Adolf the Clown

Young Adolf
Beryl Bainbridge

Have I mentioned the Barnes Rule? The Barnes Rule is a rarely invoked loophole which allows me to postpone less than pleasurable reading by immersing myself in anything written by Julian Barnes. The trick is, the Barnes material has to be close at hand. If you have to search you have to suffer–very pre-Vatican.

Thankfully a relatively recent issue of The New Yorker contained a Julian Barnes short story which provided some respite from the present volume. Beryl Bainbridge, who died in 2010, was an English novelist of the generation born just before WWII. That makes her older than Barnes but younger than Evelyn Waugh.

Young Adolf purports to be a comic novel. Or at least the writers of the book jacket copy and the pull quotes believe it is comic. “Wildy, broadly funny..” begins the quote attributed to the Atlantic Monthly. “In this hilarious and ingenious novel…” begins the jacket copy. The reviewer from The Observer got it half right,  “At once funny and appalling…”

Literary types almost always have a different idea of funny than me. That may extend to their reviewers as well. For me at least, humour was in short supply here. Certainly not a belly laugh, not even a knowing chuckle–even groan-inducing puns were notably missing.

What we had, instead, was a series of vignettes in which a barely post-pubescent Adolf Hitler encounters the alien culture of Liverpool England. Cultural confusion and hints of underlying mental illness combine to repeatedly flummox and befuddle the young man who ultimately is sent packing back to the continent.

The tale is rooted in a confused assertion that Herr Hitler really did spend as long as 6 months in Liverpool prior to WWI. Dame Bainbridge saw the opportunity to novelize the incident and give it a comic turn. For me, at least, she failed to do that.

I think that’s because she’s a novelist, and most probably wasn’t a sociopath. She invariably tries to make her characters human. That’s what novelists do, right? They give us a window on what’s universally human.

Call me rigid but Hitler was a monster–even if he must have once been a needy infant crying for attention. I don’t see what you gain by trying to humanize him as a character in a novel. You don’t hate Hitler at the end of this book and, what I was taught in parochial school aside, Hitler is one of the few people you ought to hate.

Notice I have not walled off Hitler and his Nazi hangers-on from humour. I have long held that Mel Brooks has done more than anyone to make Nazism impossible in the US. How? By repeatedly making Nazis look ridiculous. In The Producers. In antecedent form in Young Frankenstein. Even on ice.

Humour, I’d suggest, is the best tool for destroying such monsters by making them to0 ridiculous to take seriously. Bainbridge mistakenly cedes some humanity to Hitler. In so doing she’s failed her readers and his victims.

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