Britta Böhler, The Decision: 'Böhler fails to decide: fact or fiction?' - book review

'That grey area between fact and fiction, where memoirs are written as novels, and novels borrow non-fiction elements at will. It’s not new, but it’s edgy, and it’s now'

Jonathan Gibbs
Friday 11 December 2015 13:02 GMT

There’s nowhere hipper or more contentious in today’s literary landscape than the grey area between fact and fiction, where memoirs are written as novels, and novels borrow non-fiction elements at will. It’s not new, but it’s edgy, and it’s now. Britta Böhler’s old-fashioned, well-crafted biographical novel, by contrast, could almost be used as a dictionary definition of what’s not hip.

The Decision follows Thomas Mann over three days in 1936, as he considers whether or not to publish an open letter attacking Hitler and the Third Reich, for a newspaper in Switzerland, where he’s living in exile.

As a book it is thoroughly researched, carefully written and entirely plausible. It gives you the strongest possible sense that this is what Mann was thinking, and feeling, at this critical moment in his life, as he ponders cutting his ties once and for all with his beloved homeland. Which is precisely what nouveau-historical novelists like Laurent Binet (HHhH) and Jonathan Littel (The Kindly Ones) have been pushing against. It’s safe, and it’s very well done, but its casualness with regards to its processes makes it problematic.

Böhler is a high profile lawyer, this her first work of fiction, and certainly she, along with translator Jeannette K Ringold, is an expert at producing clear, direct language, and useful summary. “What had he ever done to offend these people?” she has Mann asking himself.

“He had put everything in his life at the service of his country. Even at the moment of his greatest triumph, hadn’t he thought of Germany? ‘I place this international prize at the feet of my country and my people,’ he had said in his speech in Stockholm. And now, four years later, this fall, this disgrace, this malice.” Believe that, and why shouldn’t you believe in the taste of Mann’s Turkish cigars, or the pain of the snapped spring in his favourite armchair, as it pricks him in the thigh?

It’s an interesting question: what we want from fiction like this, and what we think we’re getting. Certainly, if Böhler’s character wasn’t the author of Death of Venice and The Magic Mountain (in The Decision, he’s stalled halfway through the mammoth Joseph and His Brothers, and jotting notes towards Doctor Faustus), then we’d be unlikely to find time spent with him so compelling. But seeing as it’s Mann, if you really wanted to know his thoughts, why not track down his diaries and letters?

The truth, of course, falls between these two poles. Böhler’s Mann is a deft creation, and over 170 pages you feel you’re getting something like the real thing – and at roughly a ninth of the length of Joseph.

Yet still the thought occasionally pops up that Mann is being stage-managed into remembering his entire personal history over a series of opportune moments – his marriage, his fight with his brother, his homosexual yearnings. A weekend in which we thought through the events of our past life quite so conscientiously would be a strange and uncanny one indeed.

The Decision, by Britta Böhler, trans. Jeannette K. Ringold (Haus Publishing, £14.99) » Order at £13.49 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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