Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by multi-award-winning historical novelist Leslie Wilson
The dying days of Nazi Germany played out, not to the music of Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, but mainly to sentimental hits about love and hope, especially – as I first heard from my German mother -one called Es geht Alles Vorüber (Everything passes). She said she couldn’t get it out of her head even in the thick of an air-raid.
Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, disliked these songs, finding them too ‘soft’ for an era which he had dedicated to Total War – but he knew better than to ban them; they boosted morale.
I don’t often write to music, but I listen to it when I drive and cook and get up in the morning, and every novel has its theme tunes. For Last Train from Kummersdorf, my first novel about Nazi Germany, with a jazz-obsessed heroine, I listened to Django Reinhardt and Louis Armstrong; for Saving Rafael, which tells the story of a German girl who hides her Jewish boyfriend from the Nazi authorities, I found a CD called Berlin by Night; a compilation of German-language hits from the ’30s.
It’s expensive to get permissions from song copyright-holders, so when I want lyrics I usually write my own, after listening to a lot of contemporary songs. On this CD I found a song that inspired my lyric: schmaltzy and yet it expressed just what the characters are feeling.
Jenny, my heroine, has met Rafael at the Café Kranzler, the poshest café in Berlin – a place he’s forbidden by law to enter, but his blond hair and blue eyes (think of Paul Newman) help him to blag his way through Berlin and meet Jenny – also forbidden, by this time. He even manages to pay the bill – he’s found a lost wallet with a Nazi Party high-up’s ID card in it, so he has no scruples about removing the money.
Jenny, who’s fifteen, has put on her new best dress; the grown-up one she’s managed to persuade her reluctant mother to make her. Only Rafael doesn’t seem to want to look at her, though she’s dressed up specially for him. She doesn’t understand that he’s just shy; she’s miserable, convinced everything’s going wrong – till the singer launches into this song.
I’m dancing in your arms
Forgetting grief and harm
When I look deep into your eyes
My heart flies off to paradise -
Rafael reaches out, takes her hand, and begins stroking her fingers. Later, when Jenny’s convinced he’s stopped loving her, she hears the song, and suffers – and later still it plays another really important part in the story.
The original song was called Ich Tanze mit Dir in den Himmel Hinein, (I’m dancing to heaven with you) - and frankly, it makes me giggle, with its long-drawn-out phrases and languishing violin flourishes – but it was a major hit in its time; the vocalists are Lilian Harvey – an actress born in London’s Muswell Hill, and Willi Fritsch – and it occurs in a film made by the UFA studios and released in 1937.
Some of the words are similar to the lyric of Ich Tanze mit Dir - like the heart flying off to paradise – but my second line, with ‘grief and harm’ derives from my grandmother’s favourite German Christmas carol. However, the German translators seem to have recognised the inspiration, and it’s the lyrics to Ich Tanze mit Dir that appear in the German version. (Nicht Ohne Dich, Boje Verlag)
A lyric in a novel is quite different, of course, from the lyric to a song. In the latter, the music’s most important, but in a novel – and I think this is true even if one’s using a song whose music is well-known – the words have to do all the work. Using clichéd and schlocky language to underline feeling may sound odd, when otherwise one works so hard to to find fresh ways to put those feelings – but Graham Greene did it, and I’m not ashamed to follow in his footsteps.
Leslie Wilson is the author of four critically acclaimed historical novels, two for adults, Malefice and The Mountain of Immoderate Desires (which won the Southern Arts Prize) and two for young adults, Last Train from Kummersdorf (shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize) and Saving Rafael (nominated for the Carnegie Medal, Highly Commended for the Southern Schools Book Award, shortlisted for the Lancashire Book of the Year Award and longlisted for the Wirral Paperback of the Year Award). She has lived in England, Germany, and Hong Kong. She lives in Berkshire with a husband and a dog, and has two daughters and three grandsons. Find her at her website