I‘m sitting in a coffee shop with time to spare, and writing about Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking. Here’s the catch: I left my copy of the novel packed neatly in one corner of Anna’s parents’ home, where we stayed last night. That’s bad news in terms of direct quotes in this piece, but it’s good news for Anna’s mom and dad, who have just scored a pretty excellent novel. Indeed, The Undertaking is written with such clarity, economy and depth that many of its scenes and passages are even now emerging from my memory. I don’t need my copy of the book; it’s in my head already.
The Undertaking begins outside of Kiev, where Peter Faber, a soldier in the German army, is getting married to Katharina Spinell, a young woman with an ambitious set of parents. The odd thing about all this is that there is no bride – or rather, the bride is hundreds of miles away in Berlin. Two priests, with synchronised pocket watches, are prompting Faber and his new wife to say their vows at the right time, but in different spaces. They have photographs of each other, Faber picked from a catalogue by a good Nazi family eager to reproduce for the glory of the Reich. Faber, meanwhile, gets leave as soon as he is wed. Russia, as we now all know, is only going to get worse.
Indeed, almost everything gets worse in this novel, as you might imagine of a novel that begins with optimistic Nazis and ends at the same moment as the war. When Faber arrives at the Spinells’ apartment in east Berlin, he receives a lecture from Katharina’s father about all the wonderful things that will happen once Germany has won the war: farming will be better, schooling will be better, marriage will be better. There is a sense already that Herr Spinell knows the Reich is a never-never land, but that he must continue to believe in it for want of any other option. His family’s benefactor, the shadowy Dr Weinart, expects and accepts nothing other than wide-eyed enthusiasm. Whilst on his conjugal furlough, Faber, too, takes part in assaults on Jewish property.
It is here that the novel finds its teeth: Faber is no Nazi, indeed when we briefly meet his father we find a resolutely free-thinking provincial schoolteacher, a man who knows hokum when he sees it. His son begins the novel in much the same mould – a reluctant soldier deeply sceptical of the war. With a wife and in-laws to protect and impress however, he quickly shifts his own ideological goalposts. At the same time, when their shell-shocked son is sent back to the Eastern Front to die – Weinart cheerleading all the way – Katharina’s mother moves away from the commitment to Nazism which sees them swap their east Berlin flat for a grand central apartment. Increasingly, Faber’s new-found enthusiasm for the war once he returns to fight at Stalingrad peels away from the narrative back in Berlin.
In this way, The Undertaking is a fascinating study in moral relativism. Magee answers that occasionally spiteful old question, “Where did all the Nazis go?”, with a simple shrug. They shifted and they changed. One of Faber’s army buddies is a Russian-speaking German of Slavic descent, whom he suspects of Communism: not only do Faber’s accusations drive the soldier to kill two Russian women in order to prove his loyalty; in the depths of the Russian winter, with the Germans surrounded by Russian forces and slowly starving, he comes to believe in deliverance by the Fuhrer more than Faber – in so grim a context, he feels he has no choice.
Ideology is plastic, in other words. When Katharina is caught in East Berlin at the end of the war, she accepts the new Stalinism of the state which provides her with bread and medicine. The only character who does not adopt this pragmatism, Katharina’s father, is a monster, failing to protest when his son is sent to die, and when his daughter is taken away by Russian soldiers. He is treated with some sympathy – he is a scared man with no choice but to bow to the powerful – but the consequence of his terrified inflexibility is a sequence of catastrophes. Faber, too, survives only by again abandoning his values and embracing the role of traitor. This venal lack of character is no more laudable than Spinell’s Nazism, of course: we end the novel with characters as bankrupt as the Reich, pulled apart by a history they did not or could not stand against.
No character avoids the horror of their comeuppance, though there is no pat moralism in the grim fates of Magee’s characters. The Undertaking is sparsely written – there is a good deal of well-captured, differentiated dialogue – but its depth of feeling is borne from precisely the discipline with which it depicts a man ruined by a mine, a woman’s slow descent into madness, or a shell-shocked soldier cowering in a hole in the ground. Magee writes with such unflinching precision that her details need no filigree or elaboration; they simply are, all the more dreadful for their lack of adornment. In this the novel possesses some of the blankness of Peter and Katharina’s moral vacuity (the Jews of Berlin or the women of Russia have no voice, and do not survive), but in inhabiting the inner life of its central characters The Undertaking somehow captures evil with memorable venom.
At the heart and in the title of the novel, however, is something rather purer: the undertaking between Peter and Katharina, which the latter keeps all the while he is gone, even when the Sixth Army is presumed entirely lost. There is, of course, no great romance in this story – but there is a sense that, in a different, less violent time, these characters might have lived better lives. This makes The Undertaking a subtle, careful book, never descending into relativism yet attempting to understand, withholding forgiveness but offering wisdom. It is not the most experimental, original or even expansive novel on the Women’s Prize shortlist. But it may be the most purely moving.