Fiction is Stranger than Fiction

I don't know who coined the term "fictional biography," but I first heard it used a few years ago by a writer researching the lives of Albert Einstein and his first wife, the Yugoslav mathematician Mileva Maric. The writer had crisscrossed central Europe, poured over manuscripts in dungeon-like archives, and conducted hundreds of interviews, all in the interest of a fictional biography--a book nestled very precariously between fact and fiction. She had her facts down pat: the correspondence, train schedules, and childhood photographs. What she did not have, and gave herself license to conceit, were the myriad details that uphold the façade of a life--any life--like the buttresses of Notre Dame.

I am generally suspicious of the fictional biography format, preferring orthodox biographies to books in which my historical idols come to life a tad too vividly. While reading Jim Shepard's Nosferatu (Knopf), though, I had a brief change of mind. Shepard, whose previous works of fiction include the 1996 collection of short stories Batting Against Castro and the 1994 novel Kiss of the Wolf among others, has dug up the perfect subject: someone at once legendary and largely unknown, enigmatic to the extreme, and, of course, dead.

If the name F.W. Murnau does not immediately ring a bell, his alter ego, Nosferatu, surely must. (I don't know about American TV programming in the early '80s, but over in Yugoslavia we were watching the spooky 1922 masterpiece every New Years on the stroke of midnight.) F.W. Murnau, the creator of the film based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, was, like Nosferatu himself, a shadowy, perplexing figure. Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in the German region of Westphalia, he apprenticed in the theater company of Max Reinhardt before World War I and graduated to making films within two years of Germany's capitulation.

A 6-foot 4-inch reclusive insomniac, Murnau (he changed his awkward surname after visiting the Bavarian town of Murnau as a teen) had few close friends and seldom communicated with his family. His lover and closest friend was the poet Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, who was killed in action (or committed suicide--it remains unclear) near the end of the war. Unable to recover fully from the shock of his lover's death, Murnau retreated even further into his own shell while becoming one of the most celebrated filmmakers of the 1920s thanks to films like Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), and Tabu (1931).

Jim Shepard's account of Murnau's life is divided into two distinct sections. The first covers Murnau's erotically charged boarding-school days, his freewheeling years in gay Berlin (and gay it was, if Shepard's evocations of turn-of-the-century bar culture are to be trusted), and his years as a fighter pilot in the German air corps. It is finely constructed and engrossing. Shepard has a talent for evoking vivid images by focusing not on the fundamental but on the peripheral. Murnau's Berlin comes to life as Shepard describes the exact menu of a Russian bistro, a transvestite act, or a bizarre poetry reading involving dirt, bells, and gasping sounds. In the strange throes of Dadaism and war-furor, the atmosphere of 1915 Berlin, as evoked by Shepard, is one of the most exciting parts of the book.

Halfway through Nosferatu, though, Shepard shifts gears abruptly. The book, which had hitherto been a third-person narrative, now changes into a collection of film journals purportedly kept by Murnau. The journals, from the sets of Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, and Tabu are fairly engaging in and of themselves, but their connection to the first part of the novel is tenuous. Ultimately, Murnau's character remains a split screen, with the third- and first-person versions never coming into clear focus--perhaps an appropriate narrative fate for a man who chose to lurk in the shadows.

Simon Mawer's novel Mendel's Dwarf (Harmony Books) mixes fact and fiction with more organization and finesse. Mawer, who is British and has a degree in zoology from Oxford, has written a sort of double biography, one entirely fictional, the other fictionally enhanced. This mode of storytelling may sound like an obstacle course, but Mawer's sense for interlocking structures makes the two stories believably, and even suspensefully, interdependent.

The real-life subject this time is Father Gregor Mendel, a 19th-century Austrian monk who discovered the principles of genetic heredity through experiments with garden peas. Mendel's work, though groundbreaking in that it was the first to suggest the existence of genes, was virtually ignored until 16 years after his death. The harmless, socially awkward monk from Brünn (modern day Brno in the Czech Republic) never could have guessed that his vegetable-patch experiments would plant the words "racial hygiene" into the European consciousness and lead, a few decades later, to the gas chambers of Auschwitz--a monstrous intellectual journey that Mawer travels with impressive subtlety.

Benedict Lambert is Father Gregor's biological and intellectual descendant and, like him, a brilliant geneticist given to observing people through the lens of his vocation: "I clambered up onto the chair and sat there looking at him. He was balding (sex-limited autosomal recessive), brown-eyed (autosomal dominant) and embarrassed (environmental/social character)." Clambering, you may notice, isn't the common way an adult--however eccentric--would wend their way to a seat. And though Benedict is indeed a bit eccentric, he clambers because he is a dwarf, just a bit over 4 feet tall. Benedict steers clear of euphemisms when describing the figure he sees in the mirror: "He possesses a massive forehead and blunt, puglike features. His nose is stove in at the bridge, his mouth and jaw protrude. His limbs are squat and bowed, his fingers are mere squabs. He is 1 meter, 27 centimeters tall."

Benedict Lambert inhabits a world of unreachable elevator buttons, uncomfortable furniture, and blunt stares from strangers, a world in which his nimble scientific mind defines a nanosecond as "the maximum length of time in normal company during which a dwarf may forget his condition." There is something Humbert Humbert-like about Benedict--a mix of obsessive eloquence and a cruel self-deprecation--which endears him to the reader, such as when he utters a line like "achondroplastics do not survive beyond their fourth or fifth decade. I am awaiting the outcome with curiosity." Benedict acknowledges that he is an aberration, but he does so without an inkling of self-pity and you can't help wishing for biology to intervene in some miraculous manner.

As Benedict's groundbreaking research into the genetic origins of achondroplasia captures the attention of the scientific community and of the press, he falls in love with a gentle, married librarian named Jean. Jean (get it?) is phenotypically normal, and is also the first woman in Benedict's life to reciprocate his feelings. To complicate matters further, Jean is unhappily married to an abusive and sterile husband, and desperately wants a child. The final factor in this complex human equation is an ineluctable genetic fact: A child born to one normal and one achondroplastic parent has exactly one chance in two of being a dwarf himself. The ensuing moral and biological complications are so galvanic that the novel acquires the complicated urgency of a great mystery.

Throughout Mendel's Dwarf, Benedict's and Father Gregor's lives and careers interweave so closely that grave questions pertaining to biology, ethics, and history surface like muck on a toxic pond. How could anyone have imagined that the final result of Mendel's benign experiments would take place a mere few hundred kilometers from the Augustine monk's home, and that they would smell of burning human flesh? Or that genetics would lead to eugenics in the 1930s and 1940s, and the sterilization of epileptics, alcoholics, schizophrenics, dwarfs, and other "genetically inferior" individuals?

Mawer offers a vivid and disturbing interpretation of history, and he does it in a narrative that never seems didactic. Part of this lesson is, perhaps, that the mechanics of inheritance ought to be left alone, as genetic-code errors sometimes beget brilliant and entirely decent "monsters." The real monsters, Mawer suggests, are those intent on eradicating all errors.

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