Dearest Professor Q bought a house!
So you said you hadn’t any reviews for 'The Confession', your submission for the Official WDC 'What A Character!' Competition, and I wanted to rectify that – partly because you rated and reviewed me and partly because you’re my friend and partly because I have quite a lot to say. I first want to say that I enjoyed it – it’s not my usual read from you as so much of our experiences together have had elements of magical realism, sci-fi, Gaiman-esque-ness (you know what I mean) so this was a pleasant surprise as a piece of pure historical fiction.
So to begin I want you to know that there were a large number of elements that I thought worked really well, especially the narrative voice that drives this piece. It’s strong and it captures the attention of the reader quickly. I also thought that you successfully made a Nazi somewhat sympathetic – an achievement in itself and I know that’s one of the aims you had in mind when you wrote this.
Generally a good read with few mistakes and little to critique. I don’t see any obvious spelling errors so congrats on that – no grammar errors either which is a nice change from some of the stuff I’ve been reading lately. Firstly however there were a couple of odd word choices and repetition in your diction:
‘desiccated limbs’ – now it might be because I’ve been making honeymoon slices, but desiccated means literally dried out, or more metaphorically – devoid of energy. I’m not sure that’s what you mean in this sentence.
‘My Lord Jesus’ – you use this phrase a lot. I wonder if you might find less repetition more effective, especially in the beginning when your character appears to be looking for redemption. Consider: My Saviour, Oh Redeemer etc.
Everything in the next few sections is therefore just personal thoughts and suggestions if you were going to rewrite this. Thus, for the remainder of this review I’m mainly going to focus on character and voice then I’m going to briefly talk about the structure of the story.
CHARACTER & VOICE
Usually I would start with a more focused section on diction but since this story is focused on the character of Friedrich, I think it necessary to begin with him as man of the story’s later criticisms return to the issues surrounding him and his voice-driven narrative.
Friedrich seems intelligent – his language is sophisticated. This is suggested by words such as ‘odious’ and ‘depravity’, phrases such as ‘abcessed profusion’ and ‘desiccated limbs’, the detailed understanding of post-WWI reparations and politics. Moreover, the fact that you title the story ‘The Confession’ as well his frequent ‘Oh Jesus’ makes it evident that he is a Christian.
Thus, the points I’m going to make are slightly pernickety as the Nazi regime was something we had to study in detail in my final year of the International Baccalaureate Diploma. The first is that the vast majority of SS officers posted to the camps had very little education. Only about 70% had an elementary education, 21.5% secondary and and only 5.5% had higher education. You’re an intelligent girl with a lot more education than a lot of the SS and therefore I think your voice somewhat bleeds into the voice of your character. The tasks such as herding the detainees to the chambers/prison barracks, turning on the gas chambers etc were mostly performed by very low ranking officers who lacked an education and therefore it seems a little anomalous to have a very high-brow voice here. Of course, there were the 5.5% you might say – but most of them were like Doctor Mengele and the camp architects.
Other examples of where you might want to consider the depth of education that your character has received are in the allusion to ‘Frankenstein’ – written in English. And: ‘I saw only a bacchanal of fear and degradation, fevered arousal and pitched repletion’ – a very sophisticated metaphor but potentially too sophisticated for one of the SS.
As I said very pernickety but could be worth considering if you rewrote it.
The other thing is that the ‘Oh Jesus’ – admittedly, when I first read this I simply read it as a sort of ‘Oh Jeez mister’ kind of attitude. This might be a British thing of course so do ignore if you like, but most prayers tend to have longer titles for the Christ figure – ‘My Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour, Redeemer’ is one that might actually also fit into your story. The other thing is that ‘Confession’ is a primarily Catholic element and there definitely were Catholic SS at Auschwitz. However, from my understanding of Catholicism, most confessions begin: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit...” – I’m actually going to come back to your opening when I talk about structure, but I just thought it might be more effectively ‘prayer’ & ‘confession’-like if the language of Christianity was more self-evident.
Now those are the only two real inconsistencies that I thought worth mentioning, although they are up to you to play with . Therefore I think it’s time to make a few suggestions on how you might make his character even more interesting and evocative. I mean, I do recognise that you wanted to make him sympathetic. But I wonder if the story might have been more effective if there was some doubt as to his sincerity? After all, it would be a great thing to do something like Nabokov, making your Nazi both sympathetic and still inherently the bad guy. Nabokov does this frequently – think of Lolita or Despair. In both of these you have men who we should despise – a paedophile and a greedy, self-pitying killer – but we also admire them for their cleverness, sympathise with their humanity. They also both take the form of confession-like narratives driven by strong first-person narrators. I would recommend them if you haven’t read them.
An example for how you might do this could be that you allude to how he graduated and thought it an honour to join, won over by propaganda rather than as you say ‘ignoring’ the problem. Maybe he was a part of the first generation of Hitler Youth and graduated into the SS. Maybe he’s a coward and he’s making excuses? Maybe he was in love with a girl who wanted a soldier for a husband. The list goes on. I do think considering making him unreliable would add depth to the story – particularly because it’s so focused on the character and currently that character is quite 2-D.
Does that all make sense???
Yes I’m now going to say a little bit more about the 2-D comment. Don’t worry Q, I wouldn’t leave you hanging.
First, I think that I wanted more about WHY he changes his mind one day. There seems to be a very sudden ‘and then I woke up’ type moment that’s never really clarified. There’s the great moment when he realises he DID choose to become who he become and he takes blame away from Hitler and Germany, realises their follies. But I wondered – what exactly changed him, what opened his mind?
I think that detail might make the whole story come together, make Friedrich a much stronger character and deepen his tangibility.
The other thing would be perhaps changing the way he refers to Christ/the God figure in the story to show his development through the confession. Perhaps he starts appealing for forgiveness and salvation but then changes to ask for aid as the saviour and redeemer of them physically rather than just spiritually. A shift in a motif like that might make the story more cohesive. Maybe he even refers to his thoughts about God after WWI (abandonment??? Was Germany to become the next Sodom or Gomorrah?) or during Kristellnacht (God as vengeful upon the dregs of society?). By using a motif like Friedrich’s faith, you’d thus subtly render his character changes without being overly explicit.
Yes. We’ve made it to structure. There are just a few suggestions, and mostly things that really are up to you to judge their worth because I’m being fussy haha. But I think the main criticism I had was that the story lacked actual action – it was all implied/past-tense. Moreover, the ending, which was the first hint of real true action, was cut off before the action could occur. The suggestions I’m going to make focus on these things to try and make a way for you to have more action in your story without destroying the great great foundation you have here.
The first thing I thought when I read the line ‘I did not mean to be a murderer. But it seems I have become one.’ Was that this should be where your story starts. It throws you straight into the central problem that the character is trying to resolve, it is much more eye catching than your current first line and it’s evocative. Incredibly so. You could attach the first line AFTER these two sentences but my first instinct would be to change that so these opened the story for the reader.
The other thing that immediately sprang into my mind after finishing the story was that I wondered if you had considered writing it from the third person? Maybe even starting as close to the end as possible, like Vonnegut implored of writers, and starting it with his hand on the pistol or the gas chamber lock, waiting to run. Or maybe not having the story as a written confession but as an interior monologue with God – perhaps referencing a written confession but not actually enacting it within the story?
Why do I suggest these things? Well partly because nothing really happens in this story – there’s no real action, there’s only self-reflection. Using the third person or restructuring the story so it begins with the great height of tension that is attempting to break out of Auschwitz (ie. your implied ending), would place the reader right at the ‘by why is he doing this moment’. You could even make it artfully ambiguous – will he lock the door on them, or will he release them, thus giving the story an effective circular structure.
Part of the reason I bring structure up, or at least why it stuck out to me so much is because, currently, the middle sections slows the momentum slightly or as my teacher would say ‘it sags in the middle’ because of the heavy use of reported action and analepsis. By restructuring the story with some more ‘present’/ ‘current’ action and/or problems, you might then give more punch to the past, to the build up to his eventual turn-coat. The historical accuracy is great, but I think this way you’d also be able to include Friedrich’s role in the build up to the camps, more about him as an individual, which currently he almost lacks but which we’ve pretty much covered.
Ok so I hope we’re still friends now haha. And that you found some of these points useful, if not for this story but for any other future short stories.
I think the voice is great and the character is interesting, though he could definitely be more well-rounded just with a few touches here and there. Moreover, I think that the structure with just a few tweaks could really make the story doubly emphatic because you could do loads to heighten the tension.
Thank you for reading all of this and I hope it helps.
GOOD LUCK IN THE COMPETITION & HAPPY WRITING.