Interview with David Gurr

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Interview with David Gurr

from: The Camelot Project  1999

SYDNEY, B.C.
27 JULY 1989

   I interviewed David Gurr on Vancouver Island. By the time I had edited the material, however, he had moved, and it took me some time to locate his new address in Ottawa, half a continent away. It was, he told me, his second change of address since he had seen me a couple of years before. Perhaps his naval service left him with a sense of restlessness. Who knows where he is now?
   The Ring Master (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987) is a vast novel in which the rise and fall of Nazi Germany is played out as "a striking production" of Wagner's Ring Cycle. The narrator also plays the role of Parsifal, however, and I was curious to learn how Gurr had gone about the task of integrating three such major stories. His answer is that the conduct of human affairs tends to fall into certain familiar patterns that have grown into legends, and that all these legends interconnect. Needless to say, he was delighted to include, among the characters of his novel, Carl Gustav Jung, another who was intrigued by recurring patterns of human behavior.


RT: What attracted you to the Arthurian legend as an ingredient in your novel The Ring Master?

DG: I discovered Parsifal through the study of the Wagnerian operas. For my novel, however, I needed an Anglo-Saxon form of the name, and that led me eventually to Perceval in Malory, after I had read other versions of the fool legend by Chretien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and so on. There was more about Arthur in the first draft of the book, but I cut very heavily and most of that went. I've never really known what to make of Arthur, even though the legend was a formative experience for me. My interest lies in the Grail legend rather than the broader range of Arthurian legend itself.

RT: Before you started research specifically for this book, had you read any Arthurian stories?

DG: I read stories about King Arthur for children. I also read some of Tennyson and T. H. White, as well as two books in Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy. I have to admit that when I was very young I enjoyed Arthurian stories more than I do now. I read these books for research, but not for enjoyment.

RT: Had you read any books on the history and archaeology of the Dark Ages?

DG: No, though I did read Schliemann because I was intensely interested in the archaeology of the Middle East. I have, however, visited most of the Arthurian sites in Britain, including Glastonbury and Tintagel. One autobiographical detail in the book is the episode at Tintagel. As a young boy I crawled into the caves underneath and almost got drowned. The factual basis of these mythic figures doesn't really matter, however. They're not there to be regarded as facts. I really wasn't interested in historical details at all, except for the connections with the Knights Templar and the routes they established for the salt trade across Europe, and how the gypsies travelled the same routes.

RT: What Arthurian books did you read as research for the book?

DG: I read for about six months before I started to write at all, but my initial focus was upon Wagner. It was only afterwards that I began to realize that Wagner retells the Arthurian story, but in a Teutonic guise. Thus the book ended up being two quest cycles: the Wagnerian one of Hitler and the Arthurian one of my hero, who is a very weak anti-hero. These two wheels go round, and they mesh through the interpretation of Jung and his wife who explain matters for the reader at a few critical junctures.

RT: Since you're dealing with traditional material here which has a shape of its own--not only the Grail Quest, but also the Ring Cycle--did you find difficulty adapting it to your own artistic needs within the novel, or did you feel free to make whatever changes were necessary?

DG: What I find astonishing is how events in life and in history fit those mythic sagas. You don't have to change the events. It's a question of whether or not you believe. If you don't believe there is a pattern formed in human behavior that derives from these mythic bases, then that's that. But if you do believe, then it is truly extraordinary to see how these cycles go round and how the behavior of individuals and nations fits into them. Myth forms an outline into which people and nations, completely unwittingly, proceed to fit themselves.
   Every novel involves stitching, and cuffing, and taking three or four things, and suddenly you've got a pattern: well, boy, look at that! But in this case, actual events really do fit with little alteration. When you read the librettoes of the operas-- and I listened to the damned things every day for a year on these rather large speakers, while I read the librettoes at the same time--the correspondences in the text with historical events are truly astonishing in many, many cases. And the reason for that, of course, is that Hitler was, himself, familiar with every note and every word. That's why the correspondences are there. It isn't magic. He himself has been affected subliminally. King Henry the Fowler forges a truce with the east, which he uses for nine years and then breaks in 933. Hitler does the same thing with Stalin in the Ribbentrop Pact. It's not coincidence, but synchronicity. It happens because it's already inside Hitler's head from doing the same exercise that I was doing.
   My first idea of a link between Wagner and the Second World War arose from watching a production of the Ring Cycle on television about three or four years before I even thought about writing the book. When I saw the scene with the Niebelungs and the gold, I said to my wife, that's the Jews' teeth. That one image remained with me, and from the moment that I got into the Jungian psychology of the individual, I never found myself getting lost. It was like a road map.

RT: To what extent did you rely upon your readers' knowledge of both the Grail legend and the Ring Cycle in your writing? In other words, did you feel comfortable that the novel was self- explanatory even for those who lack that kind of information?

DG: That's a very, very difficult decision for a novelist, and inevitably the answer is to compromise. In this book, I assumed that readers would know the basics of the Arthurian legend, which I dispose of in a paragraph. I assumed that they would know nothing about Wagner, however, and so I gave them a little child's version that I made up as though it had been written for children by Wagner's widow and published in an Edwardian edition. That appears in the book in three or four short segments that together summarize the entire story. In between the summaries a more sophisticated explanation is interspersed here and there in the book. There's no satisfactory way around the problem because the number of people who will have knowledge is miniscule compared to the number who won't. Some Wagnerians have been fascinated that somebody is actually writing about their subject, although they don't necessarily like it being linked with Adolf Hitler and genocide.

RT: Was Hitler as fascinated by the Holy Grail as your novel suggests, or did you invent this interest?

DG: Hitler was interested in the Grail and in astrology, though not as seriously as some people think. There was more interest among his minions, especially Himmler whom I characterize in my book as Mime. Hitler probably suspected that if he found something he might be able to make good use of it. He was already involved in a number of deals with the Catholic Church, and to find the Grail would have been a bonus. Moreover, the way the S.S. was established recalls the Round Table. Indeed medieval knights often behave in a way that might strike many people as being vaguely fascist if they thought about it.

RT: Did you conduct extensive research into Hitler's regime to create a sense that your description actually portrays what life was like under the Third Reich, or was your focus primarily upon the mythic pattern to which you adapted selected material?

DG: The one thing I did know was German and Nazi history. I also knew quite a lot about Hitler's psychology from a Freudian perspective. What I was trying to do in the book was not to be concerned with history as such, but with the psychology of the German nation. Hitler, I believe, came subconsciously to think that the Germans derived from the people described in the Teutonic epics, and he looked on Wagner as his John the Baptist. The book examines him in Freudian terms in a direct way, and both him and Germany in Jungian terms in an indirect way, through the device of the Ring Cycle.

RT: One of the features of the book is the vastness of the canvas. You're dealing with the Ring Cycle, the Quest for the Holy Grail, and the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Did the problems of trying to integrate all three into one coherent pattern create special difficulties? Did you, for example, need to keep charts in order to keep track of what was happening where?

DG: No. I have a mind that is more three dimensional than that of some people. I used to design and build houses, and I was also a computer programmer and analyst for several years before I left the navy. All those exercises are related in as much as you have to be able to envision the piece of land and the house that's going on it, or the original computer problem, or the plot of your novel, all from a beginning, up through a three-dimensional structure, to completion.
   I did think that, because the undertaking was so big, it would have to be published as a trilogy, but my agent pointed out that the trouble with a trilogy is that the first volume has to sell. So at that point I decided, to hell with it, let's go for broke. I just threw it all into the one great big book. I didn't think it would be quite as big as it was, but I guess it really couldn't have been very much smaller. Apart from that, I didn't have any general problem.

RT: While I can see that the Ring Cycle might be integrated with the rise and fall of the Third Reich, I wonder whether the Quest for the Holy Grail might not have proven more challenging to add?

DG: Well, that's what western civilization thinks life's all about, doesn't it? The Grail. The Quest. And that's what we think in our individual lives, so it became inseparable from the other two. The book is a tale of obsession on three levels, reflected by those three cycles. Hitler's obsession is the Second World War and its excesses; the hero's obsession is the Grail; and the heroine's obsession--which is actually a string of sexual peculiarities held together by an operatic career--is the Ring Cycle. I didn't see any way of not including the Grail once I myself felt so intrigued by it. I was able to make up what appeared to me a valid pattern of seeking for the Grail through Europe, while following the campaigns of the war.
   The idea of the Grail originally came to me from Lawrence Durrell's book Constance. In there, in more or less a throwaway, a character remarks that it was thought the Grail had been in Avignon. I began from there, working outwards in both directions, following the Knights Templar and getting little odds and ends from funny sources like old black and white photographs in 1906 National Geographics. You just see a snippet of something, or a little sub-heading, and the word would pop out.

RT: Since the book is divided into sections that are self-contained to an extent, like a series of musical themes that are juxtaposed, rather than following a single coherent narrative thread right through, did you find that this created certain problems for you, or did you feel that the advantages outweighed any problems you may have encountered?

DG: They didn't cause problems for me, but they may cause them for the reader. One thing that novelists have going for them now is that they should be able to leap freely from point to point with no excuses to anybody. People are so conditioned to television that they should be able to make almost any leap with just the briefest introduction. In Gibbon's time it would have been necessary to write a book four times that size to carry this story along; but today you can use chunks, just going straight into them, then jumping into the next one. I think that's the only way you can cover a lot of ground.
   When I start a book, I don't normally know what its form is going to be like. I can visualize the story, but I don't know the framework, just as you don't know until you've built a house whether a particular window will give you a tremendous view. You really couldn't be sure since you were standing on the ground. You have to feel your way into the form of the story. The first draft was a more linear, conventional, biographical narrative, particularly in the first half. To condense it, I began to chop at it. Since I've published six novels, a couple of screenplays, and a stage play, I'm used to making revisions. I don't feel that my soul is being destroyed when I do them.

RT: How did the publishers feel when presented with such a substantial manuscript?

DG: Hysterical. The Canadians simply said, we'll give you an option: if somebody else is stupid enough to publish it, then we'll publish it. And somebody else was. The London publishers were magnificent, however. They didn't change a word, a comma, anything, without complete reference back to me, and no cuts of any substantial nature whatever.
   The only little crisis was that the book uses the device of the ampersand (&) because it's vaguely Edwardian. When it came back in galleys, the printers had taken it upon themselves to change every one of them to "and," and so had to change them back. Apparently James Joyce had exactly the same thing done in Ulysses though he was not able to get it changed. Doug Gibson at McClelland and Stewart took me aside last autumn when I met him in Toronto for supper, and said, let me just give you a word of advice on the next one, David: smaller and simpler.

RT: Inherent in the Ring Cycle, the Grail Quest, and the rise and fall of the Third Reich, is a strong sense of the workings of Fate which cannot be escaped, isn't there?

DG: Yes. That is what Jung means by synchronicity. These things are not coincidence. In the Grail Castle Parsifal doesn't ask the question when he should because his own inner nature prevents him from doing so. The actions of people and of nations are shaped by an underlying psychology that is reflected in myth. They are inescapable.

RT: Parsifal in tradition is a more active figure, however misguided, than is his namesake in your novel. Why the change?

DG: Yes, that's true. Mine is about as insipid and weak and shallow as he could have been, I guess. From the Jungian perspective, the strong part of Parsifal is played by Hitler; my narrator is simply the shadow of the shadow, in Jungian terms. Hitler within himself contains all the pantheon of the Ring figures and the Grail figures, very much including Parsifal. At the end, as the wounds are being inflicted on him, he sees himself as both Parsifal and Amfortas, all rolled up into one. My narrator is much more one dimensional than is Parsifal. As I've analysed what I've done after three years, however, I think, that isn't the same thing at all as what I thought I was doing when I was simply sitting down and writing it. Now I'm coming up with reasons why I did it!

RT: Did you find that some of your characters took over, developing in directions that you had not anticipated?

DG: No, I've never found that.

RT: Prominent among the traditional features that your narrator shares with Parsifal is the role of the fool, isn't it?

DG: Yes, he is the fool, but incest is a big part of that too. Incest is another major focus because incest is what was really going on as European civilization tore itself apart: incest in Wagner mirrors incest within Germany.

RT: Did the incest motif in Arthurian legend contribute to that theme?

DG: Not really.

RT: Your novel is full of irony. Was that an aspect of Parsifal's quest that attracted you?

DG: I have a highly developed sense of irony, and it always emerges in my writing. I suppose it is possible that I responded to that side of the legend because my mind has that bent, but it was not conscious. I do consider that the Roman Catholic hierarchy is about as ironic an institution as you can imagine, certainly during the Second World War. If Hitler had found that pot, the Grail, they would have been bargaining with him. Now that's irony, right?

RT: If you had the chance, would you choose to increase the Arthurian element in the novel, perhaps restore some of those passages that you cut out of the first draft?

DG: No, I don't think so. I wouldn't want to revisit my novels. They are what they are.

RT: What part of the Parsifal legend did you feel was most important to include in your story?

DG: Well, that's a tough question. I guess I'd say the pure foolishness of the fool, which again Jung would say is deliberate. The narrator is so stupid that he'll go on using all the resources of a war machine simply to look for a pot in the ground. Hitler goes on foolishly trying to annihilate a whole people, whereas his fully conscious mind could have told him it was a pointless exercise. There were always going to be too many outside his sphere of influence for him to annihilate all the Jews.
   Heroes are so self centered, so narrowly focused upon their own quest, that they completely ignore the consequences of their actions upon the rest of the world. Their goal is always so simple, so childish, and yet they have such monumental effects on the lives of everybody else. A more trained, rational mind would have immediately seen through almost every major error Parsifal ever made, and would have avoided them in the first place. The foolishness of the fool is, I guess, central.
   The disease motif is a minor feature of the story I found interesting, however. There are syphillis phobias in western Europe that have been raised again with AIDS, and they are reflected in the wound of Amfortas.

RT: Do you have any final comments, or is there any question that you would have liked to answer that I haven't asked you?

DG: I don't think so. Since my focus has shifted to new subjects, it's extremely difficult for me to go back and recover the kind of nuance that you'd like to get out of me about my use of the Parsifal story. I still, however, find it fascinating to see the correspondences that came in on every side and how all the legends interconnect. Arthur of Britain is completely interchangeable with the heroes of other countries, such as Charlemagne.

RT: Thank you.