I struggled with the title of this post for a while. Since my last two posts were on Julie Orringer and Thomas Mallon, two writers known for their high-caliber historical fiction, I knew I wanted to discuss my own fiction writings for today's post - especially Isolde 1939, where my main protagonist is a made-up character inspired by a real-life opera singer who sang for the Nazis, and my current project, where I write fiction about well-known musicians who fled the Third Reich. I usually come up with a title for the blog post almost immediately, but this one stumped me. I had a very good idea of what I wanted to express but couldn't summarize it into a few words, until the words practically wrote themselves: getting the shadows right.
I used the fictitious character of Yvonne Chevallier in Isolde 1939 because the opera singer her story is loosely based on - Germaine Lubin - saw her career irremdiably tainted after the war by accusations she had fraternized with the enemy during the Occupation. She lost her French citizenship, lived in Switzerland for several years. She also sang Isolde at the Bayreuth festival in 1939 - a festival that was attended every year by Hitler himself, a long-time friend of Winifried Wagner's (the composer's daughter-in-law) and had an active operatic career during the war, including in 1941 when she sang Isolde in Paris with the Berlin State Opera and Herbert von Karajan.
If you do a Google search on her name and Hitler's, you'll find a picture where she sits at his feet at the Bayreuth festival. A French biographer who wrote about her in the 1970s absolves her of any wrongdoing. Saying that the woman had a complex personality is an understatement. I chose to use a fictitious character instead of because, if you are going to give center stage to real-life controversial characters, you absolutely have to get the shadows right - you have to see the real person and not the person you wish he or she had been just because it would make for a better story. Who am I to pretend I know for sure what Germaine Lubin did and why she did it? In this case, using a fictional character seemed an absolute necessity.
For the project I am currently working on, on the other hand, the real-life protagonists are very positive characters: multi-dimensional people without a doubt, but with high integrity, a compelling personal story, and a network of similarly famous friends. I am still debating how many names to change, but it is not as important as in Isolde 1939 - because my characters and the people who have inspired them are fundamentally good people. The book will not be on their shadow the way Yvonne Chevallier's (shadow) drives a lot of what she does during the war.
Recognizing the inherent goodness of a character is not nearly as fraught as shining a light on her dark side. It is also more difficult to portray deep flaws in biographies since it may leave the reader with the impression that the author is "finding excuses" for his subject, who may have caused tremendous hardship to living people and not be deserving of the slightest excuse whatsoever. On the other hand, writing fiction about positive people who really existed allows members of the general public to become more aware of a real-life story they may not have known, while making it come to life thanks to the liberties fiction writers can take by creating lively dialogue or tightening the story line. I'm not sure when I'll be done, but it should make for an interesting new book.