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Stories of Then That Still Hold Up Now

Inevitably, 2020 has been a year filled to the brim with books about politics — and not just in nonfiction. Novelists are as focused on the state of the world as any journalist or Washington insider. We decided to ask four accomplished writers to revisit a favorite political novel from the past — telling us why they admire it, and why it remains relevant and timely (or timeless, if you prefer). — John Williams

It was 1984 — in real life, not the book. My family and I were living in West Berlin, where I was beginning to write “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Berlin was iconic for me: Having been born two months after the start of World War II, I’d lived all my life in the long shadows it cast. The Soviet Union and its satellites were still in place, and showed no signs of vanishing: Every Sunday, the East German Air Force made sonic booms, just to let us know it was right next door. The Berlin Wall was still firmly standing, and people were still being shot while trying to escape. No one suspected that in a mere five years we’d be buying fragments of it for souvenirs.

We were in Berlin at the invitation of the D.A.A.D, an academic exchange group that brought foreign artists into West Berlin so that local artists would not feel so cut off. West Berlin at that time was partly empty — young men could avoid the draft there, but young families hesitated to expose their children to the risks — so the D.A.A.D had a range of rental apartments available for their visiting artists. Ours had a large iron safe in the living room. Who had lived here? I wondered. What had they kept in that safe? What had become of them? I didn’t have a good feeling about that. The echoes of jackboots on the stairs were not audible, but they were there.

The D.A.A.D provided German lessons, so, as I had some elementary German left over from high school and college, I took them.

My teacher was a stickler who was worried about the decline of the dative case, and who discouraged me from using expressions I picked up on the street. But I wanted to use expressions I picked up on the street. I copied slang from ads, and read popular magazines.

In aid of my German, I sought out a novel with short sentences. This is how I came to read “Mephisto.” It could not have been a more appropriate choice for the book I was writing, and it chimes eerily with the times we are living through now.

“Mephisto” was written by Klaus Mann, the son of the famous writer Thomas Mann, and was first published in 1936, when Hitler’s Third Reich had been in power for three years and Klaus Mann was already in exile.

It tells the story of an actor named Hendrik Höfgen, who, having started out as a Brechtian radical socialist activist, changes course and rises to great heights in the theater world of National Socialist Germany. But he rises at a cost: As he scrambles up the ladder, Höfgen betrays his former associates and renounces his Black lover, while slipping on the required Nazi ideology like a costume.

Read entire article at New York Times