In the mid-noughties I returned to a modern novel I had started in 1982. It was called The Life and Life of Felix Breit and was set between 1947 and 1970. I had discussed it with Hodder, but the last thing any publisher wants of a writer who has become established in one genre is an idea for a story in a different genre. They were not even lukewarm. Even so, I worked on it between commissioned stories over the next twenty years.

The idea grew out of a simple speculation, based on our lives at Marden Hill whose 50-odd rooms and outbuildings were divided among seven young professional families around 1960; I wondered what kind of community it would have been if the place (I renamed it The Dower House) had instead been divided among men and women of the forties—people who had risked their lives, parked their careers, been interned, or who, at the extreme, had survived the death camps.

The set-up: what happened before Chapter One

I built the back-story around a single character—a German sculptor I named Felix Breit, a quarter-Jew who knew nothing of his Jewishness until the Gestapo arrested him in Paris in 1942. (That was another thing Hodder didn't like; they preferred feisty young heroines who triumphed against the odds.) The Nazis never intended to arrest him permanently (he was not, in any case, a full Jew); they wanted to create a cause célèbre that would distract public attention from the arrest of hundreds of other “ordinary” Jews. But Felix decided to go on the run, anyway. He lived as a partisan until 1944, when he was caught and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp. An admirer in the camp administration saved his life by including him in a medical experiment to see how long a human could survive on an exclusive diet of peas, beans, lentils, etc. (As long as the diet lasts is the answer.) But he caught TB and was half-dead when, on the day after the war officially ended, Mauthausen was liberated by the Americans. An American officer in AMGOT (Allied Military Government [of] Occupied Territories), named Willard Johnson was supervising the work and, coincidentally, playing host to a couple of fellow officers from the British Branch of AMGOT—Adam Wilson and Tony Palmer. Adam, a particular admirer of Breit's prewar work, saw him being carried out on a stretcher and pinned his card to Felix’s clothing, with a scribbled promise of help if he ever needed it after his recovery. The address on the card was that of his London club.

The cast: who's in, who’s out

From the beginning I was determined not to write a social history—nor even to keep the historic highlights as a sort of tick-list running in the background. There would be no creaking mention of, for instance, the Swinging Sixties, Carnaby Street, Angry Young Men, CND, the Beatles, oil shock, comprehensive schools, Suez, the Cuban Missile Crisis, one-small-step-for-a-man, The European Union, Kennedy’s assassination, The Winter of Discontent … and more. In fact, Suez is mentioned, once, to explain why a bunch of Dower House residents are taking part in a demo in Trafalgar Square (but even then they are more interested in discussing how to raise the capital to buy the Dower House from the gravel company that owns it). And Kennedy's assassination is clearly behind the sombre mood of one chapter even though it is not specifically mentioned there. I wanted to leave all those social changes quite vague and concentrate instead on the loves, hates, shifting allegiances, ambitions, disappointments, and triumphs of the ten diverse families that, at various times down three decades, occupy the 50-odd rooms of the house and the former head-stable-lad's cottage.

While working with AMGOT Tony had met and married Nicole, a member of the French Resistance who pretended to fraternise with the Nazis in order to glean information; her work had been so secret that, at liberation, her fellow villagers shaved her head as a collaborator until a Resistance leader told them the truth. Also while working with AMGOT, Willard had courted Marianne von Ritter, daughter of a Nazi-loving Swedish steel baron who had got her a place in the drawing office of Albert Speer, “Hitler's favourite architect”. At the war’s end Willard had abandoned her and gone home to America, but he could not forget her and so, right at the beginning of the story, he returns to Germany, seeks her forgiveness, and marries her.

The story: making people out of puppets

The novel opens with Felix, newly arrived in London, turning up at that club and meeting Adam and Tony again. They have just started renting the Dower House from the local gravel company—a few miles from Hertford and 30 miles from central London—and so they offer him the chance to set up his studio there. Willard and Marianne turn up on honeymoon in London before returning to the States; they, too, are persuaded to stay and take a flat in the house, instead. And so, couple by couple, the community becomes established. Felix meets Faith Bullen-ffitch a publishing executive; they become lovers and he is drawn into the world of publishing. Eric Brandon, a cynical freelance writer with a mysterious past in army Intelligence, and his wife Isabella, an editor on Vogue, take one of the flats. Angela Wirth, a tape-recording expert at the BBC, catches Felix's eye … and so the story, too, is launched. Her father, the chief recordist at the pre-war UFA film studios, taught her the craft and she was recruited into the technical SS. Reinhard Heydrich, deputy head of the SS, ordered her to secretly record the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, at which “the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem” was decided. Appalled at what she heard, she made an illegal transcript of it and a carbon copy, both of which she hid until after the war. But after Heydrich's assassination in 1942, other SS high-ups had her sent to Ravensbrück, the concentration camp for women, with orders to keep her alive (if only just) until she admits she must have made transcripts—and reveals their locations. As our story unfolds it turns out that she has had previous associations not only with Felix but with another of the Dower House people.

Though specific historical milestones are absent from the novel, history itself is ever-present. There is Wolf Fogel, a thinly disguised version of Wolfgang Foges, founder of Rathbone Press and then of Aldus Books (called “Manutius” in the novel), for whom I worked between 1962 and 1966. He was one of the originators of “international co-production” in which the English text of a heavily illustrated book is printed from a separate black plate; this plate can be removed from the press once there are enough sheets for the English-language edition, leaving the four traditional plates—cyan, yellow, red, and black—to continue printing full-colour pages with blank text areas onto which French, German, Italian … etc publishers can print their own translations while sharing the much cheaper cost of a single large print run in colour. The rise and fall of Aldus Books runs in the background throughout the novel. (An academic advisor to Aldus Books when I worked there was Dr Jacob Bronowski—one of the most fascinating and endearing people I have ever met; he appears as himself in the story.)

Although it concentrates on life in the Dower House, the action is not at all confined to its five acres. A list of the locations to which one character or another takes us suggests the scope of the story: Gothenburg in Sweden, Hamburg and the Baltic Coast in Germany, Paris and the Camargue in France, Manhattan and New Jersey in the USA, Florence and Fiesole in Italy, and Istanbul in Turkey. Even within England there is action in many different parts of London (of course) as well as in Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Yorkshire, and the Forest of Dean.

The fate of the book: how not to do it

After heaven only knows how many rewrites I finished the book in 2008 and sent it—with little hope of acceptance because it was 360,000 words, or a thousand pages, long—to Georgia Glover, my wonderful agent at David Higham. She came back with an offer from Severn House to publish it in three 90,000-word volumes—which, obviously, meant cutting 90,000 words. That actually proved easier than I feared; nothing essential to the central story had to go, though some chapters in which events unfolded, “in real time” as it were, had to be reduced to a condensed retelling in, say, a letter or a bit of dialogue. Setting losses against gains, it was an improvement; and Severn House’s editors, contrary to the moans you might hear among writers these days, were sharp-eyed and demanding. But the decision to slice the story in three (The Dower House, Strange Music, and Promises to Keep) has proved a disaster.

The Stevenson Saga was rightly told in four volumes (quite apart from the fact that it ran to over 800,000 words!). The first was a tightly focused story of the founding of a business; the second, the expansion of that enterprise on a world scale; the third, the effects of that success on two of the sons, who had opposing ambitions; the fourth, the rebellion of one of the daughters who made a life of her own at a time when women weren't supposed to do that sort of thing. But The Life and Life of Felix Breit is the saga of a family that has ten fathers and ten mothers—and getting on for 30 children. It starts in 1946 and moves in a straight line toward the 1970s. It is seamless, immersive reading with (I hope) the magic that comes with total absorption into other lives and earlier times. To cut it in three and issue them over 18 months is saying to the reader: “Well, that’s your first 90,000 words. I know they don’t draw everything into a satisfactory conclusion, but just wait till next year, when there’ll be a further 90,000 to take it onward a bit. And a few months after that (if you can still remember the beginning bits) there’ll be another 90,000 words and they will definitely draw it all neatly together!” Believe me … this is not part of any “write a bestseller” plan. But as a formula for selling a few hundred copies of each fragment it is unrivalled—and I have the royalty statements to prove it.

So, now that sales have fallen to the point where the rights have reverted to me, I have brought out an ebook version as a single story of around 270,000 words.

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