It’s hard work negotiating through traffic to get into Edinburgh for the early events, but there was never any doubt that I’d make the effort for these two. And it was hard work. Somewhat flustered, I took my seat in the Spiegeltent with just two minutes to spare! Thankfully all the effort was worth while.
The two authors were presenting their latest novels: Simon Mawer’s is set during the Prague Spring of 1968 (it’s all in the title), while Patrick McGrath’s Walter Scott Prize shortlisted The Wardrobe Mistress is set in 1947’s London, at a time when British Fascism was in resurgence. (“It is astonishing that Fascism could not only survive, but could flourish in the wake of World War II,” he said.)
Both novels have significant elements based on personal experience. Mrs McGrath works in theatre, and this is the backdrop for much of McGrath’s novel. In the summer of 1968, Simon Mawer was hitchhiking across Europe. In Southern Germany he took a notion to cross the Iron Curtain into Prague. Unfortunately his male co-traveller would not agree. “I decided to put that right in this novel,” he said. “So I gave my fictional alter-ego a more interesting travel itinerary. I also gave him a girlfriend!”
Mawer emphasised the importance of factual accuracy. “You have to pay attention to the details,” he said. “Because people will find you out. You can bend the facts, but you must have purpose behind it. Otherwise you sacrifice verisimilitude.”
Apropos detail, take a look at this video, the making of which features in Mawer’s novel. The Moody Blues are playing on Charles IV Bridge. It was shot on 20.08.1968, the last day of the Prague Spring. 24 hours later the city was overrun with Russian tanks.
48 hours after that, the Moody Blues were evacuated from Prague by the RAF. “Just think about that,” said Mawer. “The RAF allowed to land in a Warsaw pact country, occupied by other Warsaw pact countries! And the Moody Blue can’t tell me anything about what kind of plane it was, where they took off from, nothing at all. How can anyone be so unaware?”
“It was the 60’s, man,” interjected chair, Joe Haddow, (Thereby, putting himself on the shortlist for Lizzy’s chair of the festival award.)
Unknown – or rather unfamiliar history – is the focus of McGrath’s novel. “My discovery of the reemergence of fascism in the 1940’s and the way in which it was crushed, was a gift,” he said. “Particularly given the resonance in contemporary events. Fake news, scapegoating of a minority, and testing of the public’s tolerance for injustice are not new.”
“We are condemned to repeat our history, unless we know it,”added Mawer.
Wise words and good reason to read both novels. I have, and recommend both. Reviews to follow in due course.