Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes

A tour behind the scenes, with Marianne Brandis


Madzy and Marianne, about three months before
the beginning of the diary.

We start our behind-the-scenes tour at what was, for me, the beginning of this project.

After Madzy’s death in 1984, my father showed me a cardboard box saying, “These are Mom’s writings.  Shall we throw them away?”  I quickly took the box from him and said, “No, no, I’ll keep them.”  Even at that moment, looking at the sheer bulk of the papers, I thought that there might be a biography there.  (When I had sorted and filed them, they filled a “banker’s” box, and that didn’t include oversize items.)

At that time I was working on other projects, and besides, Madzy’s death was still a recent and very sad experience, but before long I did read through the papers, and there I found the diary.  It is written, mostly in pencil, in two large hard-backed notebooks and on a few loose sheets from a school scribbler.

I recognized immediately what a treasure it was.  I drew on it for a short novel that I wrote (Special Nests, published in 1990) and then, in much more detail, for Frontiers and Sanctuaries, a biography of Madzy’s whole life, published in 2006.

***

I came to the war diary from two different angles.  Besides being Madzy’s daughter I am also, now, an established writer with a particular interest in history and in bringing the past to life.  When I first encountered the diary, I had several award-winning historical novels to my credit, and by the time I began doing serious work on it I had written biography and autobiography as well.

Because I first learned about the diary after Madzy’s death, I was never able to discuss it with her.  Her other papers, however, included memoirs about the war, and stories and a novel fragment in which the actual war experience was just barely fictionalized.  For a Dutch-language newspaper published in Canada, she wrote more than thirty columns, in some of which she deals with war-related subjects.  These writings provided insights which might otherwise have come from conversations with her.

One particularly important document was a narrative about her war experiences that Madzy put on tape in her old age, while she was rereading the diary.  In this taped account there are comments and reminiscences – and, most important, there is information that she had been afraid to write in the diary itself, during the war, in case the book fell into the hands of the German occupying forces during their house-searches.  For the work on the war diary, I drew on all that material as well as on research that I had done for Frontiers and Sanctuaries.

***

People ask me how I (as Madzy’s daughter) relate to the diary, how it feels to be working with a document that is so personal and revealing.  It was a huge experience, especially when I read it for the first time.  Small Marianne is one of the characters in the story: my mother sometimes reports that I was being bothersome, and it hurt to realize that my misbehaviour added to Madzy’s burdens.  On the other hand, she and I shared some good moments, for instance while walking in the woods, and in later life she sometimes, affectionately, said, “Marianne and I fought the war together!”

Of course the passage of time has changed the “feel” of the mother-daughter relationship: I’m now old enough to be the grandmother of the young woman who wrote the diary.  And I’m a historian.  In the course of going through the diary dozens of times, and of reflecting on it closely in order to translate it, I became much more objective, seeing it as a historical document to be treated as intelligently and sensitively as possible. 

The way we perceive a document like the diary also changes with the passage of time, just as a landscape changes as you travel through it.  The writer Vera Brittain, working on a similar project, wrote: “Time, in the end, reduces all private things to history.” 

***

In a project like this, the translator-editor has a great deal of power, and that power has to be used responsibly. 

Translating the diary from the Dutch had to be done carefully.  I had to translate not only the meaning, but also the feel of the writing.  I “heard” Madzy’s voice in every sentence, and I tried to capture that in an English equivalent.  I tried to “translate” the sentence structure and the idiom – and the tone, whether serious or emotional or chatty.  (My brother Gerard, after he had read the translation, said that he heard Madzy’s voice in every line.)  I took into account not only what she wrote in the diary but also what I knew about her – her interests, outlook, and intelligence, and her unexamined assumptions.  When writing Frontiers and Sanctuaries I had already immersed myself in all of this, but I had to rethink some of what I had written then.

Editing involved other decisions.  There was the issue of privacy: the large question of whether the diary – a very personal document – should be published at all. 

There are abundant indications that Madzy preserved the diary because she wanted it to be read by other people.  Before her death she asked for other diaries to be destroyed, but not this one.  And among her papers I came across a very significant passage, part of yet another diary that she wrote briefly in her old age.  She says:

“My aim is to be as free and uninhibited [as possible] in putting down my very inner thoughts, knowing that no one will read them as long as I live.  After my death I do not care what [any]one thinks or knows of me; the more of me and my thoughts the better, for then they won’t put me on an unearned pedestal.  Rather let my real self appear, something I so often try to hide.  For they often think or pretend to think that I am a better or more honest person than I am.  This really worries or bothers me.” 

This desire to be known, to be seen as she really was, was an important guideline for me.  In Frontiers and Sanctuaries, where I had already grappled with these issues, I wrote: “As for privacy – death is publicity, because what is left becomes the property of others.  But it is also privacy. The last exposure, the last privacy.” (page 385)

In fact, I realized that I was actually collaborating with Madzy.  She had written the chronicle of those three years, and she had come to realize that it was an important record.  On 6 September 1944, when significant war events were taking place, she wrote: “These will be important days and I am planning to chronicle them carefully.”  Now it was up to me (or someone) to publish it, fulfilling the task that she had set herself. 

The writing of the frame material – preface, introduction, headnotes, footnotes, conclusion – also involved important decisions.  How much information would be enough to help readers to understand what Madzy wrote – to live themselves into her situation – without overloading them?  Here I had a fair amount of experience, because in historical fiction it is also important to provide enough background material – and the right material – but not to overload the reader.

As I worked on the diary, I soon realized that there were in fact two stories: the first was Madzy’s diary itself, and the second one was the “story” comprising her own later writings, my memories of those times, the information that I had collected while working on Frontiers and Sanctuaries, and the research I did for this new project.  In other words, there was the day-by-day account of events as they happened, and then there was the “retrospective” story.  In This Faithful Book the two stories are printed in parallel, with the second story given in footnotes, so that readers have the choice of reading only the main one or of interweaving them.

***

One of the important aspects of this book is that it is the story not only of this family, of that town, but that it is the story of all civilians in all of the world’s wars.  There are always wars, and there are always civilians – mostly women and children and old men.  While the younger men fight the wars, the civilians keep communities and families going as well as they can, maintaining a foundation on which rebuilding can take place after the war. This book gives a close-up view of one woman’s day-by-day work of maintaining the fabric of human existence.  Such dailiness is not a sideline to history but an essential part of it.