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by Anna Gmeyner
Persephone book no:

38 39 40

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155295

Written in 1936-7 by a young Austrian playwright living in exile in London, Manja opens, radically, with five conception scenes one night in 1920. Set in the turbulent Germany of the Weimar Republic, it goes on, equally dramatically, to describe the lives of the children and their families until 1933 when the Nazis came to power. The four boys and one girl, Manja, become friends, but their companionship is doomed because of the differences between their parents; one father is a left-wing activist, another a Nazi, another a financier, another a Jewish musician.

Yet Manja is far from being a political novel. Where it is so unusual is that the political background is perceived, steadily, from the child's point of view. We have all read about Germany in the 1930s from the historian's angle; there is, however, no novel we know of which sees German life during the period from the end of the First World War until 1933 in quite this clear-sighted way.

'What is so unusual,' wrote the playwright Berthold Viertel in 1938, 'is the way the novel contrasts the children's community - in all its idealism, romanticism, decency and enchantment - with the madhouse community of the adults.' Like The Priory, Manja was first published in English in September 1939: a reader 'spent seven nights totally beguiled and shocked by your clever juxtaposition of the two books.'

A blogger, Beyond Eden Rock, wrote: 'Though this is always a very human story, social changes are so clearly illuminated. The earlier chapters show the consequences of the War and the Peace, on those who fought and lost, and on those who lived through it. The latter chapters show how that leads to the rise of the Nazi party, and to the appalling shift in society that followed. The whole story was profoundly moving; and the knowledge of what was still to come when this story ended made it still more so.The author’s first hand experience of Germany during the time she writes about makes her story so vivid, and that she left the country before she began to write leaves me in no doubt that it is honest and authentic. She told her story so well, using all the skills she must have learned as a dramatist to bring her five families and that Germany that they lived in to life, and in engaging and involving her readers.'

The Preface is by the author's daughter, writer Eva Ibbotson; the new translation is by Kate Phillips.

Also available as a Persephone eBook
For more on Manja, have a look at the Persephone Perspective.

The endpaper we have used is a Wiener Werkstätte fabric called 'Paul' designed in 1927 in Vienna by Clara Posnanski; the horizontal black lines give a sinister quality to an otherwise gentle design.

Picture Caption

A street in Frankenthal, Germany in 1933, newly renamed Adolf Hitler Strasse

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Categories: Abroad Childhood History Politics Translations

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