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Burkhard Bilger on German Westerns and his favorite historical novels

Burkhard BilgerBeowulf Sheehan

In his new book, “Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets,” The New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger turns his journalistic eye to his ancestors and a mystery that persisted for decades: Was his grandfather a Nazi collaborator, or resister, or both? The author finds there are no easy answers. Bilger, who joined The New Yorker in 2001, lives in Brooklyn.

BOOKS: What have you been reading?

BILGER:Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018″ a wonderful essay collection by Peter Schjeldahl, who was the art critic for The New Yorker. He was such a bright, positive critical spirit. I try to read a French novel every year to keep up my French. I studied that at Yale and lived in France in junior high when my dad took a sabbatical there. I read a Georges Simenon book, “The Yellow Dog,” which is a great detective novel set in a wet, windy seacoast town where all of a sudden all the top citizens start to be murdered.

BOOKS: What is your favorite French novel?


BILGER:Foam of the Daze” by Boris Vian. It’s this wonderful Jazz Age semi-surrealist novel. The other is Georges Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual.” He also wrote “A Void,” which is a novel where he didn’t use the letter “e,” which in French is hard to do. “Life: A User’s Manual” takes place in a Parisian apartment building where he goes from room to room and describes exactly what is happening during one moment. By the end of the book, those stories are connected and you get a picture of the life of the building.

BOOKS: What are your favorite genres to read?

BILGER: I love well-done historical novels. I loved “Tyll” by Daniel Kehlmann, which takes place during the Thirty Years’ War and is about this historical figure, Tyll Ulenspiegel, who was a court jester. It takes you through that history but in a beautiful, novelistic way. Another is “All for Nothing” by Walter Kempowski, which I read for my book. That is about an old aristocratic family fallen on hard times in East Prussia during World War II. In general, some of my favorite novelists are Elena Ferrante, Jesmyn Ward, Ben Lerner, and Italo Calvino. But when I wrote my book, I read a lot of novels set in World War II.


BOOKS: What other novels did you read for your book?

BILGER: I read “Abigail” by Magda Szabó. That’s a beautiful book. A Hungarian general who knows that the Nazis will invade sends his daughter to a boarding school to hide her away. I was trying to find books that got at the lived experience of people during the war, not the big picture historical, not the plots to kill Hitler or something about a battle.

BOOKS: Did you read any memoirs for inspiration?

BILGER: There were some memoirs that influenced me, such as Tobias Wolff’s “In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War,” which is about his experience in Vietnam. Like my grandfather, Wolff was not a combatant but off to the side. One of my favorite memoirs in the past 10 years is William Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.” When I was writing about my childhood in Oklahoma, I thought a lot about my favorite parts of Finnegan’s memoir, which are about his idealistic youth in California and Hawaii.


BOOKS: What kind of reader were you while growing up in Oklahoma?

BILGER: I was the kid walking down the hall at school with my nose in a novel — “The Lord of the Rings” or Ursula K. Le Guin. My dad, who is a physicist, introduced me to Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury. I loved growing up in Oklahoma but there was a sense that I needed more information and needed more world to explore, and books gave me that.

BOOKS: Was your dad a big reader?

BILGER: My dad, who was German, loved Western novels. He was obsessed with the German novelist Karl May, who wrote all these cowboy and Indian novels, such as the Old Shatterhand books, which are about a trapper. He probably could have gotten a tenure track job anywhere in the country when my parents moved here from Germany, but he chose Oklahoma State because it was in Indian Territory. We always said, “How did we end up here?”

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland can be reached at amysutherland@ mac.com.