Eva’s Threepenny Theatre, Ottawa-based Andrew Steinmetz’s “fiction about memoir,” stars his great-aunt Eva, who acted in the 1928 debut of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.
Steinmetz reading [Ryan Hunt photo]
Both Eva’s dynamic presence and her Brechtian training influenced her nephew’s writing. “The overall structure of the book is Brechtian, with its multiple narrators and tones, but the content of each piece within the whole is emotionally driven,” Steinmetz said.
The following is excerpted from an e-mail interview with Steinmetz.
CJN.: Was the real Eva a wild character?
Steinmetz: She was no WASP, let’s put it that way. Direct, irreverent, packed with real and put-on emotions, her humour came from the extravagant positions she would take. Her theatre training and love of exaggeration made sure she was the focus of attention. I got to know her first when I was 12 and she was in her 60s. She moved into our [Eastern Townships] summer house with at least five dogs. My Swedish grandparents were already living there. They had a whippet – we had two dogs and a cat. On weekends, it was mayhem. I loved that atmosphere.
Eva never stopped telling stories. I picked up on her European sensibility – apparent in her tastes and habits: goose fat, Russian rye, garlic, wine, cigarettes. I didn’t grow up feeling very Canadian. Canadians ate hot dogs, we didn’t. Whatever Eva was, wherever she came from, I liked that place. I felt comfortable dreaming about it.
CJN.: Your first chapter showcases Eva and her pet monkey. Did you deliberately set the tone with this story about a rebellious, caged creature?
Steinmetz: Yes, the story is like Genesis, the founding myth for how Eva will speak in the rest of the novel. It was her showpiece, the first story she told me when I asked her about Brecht. For years I could recite it forward or backwards. I was fluent. I repeat many sentences from this story in different contexts, to show how different voices mouthing the same words strike different chords in the reader. It’s also important for its rebellious nature and for setting Eva up as an outsider who loves outsiders. At the end, there is the identification between Eva and her monkey, and Germany and the Jews. When she says, “Everybody knew, and everybody did nothing,” she is not talking about Bimbo. She is talking about ordinary German citizens and concentration camps.
CJN.: What about Eva and Brecht’s Mother Courage?
Steinmetz: Initially, in the book, Eva makes the identification, ironically, to say she has no courage to be a mother to her own child. But Brecht’s Mother Courage is complex, ravaged by war, yet also a parasite, fighting for survival by selling her wares to soldiers. She’s in a desperate position. Eva told me about Berliners who in 1946-47 made makeshift wagons out of garbage, string, bits of wood and bicycles and used these to transport their “stuff” from place to place. Mother Courage is essentially homeless. So, too, was Eva, a refugee, displaced, restless. But they weren’t without guile. Necessity is the mother of invention. Perhaps for Eva necessity was her true mother, the only one she ever had.
CJN.: At the opposite pole from Eva is her older brother, Hermann Hans [HH] and his fantastic escape story. “A total experience, like war,” HH is the family dictator from Eva’s childhood. What was it like, wrestling characters like these onto the page?
Steinmetz: In the end, they became abstractions to me and abstractions are easier to wrestle with than real people. In the book I say Eva was all verb, pure becoming, while HH was this solid noun of pure being. She could improvise, she was flexible – therefore she got through the difficult years. He was inflexible – therefore deformed by the oncoming storm. I had a loving relationship with HH. I have shaped him here and taken away his many good elements. I inherited some of his poems, in German, and translated them [using a dictionary]. He wrote like a good German, about nature and trees and flowers and the sunrise, but also about the pain and trauma of human relationships.
Every morning he went for a walk in the woods near his house outside Winston-Salem. He took his chickens with him. They would walk by his side through the forest. I have learned a lot, thinking about HH and Eva, their lives, the choices they made. After years reading about their times, staring at photographs, listening to them talk and to others talk about them, still, I am aware that I don’t really know them.
CJN.: What about Rudolf, HH’s friend who, as a Nazi, rescues the stranded Eva in return for favours?
Steinmetz: However extravagant, almost all her stories checked out, factually. Eva rarely used a euphemism. When she did, I knew she was hiding something painful. She was blackmailed in Vienna, sexually – she did not call it rape – and that’s how she got to Switzerland. She would not give details. The Nazi in question was not this Rudolf. The reality is much worse.
CJN.: Why is this family so often described as being on stage? Were the Steinmetz clan –“our Jewish origins,” as HH writes, the words crossed out – already playing roles, as assimilated Jews?
Steinmetz: Every family is its own distinct society, even happy families… My grandfather and Eva would probably never have said they were part Jewish, to them that was Nazi math. HH was punished for every identity – bourgeois, part-Jew, German – so he became a rabid atheist and recluse. He did not want to play a role, period. As a writer I can relate to that; I am fond of Keats’ idea of negative capability; the writer erases himself to become the other. I have pushed that theory pretty far, personally and artistically… Writing the book, I did ask myself: Is this [struggle with identity] the consequence of having crossed out Jewish origins – of having relinquished my religious and cultural identity?
CJN.: How did writing the book affect you artistically?
Steinmetz: Artistically, the book pushed me to my limit. For me, every sentence is an experiment. I wrote sections in first person, third person, second person, using a different voice for sections of historical fiction and two others for oral storytelling. It took me over 14 years. For many of those years, I hung on to the manuscript like you might an overturned boat.
Eva’s Threepenny Theatre is published by Gaspereau Press.