Got a chance to hear Andrew Steinmetz read from this book at the Ottawa International Writers Festival last month and snapped up the book from the Nicholas Hoare Books table. The book is a combination of fiction and memoir. It is the story of Eva, Steinmetz’s great aunt, who had performed in the first workshop performance of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera in 1928.
The author/narrator conducts a series of interviews with Eva and also receives letters and has conversations with other members of the family and those close to her; this means that there are several layers of reporting in the book: Eva’s words as she tells them, her words as he reports them from the tape recorder he is using and the words of others who tell the author/narrator about Eva. There is also the mingling of Steinmetz's own life in the book.
Part of the book portrays a moment in history when people of Jewish origins were targeted and forced to escape from Germany or be put in camps.
There is something exceptionally precise and effective about Steinmetz’s use of language. For instance, in this excerpt, Eva and her siblings dwell on the grotesque and take a kind of pleasure in something that also upsets them. Here is Eva’s portrayal of her mother, who was bedridden:
“For the children there was certainly nothing more fantastic and strange than to have the kind of mother we could imagine. She was our captive, tangled under the sheets, chained to the bedpost, she stirred her blankets in bed. Mutti was stuck. On her pillow the head lay, browned, like the top of a wooden spoon, a face, features burnt, black on the sides. She was stuck with a poisonous sack, a full belly. And there was an odour. Her dying spread through the house, room to room. She leaked into the walls. Terrific, we whispered to each other, Just amazing. . The children never walked by the door to her room alone. We went two by two.”
The stories of Eva’s life are authentic and memorable, such as her bringing an artificial arm in to school because she and her classmates were forced to hold up their arms while the teacher tried to teach concentration. These little details show Eva’s and others efforts to live in an era where authorities were bent on control and supression. Yet there is art in the book, the theatre and experimentalism, fighting against the suppression. There is Eva, telling her story.
In the book there are glimpses into the theatre of the avant-garde; the personas of Brecht and Kurt Weil appear in the book, but in an almost nonchalant way as Eva describes them. The book doesn’t concern itself overly with the actual play; it’s there but only as one part of Eva’s threepenny theatre, because Eva didn’t get that much of a chance to act in it. Her decisions were not her. Her brother and her father, then her husband tried to keep her under glass. This is one of the tragedies of her story for me. She was a fascinating woman; her voice as depicted by the author, is strong and original. Yet she wasn’t allowed to express it as a young woman. In this book Andrew Steinmetz brings her voice and her personality to life for those of us who didn’t experience her.
One of the things that often annoys me in the current climate is the nonsense about appropriation of voice, that an author shouldn’t be writing in a voice other than his own, cannot cross gender boundaries for example. In this case Steinmetz does an excellent job of ensuring that Eva gets an opportunity to speak, by acting as her medium, by letting his narrator, who is really him, or perhaps a version of him, act as medium. This is where Steinmetz excels. By the end of the book, I did feel as though I had gotten to know Eva and the troubled era of Germany between wars, and the consequences.
I can’t help drawing a small parallel between this book and Rob Winger’s long poem Muybridge’s Horse (Nightwood Editions, 2007). Both books deal with the main character through the use of numerous voices; both have at issue the accuracy of reporting history.
Eva’s Threepenny Theatre is an unusual book, one that will leave you with the sound of her voice, the tape recorder still running.