The Letter Writer
By Anne Sanow
Followed by Q&A
The minister’s green pencil hovers along the lines of script he is reading. Years of experience have shown him that when he is besieged—and he is besieged constantly this autumn, every day the fresh possibility of retreat in Africa and then Magda in the evening greeting him with her sour face and imperious, wounded tones—he is calmed only by some task both methodical and brute. He will sleep three hours tonight if he is lucky. The insomnia of a king. He skims the pencil through a blocky paragraph. With an impatient hand he strikes out the second and third use of the word “glorious.” He makes a check mark in the left margin to indicate the need for background dialogue. On the right, a notation about lighting. It is a mountains-and-peasant saga he is reading, nothing exceptional to it; it is serviceable, he can tell after merely a few pages, the writer working a simple melodramatic formula by rote. Under the circumstances, serviceable is perhaps not the worst option.
At the window, a banner flaps in the air like an elegant carbon wing. The street is hushed at this hour and the lights are extinguished. The minister’s room is a model of propriety in Berlin, windows shaded to obscure the glow of the single desk lamp he requires to see. This austerity belies the grandness of the house he occupies with his family—a former Prussian palace, complete with ballroom. Long hallways, hung with paintings, an absence of German kitsch. He has his wife’s impeccable taste to thank for that, though these days he thanks her for little else.
November 1942. The minister is forty-five years old. His recent birthday observed with little fanfare. Magda’s will be tomorrow, celebrated quietly with a small party at home: the children, minus Harald who is currently flying out of Naples (the minister knows, but does not tell his wife, of her eldest son’s—his stepson’s—location). Perhaps, as in other years, the Führer will join them.
He reads and the images roll through his brain. Blue sky panned wide to catch the sparkling tip of a peak. The sweep down grassy slopes, which if shot well will carry the viewer along as if riding in a gondola. Title curlicued on the side of a thatched hut—No, he jots simply; overdone. But then it is all clumsily set down by this writer, a person who has patterned his work on that which has already been sanctioned, and there is nothing new here for the minister to imagine. In half an hour’s time he skims through the rest, disappointed to find not even a small dash at nonconformity, nothing, no rebellion or individuality even in the punctuation following the actors’ dialogue.
Which rebellion, were there any, he would censure.
It is a pity, he thinks. Back in his university days, in Bonn and Heidelberg and Munich, the brave ideas flowed quick and hot, to turn to fire in the streets, the pounding of many feet marching in unison, himself awash with the glory of a new faith, belief in a pured new world. (“Glorious,” he muses—he must check himself.) O my strong, glowing, mighty faith, he wrote then. O companion on my journey; preparer of the path . . . He has forsaken literary pursuits for this thing he finds he was created for, this role of a lifetime, a creation of his own shaping more convoluted and faceted than any role an actor might play. He has few companions, and though he would censure them, he mourns their loss.
The flap of the banner again, at the corner of his eye, reminds him of the hour. He is alone with himself, which is the most dangerous thing to be.
He closes his eyes and is presented with a different scene, unbidden, this time the sharp roar of engines flying low over a parched encampment under desert skies, flash and flak, earth zippered open and the wrack of burning metal. The wrong bodies on the ground. Cover, cover—but his hands over his ears can do nothing, his green pencil useless.
He can rewrite a script for a film, but he cannot rewrite his own story.
Enough, he tells himself. It should not be so difficult to find the thing he needs for relief. He will return to the script later.
On his desk are also stacks of files: general business, such as recommendations, requests, and correspondence, he leaves at the office. Here is where his true interests lie. He unsnaps the string around the first folder and takes a letter from the stack—from the middle, randomly, as if he has all the time in the world.
A graceful German “Mädchen” type of true freshness; she has a pretty, winning face. From her dance schooling and theatrical chorus experience, she brings lightness and control to her movements . . . pupil of Frau Meier, with the occasional lapse into the regimented “walk” and posture we have come to expect from those we have seen under her tutelage.
—H. Bahr, 2 Sept. 1942
He glances at the accompanying photograph, flips to the notes he made while watching the test reels back in—September? Yes? He rubs his eyes. Two months—more—since this young hopeful was brought from her training course. (Actually he should ascertain her age: noted here is twenty-two.) Two months now since she was permitted finally to pit herself against the camera, which for many can be a battle they will lose. The camera is a capricious lover. It teases and toys, then harshly reveals. What have we here? the minister asks himself. He flips to the notes he made.
And now he is in his element, for when he writes he imprints what he has seen and it is transformed into the indelible. The photograph could be any girl; so many are alike in his view. Yes, Herr Bahr: I see a pretty and winning face. That is all fine and good. He drops the photograph to the desktop. Images are more necessary for others than they are for him. Glancing instead at his tiny, sharp script, the girl blossoms in his mind into a moving creature, now skipping into a dance line, now warbling Lola, taking a little breath to smooth her skirt, catch her breath. A shift into pensive mode with a dramatic soliloquy. The scene jumps to a meadow, where the girl could be playing the maiden in the script he has just been reading. He is following the reel as he saw it exactly in his mind, prompted by his words on the page.
And then: Magda’s voice, murmuring, Magda clapping politely and nodding her approval. The minister blinks. The reel turns itself off. Yes, we are always in need of simple chorines like this, his notes tell him. He has forgotten that these recommendations, this batch of young women, were paraded before his wife as well. The Baarova woman is long sacrificed (then he had written, the wildest life is the most beautiful!) but penance is nevertheless extracted from him whenever Magda wishes it.
And what does Magda know?
She has had affairs of her own, it is rumored. (But why, he wonders, is she irreproachable?) Her grace and smoothness have rescued him publicly many times. The Führer himself is enamored of her, was there when they married, negotiated the truce between them. The runted Mussolini gazed up at her golden visage in awe. Magda knows she is not replaceable. She has his career, his life, on a tether. She has borne him six children.
He thumbs the photograph of the girl again and then turns it face down. Outside the pock pock pock pock of someone walking in the street below, long past curfew. And now the light shift of the floorboards outside his office door. The hairs stand rigid on his neck, and he feels, ridiculously, as caught out as a disobedient child.
It is his own child, his firstborn, trespassing at the door. His favorite. She has had her father’s ear from the time she could walk. As an infant she was pulled onto the Führer’s lap and her eyes darted from face to face as the men talked late into the night. Fleetingly the minister wonders: what does she know, what did she comprehend then? What will she bring forward to a better time? His lovely, intelligent Helga Susanne, now ten years old.
“Papa,” she says, twisting the door handle closed behind her as she slides in from the dark hallway. Her smooth face is dented with a line from her pillowcase.
“It is very late, my girl.”
She nods gravely. “They are all asleep.”
“As should you be.”
“I cannot sleep,” she tells him.
Neither coyness nor panic in her voice. She has always been direct in her insubordinations, a girl who faces life as levelly as a straight-edge rule. Her father sighs, lays the pencil on top of the photograph with the point exactly at two o’clock. “What is it then,” he says to her. He knows he will find it difficult to be stern.
Helga pads softly to the desk and leans her elbow against it, clasps her hands. She looks at the neat pile of script papers and then travels her gaze around to the open folder, the letters clipped with notations, the miles and miles of his crabbed little notes that could be shaken out into a line long enough to encircle the Eastern front. She takes her time with her visual journey, leaning there, and finally arrives at her father’s face.
“Well?” he prompts, his expression solicitous.
“I know,” she says.
He can’t think of what she means, but he is caught by a sudden chill.
“Papa. I know.”
The wildest life—he meant that, then. A white boat gliding in the river, beneficent sunlight, the Baarova woman (he can no longer think of her as Lida) with her head in his lap, the children laughing and swinging their legs from the deck.
“You are sending us away again because of the bombing, aren’t you,” his daughter says, watching his eyes.
Such relief, he cannot believe it. Here is a query from a child—well, almost a query, considering it is Helga putting it to him—and this is something he can account for, someone he can soothe. He will not lie to her, though he will lie by omission to the others.
“Yes, that is true,” he tells her. “But it will all be over soon.” This, like a miracle, he suddenly and fully believes.
Back to the letters. He will complete this task tonight.
Flip her over again, there is her bright smiling face. Soft waves of hair with a braid. Bow at the neck of her blouse. Madlen Mai. No siren in the making here. What she is, is what he declares everyone wants—oh, and they do, they do. They flock to watch fresh girls like this dancing and singing and weeping and marrying. Waving their soldiers off to war. Carrying babies. Baking bread. Wrapping themselves in any color they are told to wear. Magda knows this. And she knows that his deepest desires require a different satisfaction. Well: he will not override his wife in this case, but he will circumvent.
He himself has never cared for blondes.
He writes his response:
Subject does indeed have highly photogenic features, in regular sittings. However, in each of five test shots in movement her facial features can be seen to pinch inward (ref. Roll 6, frames 287 – 963). Figure is slim but requires padding of the bustline for balance. After half a year, she must undergo another test, to decide whether she has become more concentrated in her close-ups and whether her articles of apprenticeship can go any further.
—J. Goebbels, 10 Nov. 1942
(Somewhere in the city this young woman is turning over in her sleep. Why should she concern him?)
Now the minister taps the eraser of his pencil on the stationary pad—one, two, three.
It is a respite he is seeking, a small reward he feels he should not deny himself: it will be only like a carrot, a small thing held out as encouragement. A thing so insignificant, what man could complain? He laughs to himself a little, thinking of the carrot he will permit himself. A modest prize, an indulgence befitting totaler Krieg. It is entirely suitable. He is, in fact, leading by example. He is a fucking saint.
A mere plaything. That is all he requires.
He finds the carrot that will placate him near the end of the stack of letters: she is almost an afterthought. The photograph is of a Fraülein Schildt, an undistinguished girl with light brown hair whose recommendation from Herr Bahr is mild. Almost, nearly, the minister passes by without clicking on the reel in his head. But then he is caught by a small, precise check in his notes—second seq., fourth left—and his mind flowers up once more. He has left himself a clue. There she is. Waiting. Dark hair like the sheen of a crow. Dark eyes tilted restlessly to the lens, knowing she has but a flick of a second before the Schildt girl canters in front of the chorus line, obscuring those left behind. He reels through it one more time, utterly confident he has got it right.
He will, naturally, conceal his deed by issuing the invitation to both girls; the other can be easily dismissed. His final missive of the evening is brief and to the point, a gentle reproof of Herr Bahr’s abilities that will nevertheless be received as a brute directive. The minister feels the blood glide through his veins as he writes, becalming his body in preparation for, at last, a bit of rest. He writes:
In Frlns. Schildt and Vesela certain assets have perhaps been overlooked. They are lively and willing, if not yet adequate for leading roles. Recommend both subjects for further evaluation and request that meetings be arranged at your earliest convenience.
—J. Goebbels, 10 Nov. 1942
He lays his pencil down, taking a peaceful delight in this small wickedness. It is three o’clock. The house is still and fortified, and the streets below spread out into a grid of order and pride, a solid, obedient map of the new world in the making. The minister stretches his fingers and turns his wrists to loosen them. The visions quiet in his mind. It is not yet time for the first birds to stir in the gardens, but when they do he and his wife will awaken and when the sun rises the children will rush in altogether crying birthday greetings Mama! Mama! He and Helga will exchange a knowing wink. And in the evening, when they gather round and the candles glow, his smile will be absolutely genuine.
Anne Sanow is the author of the story collection Triple Time, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award for fiction. Her stories have appeared in Kenyon Review, Dossier, and Shenandoah, among others, and she is currently working on a novel.
Q&A with Anne Sanow
What can you tell us about the inspiration for this piece?
In researching the German film industry during WWII, I naturally enough came across Joseph Goebbels’ diaries and letters. And as a fiction writer drawn to history, the challenge of writing close to the perspective of a megalomaniac became hard to resist.
If you were a food, what would it be?
I think I would be a lemon.
If you encountered a traveler from space, what place on Earth would you advise him or her to visit?
Difficult to choose just one place, so I think I would have them drive the Pacific Coast Highway down California, and then hop-skip or time-warp or whatever over to Route 90 through South Dakota, which is just littered with under-appreciated marvels.
Who are your writing influences?
So many—but those more or less constantly wending their way through my brain, bothering me in some good way and making me want to write, are: Katherine Anne Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Shirley Hazzard, W. G. Sebald, Mary Swan, Alice Munro, Shirley Jackson, Edward P. Jones, Alistair MacLeod, and Kathryn Davis.