In the course of Meike Ziervogel’s novella, we meet three generations of women in one family, an embittered grandmother, her daughter Magda and the lovesick teenager Helga. They have little in common except the desire to improve their lives and those of their children, something in which all three of them will spectacularly fail.
Magda succeeded in elevating her station in life, though some may have perceived that she achieved notoriety only through marriage. However, from an early age she appeared to decide she deserved better than the position society had set her; taking her destiny into her own hands it manifested physically in the clothes she wore, the adornments with which she accessorised and in her comportment. She kept quiet about her material accumulation, but her gestures spoke volumes and even as she volunteered selflessly to help those less well off, others looked at her with scorn and derision.
Despite her mother’s efforts to do her best by her headstrong daughter, that didn’t mean she should give herself airs and graces she was not born to, at least that was her mother’s opinion.
Was it a consequence of being sent to a convent for schooling at a young age (at the suggestion of a new stepfather) that developed her resourcefulness and sense of superiority? By the time her mother decided to end her education and send her to work in a factory to smother that conceited attitude, the stepfather who had come to adore the charming girl, would have none of it.
We learn of the mother’s perception of Magda after the fall of Hitler, whilst she is being interviewed by a commissar and she is revelling in having an important audience in which to denounce her child – though more through envy, jealousy and a sense of outrage at being unappreciated, forgotten even – not quite the admission of guilt he is looking for, though he hopes it may contribute to establishing Magda’s fanaticism.
It reflects the irony of a mother wanting the best for her baby girl and then having to live in the shadow of who her offspring has become, someone unreachable, who has by necessity let go and left the bitter mother full of resentment behind.
Upon receiving this book from the author Meike Ziervogel, (also founder of the publishing company Peirene Press), I read a few mentions of intentions to read Magda that indicated a certain wariness, expecting it to be disturbing, as do a few of the more provocative blurb comments, suggesting the portrayal of mother’s as abusers and the association of one mother being a Nazi sympathiser and married to a prominent figure in that regime (Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister).
I didn’t find the book like that at all and found the suggestion that…
…abuse breeds abuse through generation after generation. – Frederick Taylor, author of Exorcising Hitler
…misleading, even false.
I found much to admire in Ziervogel’s depiction of the character Magda, her ability to use disadvantage to her advantage, her separation from her mother allowed her to amass inner resources, to learn another language, to create a persona that made her different. She understood implicitly her mother’s advice that she should better her social status; her falling – or failing – was the direction in which she channelled the fire within her, that desperate need for some kind of meaningful fulfillment, that was at its height at the wrong time in history, her calling came not for Him (God) but for him (the Führer).
She believed in him and his vision with a fanaticism, similar to religious fanaticism and in the same way that a small minority of devout religious followers go to extremes for their beliefs, so too does Magda.
Helga’s is a brief, heart-breaking coming-of-age story, the story within the story and it seems appropriate that she, the innocent, is depicted through a different narrative structure, the intimacy of her private diary.
As I reread the last three chapters a second time, I noted all the chapter headings which read like flash fiction, framing the story in less than thirty words.
The Girl Behind Convent Walls
The Mother and the Commissar
The Pill Box
The Vision of Magda Goebbels
The Final Task
As a novella, Magda doesn’t waste words, yet it manages to depict the depth of the three generations of its female characters. While it succeeds here, the end remains shocking and disturbing, unjustified, it is impossible to accept.
The book is fiction, inspired by real historical figures and events. I have written these thoughts without having read about the actual life of Johanna Maria Magdalena “Magda” Goebbels (11 November 1901-1 May 1945), wishing to pay closer attention to the author’s story and her character creation than the historical account, which could easily overshadow one’s impression of a work of fiction.