibility to keep him under lock and key until the day we die or to set him free. This philosophical novel became a philosophical challenge for its writer as much as for its readers. An exercise in self-knowledge plus a call to vigilance. Herein lies my greatest pride.Innsbruck, 15 February 2002Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Le Figaro Littéraire - « The Alternative Hypothesis »
Say the word : "Uchrony" and all the faces around you will freeze, people will frown. Is it some kind of an insult ? Is it the name of a sect ? A rock group specialized in "trash music"? Not at all. It is just a special literary genre, an odd one. For example, E.E. Schmitt's latest novel La Part de L'Autre is a uchrony. No use rushing to your favourite dictionary, you will not find this queer sounding word in it. And yet, the neologism invented in 1876, by a philosopher called Charles Rénouvier could still be found in The New Illustrated Larousse in 1913 with the following definition : "'Uchrony' : a utopia in direct reference to History; logically re-written History. Historical events as they might have happened. For example : 'Cleopatra's nose' : if it had been shorter, the whole face of the world would have changed.
"(…) The idea of a Hitler as an accomplished artist or a total failure, in perfect harmony with himself and with the whole world or bursting out with rage, this is Schmitt's latest creation. His novel is most certainly a "uchrony" and the best example of the kind. Imagine a little : Hitler accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna on October 8th 1918. What would have his life been like? What would have become of the world? As a truly good "uchronian" writer, Schmitt could very well have told us the story of such a successful life in another world. And yet, what does he do ? He blows up all the rules of the game and decides that his writing will alternate between Hitler's real life and his imaginary destiny. A most surprising choice. For, what is the use of telling a story we already know everything about ?
In fact, Schmitt has chosen to evoke Hitler's younger days. Those which end with the second world war. The average reader does not know much about this period. And we are surprised, horrified at finding this character quite human.
"That was my goal" Schmitt says "To show that no man was ever born a monster. But that you become one. I wanted to call my novel : The Archeology of a Monster. Hitler's beautiful dream was to become a painter. But he failed. Up to this failure he was a pleasant man to meet. When he was no longer a student he became poor.
From this exclusion "resentment" as Nietzsche says "was born". Thus, he integrated into society again thanks to the first world war. For him, war had become a principle of existence. Germany's defeat in 1918 was another trauma for him.
What I intended and was interested in was to show how a man is made. We are all part of the same stock from which two completely different men can be created."Hitler became inaccessible to himself and to the others and so, he became mad (this madness will lead the world as well as 55 million of individuals to their death). Meanwhile, Adolf H., his positive double, is a seducer, enjoying himself, taking advantage of life and of all its pleasures, goes to Paris, meets Breton and the surrealists. He is not an ambitious man. Just a man who longs to live in harmony with his era.
La Part de L'Autre is a serious, deep and tense novel. It is a great literary piece which forces the readers to ask themselves questions, quite disturbing ones, on the dark side which lays sleeping in them, in us.As a reflexion on Evil, its deserves all our attention.
Le Monde - « The Alternative Hypothesis »
Right after : "Is everything a laughing matter ?", the question : "Can everything become a work of fiction ?" still seems to have long and happy days coming ahead. Salman Rushdie's life for the ten years which followed 1989 is the proof of it.
This question must have already been asked to Schmitt 1 000 times. And 1000 times, Schmitt (a 41-year-old writer) must have kept answering in a steady voice (without any peremptory accent for he is far from being peremptory) : "Novelists have the right to do everything they want". By "everything" Schmitt means using Jesus Christ, Pontius Pilate and Adolf Hitler as characters for his novels, to reinvent History, to use it as the background for his works and to reconsider the very idea of destiny.But "everything" Schmitt does not mean "inconsequently". For this former philosopher who became famous thanks to his plays, novels are, first of all, a way to look for meanings and his writing is the means to extract the pearl of truth from the universal magma.
So, to try to understand and to make his readers think, watching the world has become absolutely necessary."For me" Schmitt says "and following the perspective of Diderot, the goal of each novel is to sow, to shock, to surprise, to upset, to confuse, to make people think. Like these strange pieces of furniture which, in the 18th century made people talk, for they were neither lovely, nor handsome. But they made people talk. And indeed, right in front of us, at his home in the 9th "arrondissement" (borough) of Paris, there is one of these pieces of furniture : a door which has been turned down and which is used as a low table in the living-room and that Schmitt bought with the first money he got with his play The Visitor. The play was enormously successful. It was on for more than 4 consecutive years, was then translated, as most of his other plays in many languages and even became an opera not long ago. In The Visitor, a strange man, maybe God, forced his way into good, old Dr Freud's study and he would put the latter to the question in the best psychoanalytical way.
A few years later, Christ appeared in Schmitt's work as the hero of The Gospel According to Pilate. This apparition was far from being a coincidence.
Schmitt had discovered God one evening in 1989 during a solitary wandering in the desert. Since that evening, Schmitt has become a believer. Which does not mean : a devout which does not suppress any of his philosophical qualities but which, on the contrary, allows them to be expressed. "Before that night, I used to write a lot, but I used to hide the texts. After that night, I stopped being filled but by myself only. I had something to say. The world was no longer absurd and mysterious. That is the very reason why he writes : to clarify that very mystery, looking through every play, every novel for the key to human nature. He does not hesitate to go through the worst monstruosities human nature can create. That is what La Part de L'Autre is about : the novel two Hitlers are the heroes of.
A very well-written text, skilfully organized but which sometimes leaves the reader in the distance, as if the latter refused the horrible parenthood they are offered, because maybe the author has not totally.
Le Point - « The Alternative Hypothesis »
(…) E.E. Schmitt is a moralist and he has split his sordid hero into two, so that the themes of innocence, guilt and freedom may be reflected upon, as well as the question of responsibility, which is everyone's lot. A great number performed by a bold acrobat.
(…) Far from illustrating the great moments of the Fürher, Schmitt has chosen to evoke Hitler in 30 intimate sequences which cast a strange and violent light all over the sexual, emotional, temperamental insights of some extraordinary self-ideolizing man who tried to be the perfect embodiment of the Nietschean hero. The result is an astonishingly successful literary portrait.
Magazine Littéraire - « The Alternative Hypothesis »
Schmitt always takes the matter very high. His novel belongs to the same category as Semprun's LA DEUXIEME MORT DE RAMON MERCADER and Georges Steiner's LE TRANSPORT DE A.H.
In the former, Semprun chose to evoke the whole story of the communist movement from the Spanish Civil War to Stalin's death through the eyes of a particular hero, whose "real" homonym was Trotsky's murderer. In the latter, Steiner discovers a man called Hitler, alive in some swamps in Amazonia.
(…) With LA PART DE L'AUTRE, metaphysics is now part of History and goes far beyond one fiction since the main character is the sordid Chancellor Hitler.
(…) In this novel, Schmitt reminds us that we all have a double, this other half, which can be found in each one of us. Our dark and deadly side. Schmitt is skilful : the ambiguity remains. Is it the same man who splits into two distinct destinies : one who will become a politician and another one who will become a painter, the very witness of the rising of his homonym ? (…)
(…) What I want to stress here is that this novel means something for everyone of us. It is a human, terrible and a more than necessary book. A simple and tragic lesson : in one's life, making the wrong choice is certainly the most frequent mistake of all.As far as fate is concerned, it is nothing else but an illusion : a quickened configuration of time.
Gérard de Cortanze
Le Soir (Belgique) - « The Alternative Hypothesis »
What are the factors which rule History ? The great collective currents or the individual forces ? Does the course of life undergo changes with the injection of isolated ideas which have a reduced influence on their becoming or, on the contrary, is it necessary that a whole set of elements should converge so that the current of both life and time should change its direction ?
This question is essential and obsessive. Historians and philosophers are not the only ones to be preoccupied with such an idea. It is also one of the novelists' most terrible obsessions. The reason of it is very simple : their imagination allows them to deal with events as they wish. They are the demiurges who only work but throughout faney and they allow us, readers, to dream about optional destinies, to mock fatality, to reconsider the whole set of causalities and to head for other destinations.
(…) Among the figures who have deeply changed the progress of the 20th century, Hitler is ahead of them all. His personal delirium set fire and sword to the whole planet. A novelist could very well write about this period without Hitler. But his narration would be science-fiction. Schmitt decided to start with another presupposition : what if Hitler had been another man ? What if at one occasion a single fact had dragged him away from his demons ? What if he had never gone into politics, what if he had spared the world his political views ?
This is the breathtaking theme of Schmitt's novel : La Part de L'Autre which is certainly the most exciting book for the mind published for a long time. Schmitt is an astonishingly skilful manipulator as far as plots are concerned. He dedicates his novel to a man who used to deliver small-scale handmade bombs. And in a way he resembles this man.
(…) In his novel he enjoys dealing with two narrations simultaneously. At the start, a single event sets all, the simplest events of all : to fail or to pass an exam. Which will give way to two different destinies.
(…) The whole book is built around this binomial entity : "failed or passed". Chapter after chapter, the one who has failed will be opposed to the one who has succeeded. The one who failed is called Hitler. He was refused by the artistic world. The one who has been accepted by this empyrean is called Adolf H.
We know, alas, nearly everything of the life of the former. Schmitt's tale of it is focused on the private side of the dictator, his strange love stories, the mixture of perversion and of puritanism.
A few interpretations are made showing that Hitler more than half a century after his death can become the central figure of a fiction.
But the destiny of his double Adolf H. is far more thrilling, because Schmitt made it up. This hero had a real talent. Although he was never to belong to the category of all those outstanding artists who shone during their eras. Disgusted by the Great War, he will settle in Paris, where he will meet all the avant-gardistes in Montparnasse.
Some art-dealers will become interested in him. He will marry an American Jewess and he will start being forgotten as an artist before his death, a peaceful one, in 1970, in Santa Monica, practically on the day a German astronomer becomes the first man to set foot on the moon. Berlin, no need to add it, has become the capital of a long-time pacified Europe, since the 2nd World War never started, apart from a few quickly ended fighting on the Germano-Polish frontier.
Here is a voluntarist novel entirely built on a paradox which leads to a deep melancholy, spreading doubt in our mind. If Adolf H. had lived and not this monstruous counterpart who spread terror, hatred up to now and for such a long time into mankind, what would have become of us ? Would we still be the same today ? What would have our counterparts been like ?
This book will sound ludic-like for some, megalomaniac for others and for some good reasons, no doubt about it.Anyway, this is a singular machinary racking our brains and whose shockwaves will follow us for a long time.
Jacques de Decker
La Tribune de Genève - « The Alternative Hypothesis »
(…) For Simone de Beauvoir, no woman ever came into the world of a woman. For Schmitt, in the same way, no-one ever started his life as a dictator. There comes a time, when the slightest push can be capital.(…) This is a well-built book with a wonderful demonstration. Schmitt's style resembles the painter's with his bountiful palette, painting with a full brush.Love, humour, surprise and emotion can be found in it.
Paris-Match - « The Alternative Hypothesis »
THERE ARE TWO VOICES IN OUR BOOK : HITLER'S VOICE AND ADOLF H.'S WHO IS A PAINTER. WHERE DOES THE WORK OF THE HISTORIAN STOP AND WHERE DOES THE WORK OF THE NOVELIST START ?
All the characters in my book are real. I have not invented the slightest name or identity, not even the landladies', not even the names of the outcasts Hitler happened to meet. But what I have invented is their fictional and physical substance. I have never allowed myself to re-writing History. As a novelist, I went right into the minds of my characters. I've been using empathy without feeling any sympathy at all.
IN OUR BOOK, HITLER IS LIKE A DIRECTOR…
Up to the end, he was to remain fascinated by Wagner. He married Eva Braun so that they should die together like Tristan and Isold. Up to the end he was to remain a painter, ruling and directing society, his administration and his life as a painter his painting or a stage director some play.
WHY IS ADOLF H. A SURREALIST PAINTER ?
I did not want to set one good Hitler against a bad one. But rather take a human being : Adolf H. who lets himself be invaded by the people he meets, by his pulsions, by his feelings and another one who never lets himself go and who keeps cultivating a will of iron. His leitmotiv is : "I succeeded all by myself and in spite of everything". He managed to impose to his people that very dream he had made of himself leading to one of History's worst nightmares.Since Adolf H. admits that there are things which can happen deep in himself, things he had never even imagined, he completely belongs to the gallery of the surrealists. Dali and Magritte had a very academic technique but their inspiration and its mode made them conspicuous.
WHEN DOES YOUR CHARACTER BECOME TWO ?
When Hitler's entrance examination at the Fine Art School of Vienna was a failure. He, then, became a tramp wandering from one homeless centre to another. He became frustrated and bitter. He only found a new place in the German society because of the First World War.At this very moment, he became convinced that war was one of the principles of life. His political example was the military organization. Until that moment, he had not been an anti-semite. But, in 1918, when blind and gassed, he learnt about Germany's defeat on his hospital bed. He started wandering in his mind, looking for some explanations and someone who would be responsible for this defeat. It was to be the Jews. And he was to stick to this opinion up to the end.
THEY HAVE DIFFERENT SEXUALITIES AS WELL…
Adolf H. completely assumes his sexuality. He is a free man. Contrary to Hitler who never really had any sexual life. In fact, Hitler was following a rather well-spread theory (most of all in the extreme right spheres) according to which one had to keep their semen pure for reproduction only. Up to 30-35. But after, when you get into the habit of it, it is very difficult to change it. Most of all when you are a public man. Here is another important difference between my characters : sexuality is a relation to the other. One accepts it, the other refuses at all costs.
ADOLF H. HOSTED BY THE ROTHSCHILDS IN PARIS !! DON'T YOU THINK THAT IT IS A BIT FAR-FETCHED ?
Why ? The Rothschilds have always been important art collectors. The real Hitler had Jewish friends up to 1918. If he had become part of the artistic sphere, he would never have developed this anti-Semitism. He was not born with a hatred for the Jews. It grew little by little as he was heading to power. So, as these two men kept following two different ways, their political consciousness deviated from one direction to another.
ONCE AGAIN, YOU DESCRIBE A MEETING WITH A CHARACTER YOU ARE DEEPLY FOND OF : ADOLF H. MEETS FREUD…
How could I avoid imagining such a meeting ? They were neighbours ! And it would have made Hitler much good.For me, it was an easy breach to speak about the childhood of my character. Thanks to the psychoanalyst, Adolf H. finds a solution to most of his problems. When he started painting, he used to faint in front of the naked models at the Art school. After meeting Freud, he got married, led a perfectly normal sexual and sentimental life.
DID THE REAL HITLER GO AND SEE A PSYCHOANALYST ?
Of course he did !In 1918, he was looked after by one of Freud's disciples (under hypnosis). In January 1933, when Germany came under his rule, this same doctor who had then become a university professor declared to his students that the man who was to become the master of Germany was a madman. Two months later, he was dismissed. He could teach no longer. He ran away to Basel, in Switzerland and in April he was found dead in his hotel room. Although it had been made to look like a suicide, it was a murder. He had just had enough time to hide Hitler's psychiatric file which had been coded, in a safe in a bank of the city. I think that some day, someone will succeed in finding that document again.
TO WRITE A NOVEL ABOUT HITLER, ISN'T IT TOO DANGEROUS ?
Of course it is !Bu it is even more dangerous to keep silent : one day, you forget who he was and here is Bin Laden right in front of us. At the beginning, this guy was not so different from us as a child, as a young man; he was no monster then. He became one after 1918. He was 30.
YOU ARE BOTH A NOVELIST AND A PLAYWRIGHT. WHICH OF THE TWO IS WRITTEN ON YOUR VISITING CARDS ?
Writer. For a writer is at the same time a novelist and a playwright. In the 18th century, to be a writer meant to be a playwright.But one century later, novels were said to be everything whereas I have written three novels and I now clearly understand why writing plays is so difficult. The text is not everything. It is only the actors' and the stage directors' nourishment. In a novel, everything can be found in the text. Whereas, for plays, the whole result is to be seen on the stage.