Ida Hattemer-Higgins is no stranger to insomnia and vivid dreams. The premise for her well-received debut novel The History of History: A Novel of Berlin (2011, Faber and Faber) came to her in a nightmare. It follows the phantasmagorical peregrinations of an American woman who, after awaking from a state of amnesia, is haunted by the ghosts of WWII-era Berlin and the Third Reich. Ida will read at our Wednesday at Kaffee Burger on May 25.
Like your character Margaret, you left the US and moved to Berlin to study at the Freie Universität, worked as a tour guide and live in Schöneberg. Why did you choose to insert all of these autobiographical details?
Basically out of insecurity. I was writing a first novel, and I didn’t trust myself to dream up radically new or farfetched material. However, that said, the book is a fantasy of what my life might have been had I been a significantly more disturbed, isolated and troubled individual than I am.
What was it like to work as a tour guide?
To be honest, giving tours is extremely repetitive and quickly becomes very boring. But the job had a very powerful effect on me. I ended up becoming really angry about the way history is not only reduced, but transformed into mythology.
Can you give an example?
For one, people strongly identify with those who resisted the Nazi regime and with its victims, although statistically, almost all of us would have been perpetrators. And the problem is that everybody puts a lot of effort into thinking about what it must’ve felt like to be locked up in a concentration camp, but they’re very slow to try to understand what was happening psychologically to the people who committed these atrocities.
Do you feel that your book romanticizes history?
I feel like the book’s subject is the romanticization of history, in other words, the process by which history is transformed into myth. So the book is performing what it’s critiquing, and I think that’s the reason it’s being widely misread by critics. They see it as only taking part in a certain discourse on the Holocaust rather than critiquing that discourse. There’s an ironic stance, not an enthusiastic involvement in that narrative.
Do you feel it’s impossible to write a novel about the Holocaust or World War II without adding to the mythology?
It is. I think that if you’re going to write a novel, you have to seduce the reader into identifying with a certain romantic way of thinking, because if you don’t, the reader won’t have any way of understanding what exactly is problematic in the thought patterns presented. If you manage by the end to have come to a point where you’ve deeply unsettled the reader, so that the seduction has proven to be in some ways a trap, then I think that the work has vindicated itself.
The book deals with German cultural amnesia. Do you not feel Germany’s reconciliation with its past has been achieved?
I feel it has. I was very interested in the process by which a person or a society wakes up from a state of amnesia, not the amnesia itself, but the process of remembrance. When thinking about how to describe what Margaret should be going through, I was definitely thinking a lot about what Germany went through as a nation.
What keeps you awake at night?
There’s always something keeping me awake at night: cooking up a new plan for my life; thinking about China, where I used to live. Recently my mind has been churning over critics’ misreadings of my novel. That keeps me up.
Do you have any bedtime rituals?
Usually I read, but if my insomnia gets bad, sometimes I drink hot milk and watch a [Aki] Kaurismäki film. The combination is wonderfully lulling.
What are your sleeping patterns?
I can’t fall asleep, but once I do, almost nothing can wake me. Noise, light in my eyes, heralds of the apocalypse – all have no effect. When I was a baby, there were two dogs that lived under my crib, a terrier and a cockapoo, and they jumped up and barked every time someone approached our house. I’m told that I didn’t wake up.
What or whom do you like to sleep with?
My friends point out my apparent preference for long-legged Swedes, but as far as I’m concerned, I’ll take anyone who is good-tempered. It’s much easier to sleep when someone close by is breathing evenly, particularly someone who will take you in his arms.
What’s your best nightmare?
My best nightmare was the one that gave me my novel. I dreamed I went to an appointment with a Berliner gynecologist. She was an extremely old woman living high up under the roofs; she called herself a memory surgeon. Without my permission she reversed the positions of my conscious and unconscious minds. When I came out of the appointment, the city was transformed.
What’s your favorite sleeping position?
On my stomach, with my legs stretched out far in both directions.