Septembers: The influence of memoir

by Christopher Prendergast

To write my first novel Septembers I had to return to my school years. The protagonist, Matt, is a history teacher on the slide.

I remembered that my own history teacher had an obsession with Franz von Papen. At one time or another, Papen was a diplomat, an army officer and a politician. His most significant role came as the interwar German Chancellor. Indeed, he is widely condemned for his destructive political intrigue at this time.

In the midst of many a GCSE class we were regaled with stories of Papen’s hapless actions. We were told how the former diplomat left top secret German documents on a train in the U.S. during the First World War. We were also told that Papen brokered Hitler’s rise to the Chancellorship in 1933 and mistakenly believed Hitler could be controlled. When I mentioned I had begun writing Septembers, with Papen an influence, a friend tracked down the memoirs.

I was not disappointed. From the outset, Papen’s writing had a defensive and self-righteous tone:

‘The apocalyptic period through which we have just passed has led to a spate of attempts by all kinds of people to trace some of its causes and effects, and to place their own activities against the background of recent history. I do not wish to be ranged with those who have sought only to defend their mistakes and failures.’

This is no minor claim, given Papen is largely attributed with the political slip that gave Hitler definitive power. As I read, I realised the memoirs provided a fitting backdrop to the novel. My central character was a history buff. He was also a man trying to negotiate his own uneasy relationship with power and authority. I began weaving passages from Papen’s life into Septembers, even mimicking Papen’s tone at times.

In an early scene, the narrator of Septembers draws a clear parallel between himself and Papen. Matt travels by bus to the school where he teaches. Of course, some of his fellow passengers are pupils from that school:

‘And sure enough, once they had got bored of saying my name and giggling every morning, small objects started to hit me on the back of the head. It might have been a single crisp packet or a piece of balled-up notepaper at first but it became pretty regular. They all seemed to hold their breath after the impact. Papen didn’t run from that citadel in Mexico because he was a meek soldier frightened by the sound of gunfire. He ran because he had no jurisdiction in the provinces of Mexico. He also, probably, didn’t have a firearm.’

The character positions himself through these kinds of grandiose, albeit unflattering, comparisons. Papen helped the writing endlessly. However, the memoirs were not a source of writing material alone. They were also fascinating. I realised that my old history teacher had held back some of the most bizarre episodes of Papen’s life. For instance, Papen claimed that, in or around 1916, he was personally offered a deal to end the First World War by a ‘senior representative of the British Government’ while he was passing through Falmouth. There’s also a Gilliamesque scene where Papen is trying to evade a spy, or his own shadow, in a department store lift in the U.S.

So I delved into the psyche of this impossible man. There is much darkness and much consternation in exploring failure, which is the underlying theme of Papen’s life. But it seems to me the stuff of a novel. Not that I can claim Septembers as the first novel to feature Papen. In fact, he crops up in E.L Doctorow’s Ragtime. From what I can remember, a ‘Captain Von Papen’ makes advances towards Mother in Atlantic City, and is quickly spurned. It’s a strange, peripheral existence for the Papen I’ve come to know. But no stranger than the fact he existed at all.

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