Hedwig and Berti

Hedwig and Berti

by Frieda Arkin

Paperback(First Edition)

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"My new favorite novel. Characters and storytelling like this belong in the Fiction Hall of Fame, in the wing reserved for wry and sly masterpieces."

—-Elinor Lipman, author of The Inn at Lake Devine and The Pursuit of Alice Thrift

Hedwig and Berti is a saga of the totally unlikely marriage of a grandly Teutonic woman, Hedwig Kessler and her diminutive cousin Berti, two upperclass German Jews forced to leave their homeland during the rise of the Nazis. They flee to London, then to New York City and from there, finally, to a university town in Kansas. In London, Hedwig gives birth to a daughter whose broodingly dark construction and immense genius for the piano point back in time to the tragedy of her bloodline.

This is a story of prejudice taken to extremes, both within the domain of a severely class-conscious German-Jewish family, and beyond it. The characters are subtle, finely honed and told with grace and unexpected humor. Like Penelope Fitzgerald, Frieda Arkin possesses a rare gift for combining love, wit, and dark realism in the reactions and behavior of her characters in the several cultures they are forced to adapt to.

"Second acts this good are rare…A deliciously vinegary second novel."

—-The New York Times Book Review

"Arkin depicts these damaged characters...with unflinching honesty and rueful insight...A bravura encore worth the wait."

—-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312333560
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/21/2006
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.47(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Frieda Arkin’s work has been twice selected for Best American Short Stories and her first novel, The Dorp, was published in 1969 to wide critical acclaim. After a long hiatus (thirty-five years) from fiction, when she turned to raising a family and writing a series of cookbooks, Frieda joined the late Andre Dubus’s writing group, prospering under his mentorship while completing Hedwig and Berti. She lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2005 Frieda Arkin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-312-33354-4

Chapter One

This is how Harry gets into it.

He's alone in the flat now. A year ago, in the spring of 1938, Edwina asked if he'd agree to a divorce, and of course he did. She was apologetic, she knew it was a bad time for Jews, the things one heard going on over there, if one could credit the stories. She hated to add to his discomfort. She's not Jewish of course, not religious in any sense, but she felt bad-really bad-and if he wished, she'd stay with him at least until all the nastiness was past. Ought she? Though actually there was no point in it, was there?

Of course no point, Harry agreed. Why she brought up religion, he had no idea. Both of them know he's no more religious than she. Nor does divorce itself bother him. They've no children and there's little family on either side to be considered. He's got none to speak of, having while still in infancy lost his mother, who went to sleep in a dentist's chair and woke up in heaven. And when he was twelve his father, on a long-anticipated holiday in Rome, walking close to a wall of the Colosseum was terminally coshed by a sizable falling chunk of antique stone. There are no brothers, no aunts, no cousins. Only his father's brother, Uncle Jack, who from then on reared him awkwardly and, as soon as decently possible, shed him.

(Yet Harry, fleetingly, had had an aunt once. Not so many years back, Uncle Jack married a widow under the impression she'd inherited a packet from a dead husband. She'd had somewhat similar illusions about Jack, so for a time there was an Aunt Julia until the mutual folly was amicably put to right, an honest mistake.)

So there went Edwina and, though he'd always been a man used to living narrowly, Harry's since gone a bit to pot. Still in the pawnshop, of course, in the job he'd once taken to keep himself in paints and brushes. Now, he depends upon it utterly.

But with Edwina gone and his painting done with, there's little to do with his evenings and he's at a loose end more often than not. He's generally back at the flat at around five and from force of habit has a look in the kitchen, though he's come to view eating with pure indifference and can put it off until his stomach growls like an irritable dog. Then he downs something or other, walks into the sitting room and throws himself at full length on the sofa.

Napping, unlike food, is important. Until lately, he'd found this early evening bit of shut-eye purifying, it cleansed him of the day in a way he imagined a miner must feel, bathing after eight hours in the pits.

* * *

But today, still early in the evening, Harry wakes like a shot from another of his dreams of Nazi storm troopers, dreams he's been having too many of lately. He suspects this comes of his refusal to believe the constant talk at the shop, about the most bizarre atrocities they say are happening. Can they possibly be true? Yet why would anyone invent such stories? At the same time, believing them surely puts a terrible burden on one's shoulders, of a sort Harry can't quite name. Perhaps this is why he'd rather not credit them? That is to say, if one doesn't believe them, they're not on one's conscience. But why ever should they be on his conscience? Why should he credit these accounts any more than others he's heard from customers in the past? For he's often been struck at the oddity of people who walk into pawnshops and pour out their life stories while parting with the pitiful tangible bits of their histories.

His boss, Mr. Preger, now emerges several times a day from the back room of the shop following hoarsely whispered conversations with men and women whose very manner of opening the front door proclaims they've not come on regular business. And daily Mr. Preger's face, with the constantly unquiet eyes, is becoming grayer and more haunted-looking.

Actually Harry must suppose the stories are true. Every one of the people entering with that special tread of theirs is hustled quickly into the back room, from which Mr. Preger later emerges more heavily weighted, as the customers are heavily weighted, as Harry's dreams have become heavily weighted.

He's not had a dreamless sleep in months ...

* * *

It's more than the dream that's wakened him. They're actually at the door!

Harry knows how dreams go beyond waking logic, containing utter impossibles. The moment his eyes are closed in sleep, his dreams leap upon him and seize on reality, as though it were a flat sheet of paper which his dreams bunch up and crumple, so that surfaces normally separated by time and space become suddenly and impossibly contiguous, even superimposed on one another. A thing the waking mind cannot contain.

The brute knocking comes again: bah-rah-ram! bah rah-ram!! Chillingly German. Still riding his nightmare, Harry rolls himself from the sofa, and with knees that refuse to straighten, hobbies toward the door like an old man. The rapping comes once more before he reaches it. Exactly as before.

He wants to shout "This is England! This is London!" as he throws open the door.

No Nazi thugs. Instead facing him is a woman easily six feet tall. And in spite of the wan light in the hall-his dream must be coloring his vision-she's got Germany written all over her. She's immense in a fur coat and hat that now put him in mind of a Russian Cossack. But no, actually what he's beholding might have just stepped out of one of those Wagner operas he so detests. Lohengrin? No, the noisy one with the bloody flying witches in helmets. Valkyries.

Harry and the Valkyrie consider each other in silence.

She's much too tall. Yes, easily six foot. Harry himself is barely five-five. One of her hands is thrust into a fur muff and all three-coat, hat and muff-are of a dark brown substance that looks to be expensive. Her coat is open down the front and shows a dark dress beneath it, and a bosom so monumental that Harry nearly cringes.

The woman at first appears amused at what she sees and then her look becomes suddenly-what? Condemnatory. She continues to regard him, her arms folded, and examines him from his face to his feet. Has he done some awful thing? What right has any human being to look on another in this way?

The dream still in his throat, Harry can't bring out a word. Now she's staring beyond him, into the room. The expression on her face remains the same. A large face, pinkly German. Northern German. Scandinavian, he'd say. Her eyes-large, pale blue-seem to be taking the measure of his flat. And then, like some perishing building inspector, she looks the doorjamb up and down and turns her majestic head slowly to survey the passages on both sides.

He knows perfectly well it's a nasty little flat, it was all he and Edwina could afford when they married, and now if anything he's worse off still. Well, what does the woman expect? This is Hackney, not Mayfair.

* * *

Might someone please tell him who in the hell this female is?

She speaks. "You are Harry Eisenstein." Her voice, advancing from the gloom, is formidable, it goes perfectly with the Valkyrie tits: heavy, Teutonic, straight from his dream. She leans toward him and Harry can almost feel her eyes sweep his face, like a violent caress. Never mind the frightful light, she seems to have found what she's looking for, now she stands erect.

"Absolutely you are Cousin Harry. I would know anywhere those ears." She gives a deep-indeed, a melodious-laugh, and Harry is aware of a heavy elegance in her thickly accented voice. Rather like her body.

"Absolutely it is the Kessler ears." Now there's a tenderness in her smile. "Do you know, you are the exact picture, the exact. of Cousin Manfred? From Hildesheim. Only, Manfred has so little brains. You, Harry, do not seem so. Do you say few? Few brains?"

Suddenly she clasps her hands, bringing them to her chin, at the same time raising her eyes upward, so that Harry's positive she's about to break into one of those monumental soprano solos filled with rocks and lightning bolts. No. She's brought her look back to him once more, again scanning his face.

He's never had an experience to prepare him for this. Some idiot lecturer he'd heard once at the Academy-Sir Charles Humbert, was it?-speaking of the world and the painter's eye, had kept going on about "creative confrontation." Here's the woman who knows exactly what he meant.

"No," Harry hears her say, "you do not look so, I am glad to see."

He's lost the thread and regards her blankly, whereupon she laughs like a fruity flute. "You are wanting to know who I am. I am your cousin Hedwig. Hedwig Kessler." Meaningfully. "And now you will ask us to come in?"

That magnificence of body deserves the royal plural. He steps back, and now sees two immense leather suitcases standing behind her, which she lifts as though they weigh feathers and brings in with her over Harry's threshold.

It's only then, in the uncertain light, that he sees a little man standing there. Like the luggage, he has been absorbed by the gloom. A frightfully small chap, shorter than Harry himself. He holds his hat low in front of him as though shielding his genitals, smiling up at Harry with mild brown eyes, like a bashful child or a gentle dog.

For a long moment Harry waits. Some bond is immediately established. The shy smile still on his face, the little man turns to retrieve a valise, and then two umbrellas tied together that are leaning against the wall, and follows the giantess meekly into Harry's flat.

* * *

And this," Hedwig Kessler says when Harry's closed the door, "is Dagobert. He is happening to be my husband." She turns majestically, and putting a hand behind the little man's shoulder, presses him firmly forward. "All call him Berti."

Berti's head does not quite reach her shoulder. At once Harry accepts the fantastic union, it's entirely in line with this unbelievable encounter. He extends a hand to Berti, who reaches out but barely touches it. Possibly they don't shake hands in Germany? Do they kiss on both cheeks? That's French. Rub noses? No, Eskimo. "Berti has no English yet," Hedwig says, and turns to regard the room. The presence, the spaciousness of this Brunhilde in his sitting room has shrunk everything surrounding her to doll size.

She begins to remove her wrappings. Like the rest of her, her clothes are impressive. She carefully lifts the immense brown velvet hat from her head, revealing all astonishing mountain of white hair done up high, in braids that surround her head like a battlement. She's not old. Possibly an albino? That dead-white hair. Also, albinos have pink skins and so has she, though hers looks to be rather the bloom of health. But of course not. Her eyes are an incredible blue.

Next, off comes the coat, an expensive fur of some kind. Harry doesn't know furs, though they get them occasionally at the shop, or fur-collared jackets, but it's Mr. Preger who examines them and writes the names on the tags.

With the coat off, she still looks muffled, her large body swathed in a long brown dress with brown lace at the throat. She turns to find somewhere to deposit the coat, then drapes it over an arm of the sofa. That done, she looks at Berti, purses her lips, and makes a sharp gesture toward him like a silent snap of the fingers. Instantly the little husband unbuttons and removes his own coat and stands, holding it.

Though she's called herself his cousin, Harry won't for a minute believe a woman like this one can in any way be related to him. She'd fit more likely into what he remembers of Edwina's family, actually, Harry thinks, and for a minute he tries to pin her there. They're a tall lot, though on the reedy side. In fact Edwina, slim as a weasel, has no figure at all. He throws another awed look at that thunderous bosom. But what nonsense he's thinking. Edwina certainly has no German relatives. This woman said her name is Kessler. His mother's maiden name.

Only wait-it's the husband's name that's Kessler! Now Harry feels as though he's been let for the moment to touch royalty, only to have it swept loftily away. Berti stands, staring at him somberly.

They are all standing. Belatedly, Harry says, "Won't you please sit down," and wonders uneasily whether he ought not go to the kitchen and cook some tea.

She seems an extraordinarily dense woman-not in the sense of stupid, of course, but that she seems most firmly and healthily packed. With heavy grace she deposits her body at one end of the sofa, near her folded coat. At the same instant the husband seats himself in the chair opposite.

"So then." Brightly, smoothing the brown skirt over her thighs, "I am Hedwig. This is Berti." And as though she's been reading Harry's mind: "Besides that Berti is your cousin because he is married to me, he is also your cousin himself. What I mean, I have married my ..." She hesitates, leans toward Harry: "You understand maybe a little German?"

"Hardly any, I'm afraid," says Harry. He is still standing. Since the only other refuge is the heavy armchair beside the door next to the kitchen, he seats himself at the other end of the sofa.

"How do you say in English ... wait! I think I am remembering!" Again that operatic look aloft. "You say first cousin, is that so? Yes. Berti and I are first cousins. I was Hedwig Kessler before I married, and now I am still Hedwig Kessler!" She sits back in amused triumph.

That makes her his again. But Harry will still not believe it. She leans forward once more and says tensely, her eyes the deepest cerulean blue, "You do not know your relatives in Germany?"

"I'm afraid not."

"You do not even know"-her strong voice trembles-"that Hyman Kessler was your Grossvater?"

"My Grossvater." Harry says the word carefully.

"It means grandfather." She enunciates the three syllables as though speaking to a child, or perhaps that other cousin she has mentioned, the hen-brained Manfred.

"You see"-Harry is apologetic-"I was very young when my mum died."

"Yes, that I have already known. I will tell you, then." And readjusting her handsome bulk, she pushes herself against the back cushion and clasps her hands composedly in her lap. Berti likewise resettles himself-he's too short, rump-to-knee, to sit properly in an adult's chair-then looks down on his shoe tops with absorption. She asks him something sharply in German and he shakes his head quickly. Does he want the loo? Probably.

"Your Grossvater"-she turns to Harry-"Hyman Kessler was the brother also of my Grossvater, Bertholdt Kessler, who is also Berti's Grossvater." She folds her arms and smiles pinkly, full-face, at Harry. "You are, then, you-Harry Eisentein, our cousin. Cousin Harry."


Excerpted from HEDWIG AND BERTI by FRIEDA ARKIN Copyright © 2005 by Frieda Arkin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

1. Hedwig and Berti have an interesting marriage in the sense that there is very little dialogue between the two characters. Hedwig often takes the dominant role, and Berti follows her command. Discuss their relationship——as spouses, were they ever in love?

2. Hedwig is a complex character, and her role as a mother is just one of her many facets. Discuss how her character conforms to or contradicts contemporary ideals of motherhood. As we see her progress throughout the novel, does she become a good mother?

3. Gerda's talent as a pianist directs her life. Does her great skill fulfill her as a person? Do you think it would have been possible for her to be satisfied with a life without music or the piano?

4. World War II and the Holocaust are not the focus of the book, but certainly effect the lives of the characters. The reader is aware of the tragedies of the war, but never on a firsthand basis. Discuss Arkin's treatment of these events.

5. Berti changes slowly throughout the book, eventually distancing himself from Hedwig's severe control. At what point do you think he gained his own identity? Do you think that he ever felt fully independent from Hedwig and the Kessler family?

6. Acclaimed author Elinor Lipman called Arkin's writing "wry and sly." To what extent does her style contribute to or accentuate the theme and characters of the book?

7. Hedwig, Berti, and Gerda move frequently throughout the book—— from country to country and city to city. Hedwig longs to return to her ancestral home, and is visibly upset when the war destroys the Kessler home. Discuss how their displacement and constant search for a "home" effects their happiness as characters. By what standards do we define what "home" truly is?

8. Hedwig is obsessed with the Kessler geneology, often referencing the branches of the family tree. Yet for someone so consumed with the idea of family, she doesn't manage to forge a bond with her own husband or daughter——nor encourage them to do so either. What does this say about her idea of family? Do you think families today are as concerned about their heritage?

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Hedwig and Berti 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
CatieN on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A young Jewish couple, Hedwig and Berti Kessler, married first cousins, flee Germany during World War II; moving to London, then New York City, then finally settling in Kansas. It is obvious that Hedwig is running from the truth of what happened to her beloved extended Kessler family in Hitler's Germany. That denial of the Holocaust and also the lengths she went to to escape that fate have tragic repercussions in her marriage and in her daughter's life. Realistic but with humorous passages throughout, this is an honest depiction of a couple who escaped the Holocaust but never healed from their losses.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If the guardians were perfect and did all good and nothing wrong, how many guardians would there be? If your heart is in the right place and your spirit is enthusiastic and your talons sharp if battle comes then you are cut out to be a gaurdian. If you let the little things stop you, how will you handle the big things? Your more than capable of being a guardian. Trust me
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She was a protector first. I quit rp. This is it! Enough drama! If hedwig quits i quit!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ok. Ill come back.
clemmy More than 1 year ago
I found Arkin's writing rather abrupt. You're reading along and all of a sudden it is a few years later and one of the characters is dead. Sadly, this person was the only one I really liked. Hedwig is scary, Berti is silent, and their daughter Gerta is a temperamental pain (what can we do, she's a musician). I thought the story-line was very interesting, but I have trouble reading a book whose characters I do not respect. I wish I could be more objective than this, but I did not find the characters enjoyable. I honestly didn't care what happened to them. They gave me no reason to like them.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Hedwig and Berti is the saga of a mismatched upper-class German Jewish couple who escape from Nazi Germany, going first to London, then New York, and finally Kansas. The overbearing Hedwig and diminutive Berti must cope with the culture shock of a new home, a lower class way of life, as well as unwanted memories of the past. The birth of a daughter, a strange, combative, rather ugly child with a genius for music, ultimately unlocks a secret of the past, one which is perhaps better left alone. This is a remarkable novel about failed people, loss, and above all, the effects of prejudice. Intolerance from within their own family defines them. Bigotry from without drives the direction of their lives. Both ultimately contribute to their personal tragedies. The story is told in a lighter, more humorous tone than the subject matter would suggest. Frieda Arkin¿s prose is witty and unsentimental. Her style is spare yet colorful. Characters are drawn sharply and expertly. One will recognize members of their own family in them, and perhaps even a bit of themselves. The 88 year old author writes as fresh as a teenager, but with the touch a master, resulting in a book that is both marvelously entertaining and memorably illuminating. If there is a fault, it is that at times the writing is too clever. The author¿s unexpected similes and creative comparisons provide much of the flavor of the book, however they can be repetitious and occasionally even jolting, like a fine recipe that is a bit over seasoned. This is a minor point, however, and I heartily recommend this fine work of fiction.