In this three-part blog series, author Paul M. Hedeen discusses the history and inspiration behind his new novel, The Butterfly.
Today, in part three, we focus on the novel’s symbolic center, Eva Braun. If you missed the previous blog features, you can click to read them below.
Read part 1 in the author interview/blog series: Meet Paul M. Hedeen, author of the upcoming historical fiction release The Butterfly
Read part 2 in the author interview/blog series: Paul M. Hedeen Discusses the Importance of Historical Settings and the Famous Holocaust Photo “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa”—the Inspiration Behind His Upcoming Historical Fiction Release The Butterfly
About the book: In The Butterfly, Paul M. Hedeen takes us back to the fall of 1963, a few weeks before President Kennedy’s assassination. An obscure émigré Russian professor dies of a stroke—or so it is believed. The professor’s eccentricities and complicity create both mystery and jeopardy as his documents lead his student backward into a century of famine, political terror, and war and forward into a bewildering underworld of malevolent opportunists, unstable identities, and improvised histories.
When the student falls in with the troubled daughter of the Nazi elite, she becomes his lover, guide, and tormentor as both are irresistibly drawn into the dark aftermath of World War II. Memoirs, fairy tales, fiction, and scenarios interweave and reveal the postwar fate of Eva Braun and secrets concerning the famous Holocaust photo, “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.”
How do you make your characters? To what extent are they responsible?
Eva Braun, like a real butterfly, undergoes a distinct metamorphosis. She only emerges from her chrysalis—of being powerful men’s mistress—near the end when her death is imminent. Imagine men, then and now, with their various nets striving to capture her. As well, the other characters in The Butterfly have definite life stages and undergo—because of their circumstances, bad luck, or volition—distinct changes. For some, these changes are sought. For others, they are resisted. Some are like the rest of us, and their changes are neither sought nor resisted. Their lives simply “happen” while the characters are distracted by something else. The novel is tremendously fatalistic, I’m afraid. The plot and characters are driven by necessity and a hard inevitability. The absolutist and totalistic philosophies from which the characters drew their meaning never let them go. It is hard for me to imagine people understanding their lives to the extent that their choices are truly free and meaningful, especially since their social and philosophical contexts—Nazism and communism—demand obedience.
Eva Braun Image Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/337418197074595825 (includes many other images of her)
Even in the largest moments of our lives, we seldom know how large the moments will be. We can imagine that a choice, even a huge one (for Jürgen and Eva) like murder or marriage, is significant. But selfish, wishful thinking—and philosophy and ideology are wishful thinking about the good life—typically blinds us to the extent of this significance. Against the huge forces comprising history, mostly realized in retrospect, human choices actually seem rather small, accidental, or misfortunate. That sounds terribly downcast, I realize, but the sudden moments of the period I describe—the late 1920s to 1963—show most people struggling with and adapting to situations over which they exert no control: Stalin’s five-year plans; The Great Terror; collectivization; the purges; the rise of Nazism; the Second World War; anti-Semitism and the Holocaust; the postwar machinations of governments, intelligence agencies, organized crime, and businesses (some of the latter hardly distinguishable from organized crime). No doubt, situations are comprised of thousands of small choices, and all situations were (are) resisted by someone. But the resistance is seldom effective enough to prevent them. Only a mass, organized resistance, probably armed and legitimized internationally, could have succeeded (or will succeed). The coalition that defeated Nazism is an example. Even the United Nations stumbles and struggles to keep member nations in line.
The Butterfly concerns people who are knowingly and unknowingly complicit in terrible crimes. Because of the interconnectedness of modern life, these same people often have to interact with and even rely upon the victims of those crimes. But these characters’ lives do not present them with clear alternatives. I suppose that Fortunatus Carlyle as a character dramatizes this as much as anyone. How much of what happens to him could have been foreseen? How much could have been “unchosen”? Who among his fathers and mentors really thought of him before himself? Yes, at any point he could have walked away, but to what or whom would he walk who would offer a real and empowering alternative. His father is dead. His stepfather failed him. Kapailenko fails him. Hart fails him. And in the dreadful grip of jealousy, doesn’t he accede to the murder of Anton?
For that matter, how was the Butterfly to save herself? Captured and then trafficked, Constanze had what real choice? Olesya had what option outside of her wail of despair and subsequent endurance? Olesya is perhaps the novel’s purest person, for she cannot imagine not loving Pavlo. Neither can she imagine not helping the Butterfly, even though, as I say in the front matter, she has every reason to despise her. And are not Hart, Kapanelov, Limpf, Kuletov, Eisenbraun, Blend, and Managan—the novel’s antagonists—mostly collections of habitual mistakes and the ongoing need to save face?
The novel suggests only courage, especially that courage aligned with transgressive love, can fortify people in their resistance to someone else’s violence. But what if the object of a character’s love is already dead? Then only nostalgia can bring solace and death a release. In this way, the cover art is perfectly appropriate, evoking a couple walking into a nostalgic Ukrainian rural scene. Are they Jürgen and Eva, Olesya and Pavlo, Fortunatus and Katrina, or author and reader,? This is left deliberately ambiguous. For those who don’t even experience such a love once (like Warren Hart), not even the past will comfort.
The first pairing I list above, Jürgen and Eva, is in part inspired by the notion that even evil people preserve a childlike core of innocence and yearning, a core that even the worst crimes might distort, but never extinguish. Perhaps these crimes make this innocence and yearning even more vivid. The tone and yearning were inspired by Mark Knopfler’s song “A Night in Summer Long Ago,” in which a romance between a knight and lady carry the weight of love, loss, and nostalgia.
You can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmoYldcd43o.
The song is inspiring not because there is any literal correspondence between the characters in the song and Blend and Braun, but because the elegiac tone captures exactly how Blend sees himself, and how Carlyle and von Dehlens would love to see themselves, for Katrina, like all the novel’s lovers, “follows her heart”—even as the stars fall. Below is an image of the building with the cupola near the train station in Vinnitsa where Blend and Braun meet one summer night in 1943—a rendezvous interrupted by Constanze and lit by the blood-red explosions at Hitler’s Wehrwolf bunker complex.
Is Eva Braun a tragic character or merely a pathetic one?
This is a good question for tragedy, classically considered, requires someone of a high station. She is not of a high station. But she is the symbolic center of the novel, and her background and fate—as typical as they might have been—raise her in many people’s eyes. For me she was a symbol and a touchstone. This novel had been taking root in my imagination since the 1970s, when I learned from a roommate he had met someone writing a stage play about Eva Braun. I never learned if that play was finished or performed. I never even learned who the playwright might be. I did think it smart someone could come at a story with the enormity of World War II from an oblique angle, mix fact and fancy, and in the process ask us to experience something new. Since that time many books have purported to do just that and I’ve gobbled up a bunch: Grass’ The Tin Drum, Heller’s Catch-22, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5, Ransmayr’s The Dog King, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Hawkes’ The Cannibal, come to mind. All were speculative impressionistic fiction, exploring associated languages of dream, history, memory, and desire, a delirium in which we experience history’s affect, rather than its cataloging.
In 2008, thirty years after the original suggestion and five years after the publication of my first novel The Knowledge Tree, I was sure only that Eva Braun would occupy the center of my new novel. A few years previously to this, perhaps in 2005 or so, I’d become fascinated with Braun, even to the point of purchasing a few baubles in the memorabilia market I describe in the novel. I even learned of a collector of her clothing with whom I’m still friends. For many collectors, I’ve learned, her death was transcended by a legend seemingly accessible in her “things.” She “means” something and lives on in clothing, silverware, dishware, combs and brushes, and cigarette cases, a lot of it rather tacky, but some of it delicate and beautiful. This is similar to, but I think more personal than, some peoples’ fascination with historical sites.
The “EB” butterfly she adopted as her logo—which is incorporated into my novel’s design, described in the novel’s Notes, and represented below—is one of these delicate and beautiful things. She wanted these humble and graceful initials to represent her. She put it on everything she could. If you have a piece of clothing with this monogram, it is likely she embroidered it herself, or supervised the process. That is how close you can get to her. As with all of us, an endearing pathos attends such overt attempts at objectification. To crave notice, to escape from the chrysalis of being hidden and ignored, is childlike and poignant.
Just as in the 1963 world of The Butterfly, Braun has become the sought-after essence of Nazi erotica, beauty, tawdriness, and ruin. While it is difficult to imagine the upper echelons of Nazism as having any innocence, some seems to cling to her. Thus, Hitler, implausibly, is outside the fascination with her, which, like a lot of truths attending human behavior, doesn’t make much sense. She also represents loyalty and love unto death, if one believes the bunker story and can ignore her repeated attempts at suicide. She stood by her man, as it were.
But what if this first lady of Nazism had secrets (there were rumors, after all) involving other lovers? What if she somehow survived the Berlin inferno (as Hitler had at first wanted)? What would she have survived to, and where? What if another scenario took over, but her past trapped her anyway, just somewhere else, as if the terrible energies that enlivened her pleasures and infatuations were inescapable? I am less interested in a straightforward answer to these questions (for the historians’ consensus is that she did not survive into the postwar era) than a new experience, an attempt at what the books I named above accomplished. I wanted something speculative (what if?), polyphonic (of many forms and voices), and impressionistic (associations of atmospheric details and almost accidental reference points). I wanted a book with vivid scenes and a thread of plot, but with enough expressionistic dread to give the reader the histories of those times in new ways. But what history? What new ways? What language in what shapes would create that “something”?
For those of a theoretical or philosophical bent, think of this novel as the play of doxa (opinions and creations), epistemes (knowledge and thought formations), and gnoses (experiences). One way to understand Fortunatus Carlyle’s situation is to see him as someone desperate to navigate all three forms of understanding as they pertain to his professor Dmytro Kapailenko and the shadowy characters surrounding him. Katrina von Dehlens, a trafficked and abused daughter of the Nazi elite, is Carlyle’s fellow traveler. Dr. Warren Hart, the novel’s fictional compiler and editor, tries to stop them both and failing at that, to reshape the story in ways that exonerate himself. While set free from a Soviet prison, he is never free from his past.
Advance Praise for The Butterfly
“…fascinating…sheds light on a difficult period in human history…” —Fred L. Holmes, director of the film Dakota
“…engaging…as packed as an ammo train and almost as threateningly explosive…” —Gary Eller author of Thin Ice and Other Risks
“…life changing! This book opened my eyes…” —Adriana A., NetGalley Reviewer and blogger at Books With Adri