READ CLOSE: Remote Sympathy is set in Germany during World War II. Was this novel born from the research for your award-winning novel The Wish Child?
CATHERINE CHIDGEY: In part, yes – while researching things medical for The Wish Child I came across a book about cancer treatment in Nazi Germany. Hitler’s mother had died of the disease at a young age, which left a lasting impression on him, and his regime poured huge amounts of funding into cancer research. Such treatments as light therapy, low-vitamin diets, fruit-juice injections, Chinese rhubarb, even hemlock were all touted as breakthrough, miraculous cures – and so was electrotherapy. There was also a powerful anti-smoking campaign that feels strangely modern – although the impetus clearly was to preserve the health of young men so they could fight. Reading that material sparked the idea for Remote Sympathy – the story of a doctor imprisoned in a camp and ordered to save the terminally ill wife of an SS officer using a machine he knows doesn’t work. The plot came fully formed, which is rare for me, and too intriguing to resist.
In other ways, though, I’d been thinking about Remote Sympathy since the mid-1990s, when I lived and studied in Berlin. I took a university paper about German history for foreign students and our professor took us on a trip to Buchenwald – we slept in the former SS barracks. I saw just how close Buchenwald was to Weimar – that cradle of German culture and enlightenment lay just a few kilometres down the hill from the camp. Our professor showed us the stump of an oak tree known as the Goethe oak in the middle of the camp; supposedly Goethe would rest beneath it on his hill walks and write poetry. When the land was cleared to build Buchenwald, the Nazis spared this tree – for them it represented all that was noble and pure about Germany, but for the prisoners it stood for a Germany long lost. The extraordinary contradictions of the site stayed with me, and I knew they belonged somehow in my writing.
The characters in your novel are battling with the blurred lines between what makes someone good, and how to be a parent. How did the dynamic of three characters grow into the backbone of the novel?
The three main characters were there from the start, and the story very much depends on how they intersect. I was interested in writing about the lengths people will go to and the rules they will break in order to save themselves or those they love; the transgressions they will commit. At the lower end of the scale, Dietrich (an SS officer) marries Greta (a Catholic who must renounce her faith). More seriously and more dangerously, Lenard (a prisoner with Jewish ancestry) not only visits the home of Dietrich under flimsy pretexts, but also lays hands on his wife to treat her cancer. As a doctor, Lenard chooses to mislead his patient, treating her with a machine he no longer believes can help, and he maintains this lie even in the face of her worsening condition. Greta and Lenard develop a kind of friendship that in many ways is more intimate than her relationship with her husband, and Lenard enables her to rekindle her renounced faith in secret. All three characters are trying to protect their children from the reality of the camps and the war, although they go about it in very different ways. Lenard divorces his wife and distances himself from her and his daughter in order to try to save them; his decisions are morally complex and I took a long time writing those sections in order to convey those complexities. His letters to his daughter, and Greta’s imaginary diaries, are a kind of confession to their children. Hahn also loves his son, and shields him from the truth of his mother’s illness, but thinks nothing of raiding the toys surrendered by child prisoners at Buchenwald to find a gift for him.
A fourth narrative, written in the first person plural, speaks for the people of Weimar. Tell us how you wanted this strand of the story to inform the rest of the novel?
In the book I use recurring motifs of proximity and distance in many different ways. Lenard’s machine operates according to the principle of remote sympathy – the theory that treating one particular area of the body will positively affect another part some distance away. There is the proximity of the officers’ houses to the camp; the way that Lenard is allowed to get so close to his ‘Aryan’ patient; the way that Lenard and Anna have to distance themselves from one another…and there is also the location of Buchenwald, so very close to Weimar.
An uneasy relationship existed between the camp and the town: on the one hand, local businesses prospered due to the presence of hundreds of officers and the availability of thousands of prisoners for use as forced labour; on the other hand, there was widespread fear of both the SS and the prisoners. After the camp was liberated, one thousand citizens of Weimar were ordered to visit it to see the horrors perpetrated on their doorstep – horrors they had suspected for years, but which had only ever roused in them a remote sympathy. Through this collective voice I examine the enduring question of German guilt and German knowledge of the camps.
I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like Remote Sympathy to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation for your novel?
Would it be completely egomaniacal to choose one of my own books? Although Remote Sympathy is not a sequel to The Wish Child, for me it very much speaks to that novel in that it’s a step further into the darkest heart of German history. In The Wish Child I allude to the Holocaust, but mostly it happens off-stage, with the story playing out in ordinary homes. Remote Sympathy is still concerned with the lives of ‘ordinary people’, but the action moves to the concentration camp itself.
Although I didn’t think about The English Patient while writing Remote Sympathy, I think the two books might have a bit of a chat if they found themselves at a wine and cheese.
If Remote Sympathy were to be made into a film, would you have any dream suggestions for a director or actors to play the main roles?
I would love Jane Campion to bring her particular sensibility to a film adaptation. I’m also available if Wim Wenders calls. I’d like Michael Fassbender to play Lenard, the doctor; Saoirse Ronan to play Greta, his patient; and Daniel Brühl to play her husband, SS officer Hahn. Can I be one of the one thousand citizens of Weimar?
Tell us about your inspirations and influences – writers, music, art or film that have had an impact on your writing.
German Expressionism took hold of me in my early twenties; I fell in love with the charged distortions of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes, the stark woodcuts of Emil Nolde. I adored, too, the brooding films of FW Murnau and Fritz Lang that not only gestured to the fracturing effects of WW1 but also seemed to foreshadow something terrible to come. German soprano Lotte Lehmann’s recording of the Beethoven aria ‘Komm, Hoffnung’ (‘Come, Hope’) is lodged deep in my brain and also appears in Remote Sympathy. I returned to Thomas Mann’s novel Lotte in Weimar when I was writing the book; it offers such a richly realised portrait of Goethe’s cultured, humane Weimar. (I was fascinated to discover that the chief prosecutor at Nuremberg quoted the novel in the trial, thinking he was quoting the real Goethe.) Some of my early literary influences were Janet Frame, Rose Tremain, Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey and Angela Carter.
What are you reading now? What is on your To Be Read pile?
I’m reading the manuscript of Tracey Slaughter’s new collection of short stories (as yet unnamed) which is to be published by VUP next year, and it’s stunning. Savage, dark, funny, luminous – there’s no one quite like her. I’m also enjoying The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, with its heady family secrets in danger of being exposed. As research for my next novel, I’m reading a lot about high country farming in New Zealand, the intricacies of water rights in Central Otago, and the anatomy of the Australian magpie. I’m looking forward to Tusiata Avia’s new collection of poetry, The Savage Coloniser, and the novel Conjure Women by Afia Atakora.