There’s always something exciting about starting off a blog tour and I’m thrilled to be doing so for Stephen Deutsch today. My thanks to the team at Bookollective for inviting me to participate. Stephen is staying in with me to chat about his latest book.
Staying in with Stephen Deutsch
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Stephen and thank you for agreeing to stay in with me. Tell me, which of your books have you brought along to share this evening and why have you chosen it?
I’ve chosen my latest novel, Champion, not only because it has a strong story (not my own, but based on real events) but because it reflects on our own times as well. It deals with persecution, racism, heroism…
That sounds incredibly pertinent to today’s world. What can we expect from an evening in with Champion?
It’s a bit or a roller-coaster, starting quite gradually, then picking up speed. It recounts two assassinations, tea with Hitler, the love of a movie star, and two famous boxing matches. As a work of historical fiction, it portrays real events and real people, Herschel Grynszpan and Max Schmeling, with different backgrounds and motivations, both living in the febrile atmosphere of Nazi dominated Europe. The novel climaxes during the night of ‘Kristalnacht’, the pogrom which was said to be the opening act of the Holocaust.
It sounds brilliant!
Here’s a fragment:
Nagorka led the boy to the small office of the Third Secretary, Ernst Eduard Adolf Max vom Rath, a thirty-one-year-old, fair-skinned, thin lipped young man. He closed the door quietly. Vom Rath was sitting at his desk, his back to his visitor, facing the window which overlooked the rear courtyard. He was initialing a document. He spoke softly.
‘Do please be seated. I’ll be with you in a moment.’
The boy seated himself in a leather armchair a few feet from the desk. He gaze was drawn to a framed photograph of Hitler on the wall to his right. There’s the architect of all our misfortunes. I’d give my life to have him in this room!
Vom Rath turned his chair so that he was facing his visitor. He smiled in an official way and said. ‘Thank you for coming. May I see the documents?’ Have I seen this boy before somewhere?
The boy’s anxiety was now overwhelmed by the rage which had been percolating within him for so many months. His face reddened, and the veins in his neck protruded.
‘You’re a filthy Kraut,’ he shouted, ‘and in the name of all persecuted Jews, here are the documents!’
Vom Rath began to rise as Herschel pulled the revolver from his jacket pocket. Without really aiming, he fired five times, emptying the weapon. Two of the shots pierced vom Rath’s body. One entered his torso and lodged in his shoulder. The other perforated his stomach, rupturing his spleen and penetrating his pancreas. Vom Rath staggered to the door, throwing a weak punch at his assailant’s face as he passed, shouting for help, holding his stomach as he entered the hallway.
The boy’s rage evaporated and he slumped back into the chair, suddenly overcome with weariness. I hope I’ve killed him, he thought. He dropped the revolver onto the floor and waited. In the corridor, the sounds of the typewriters had stopped.
When he had heard the shots, Nagorka pushed his chair away from his desk, rushed along the hallway, and found vom Rath in the doorway.
‘I am wounded,’ vom Rath gasped, his pain masked by his surprise. Nagorka could see a spreading red stain on vom Rath’s shirt. Another embassy colleague, Herr Krüger, quickly approached the pair and together the two men gently lowered vom Rath into a sitting position on the floor, keeping his back resting against the corridor wall. A third embassy attaché arrived to attend to vom Rath, allowing Nagorka and Krüger to turn their attentions to the perpetrator. They grabbed the seated boy, and with a roughness which caused him to cry out, raised him from his chair, pinning his arms forcibly behind his back.
‘You needn’t be so rough, meine Herren,’ he shouted, as he was bundled out of the office, ‘I have no intention to escape. But all I ask is that you turn me over to the French police.’ He managed a quick glance at vom Rath as he passed. ‘Too bad he isn’t dead,’ he added, receiving a punch in the kidneys in response. He was manhandled down the stairs, the two German officials supporting him under his armpits as he stumbled. They rushed him roughly to the main gate, his feet scraping on the ground, then pushed him into the arms of the gendarme who had been his first contact with the embassy only a few moments before.
‘This man has just shot an official. Arrest him!’ Nagorka shouted.
Herschel was handcuffed.
‘Don’t worry, monsieur, I will come with you,’ he said calmly, relieved to be in the custody of a Frenchman.
Wow. That’s powerful writing Stephen.
The story of Max Schmeling is told from the other side of the divide. A former heavyweight boxing champion, he rises into great prominence in the Nazi regime with his defeat of Joe Louis in 1936. Hailed as an icon of Aryan superiority. he is feted everywhere, has tea with Hitler, a trip on the airship Hindenburg – and he and his movie star wife, Anny Ondra, become top celebrities. But when he is comprehensively beaten by Joe Louis in their rematch a year later, his fall from grace is precipitous. During Kristalnacht he commits an act of quiet heroism, saving the lives of two adolescent Jews.
Can we read a bit more then please?
Here’s another extract, after his victory:
The commotion in Max’s dressing room continued for some time, longer than it took for Yankee Stadium to empty, longer than it took for the thousands of fight fans to flow up to the elevated subway trains and begin their sweaty judder downtown. Max’s small dressing-room was overflowing with a noisy cluster of newsmen and hangers-on, pushing forward, shuffling for position, shouting questions. Max sat in the centre of the room, on the rub-down table, smilingly dazed, his face swollen, his purpling left eye almost closed, his body collapsing gratefully under the multi-patterned dressing gown which had been thrown over his sweaty shoulders. Standing beside him, Yussel was discharging chimneys of energetic cigar smoke, shouting answers to the laughing, back-slapping crush, while gently placing Max’s right hand into a tin bucket of iced-water.
‘Didn’t I tell you?’ His voice could easily be heard over the din. ‘Didn’t I always say so? I told you we could lick Louis. See, that schwartzer’s not so great. No one is invincible, no matter what you morons in the papers say. I told everyone that, but nobody believed me. So now all you newspaper bums know it, and now you know it real good.’
Max smiled broadly at his bustling, beaming manager. Max said, ‘I even told them on the boat when I arrived, when they asked me in front of all the newsreel cameras. I told them, “I see something.” And I did. I saw something.’
‘We both saw something, Max. But Louis didn’t see it, that’s the main thing.’
A man in a brown suit and tatty fedora had been pushing his way through the noise and cameras. His large shoes crushed the discarded flashbulbs as he walked. He elbowed his way toward the boxer and his mentor.
‘Herr Schmeling?’ the man asked, as if the boxer’s identity was in doubt. ‘May I offer you my most sincere congratulations.’ He said this in German. ‘But I also come at the behest of the German-American Bund.’ He nodded seriously, reflecting on the weight and significance of his mission. ‘They have asked me to congratulate you for re-establishing the racial order!’
Max looked up at the flush-faced man, while moving his hand lazily in the ice-water. ‘Better to speak in English. I can’t really understand your German very well.’
Disappointment travelled along the man’s face, coming to rest on his freckled forehead. ‘It’s true. My German isn’t really so good. I’m still learning. My father was of course fluent. You know, he came here from South-West Africa, but I didn’t really bother to learn our language when I was young, and then after the war, since we lost that whole African paradise to the British… But now I think there’s a real reason to speak German, is that not so, Herr Schmeling?’
‘What, just to talk to me?’
‘Of course, yes, but also I mean because of all those wonderful things that are happening in Germany today. But of course, you know all about this. Anyway, the Bund asked me to see if you’d speak at our next meeting in Yonkers. Everyone will be so excited if you could. In six weeks.’
Joe gave Max a small elbow in the ribs. ‘Impossible,’ he said quickly, clamping his cigar more aggressively between his teeth. ‘Max is going back home on the Hindenburg before that.’
‘What an honour, Herr Schmeling! To fly in this wonderful German airship. How I would love to fly in it. What a privilege! Still, you certainly deserve it after tonight. But perhaps you’ll speak to us next time you come.’
Joe ushered the man through the crowd. ‘Yeah, you never know, kid, you never know. And by the way, if you really want to fly in the Hindenburg, I can set up a fight for you with Joe Louis, that’s all it takes, just beat Louis.’ Joe pushed the Bundist through the door and closed it resolutely behind him.
‘That’s all we need,’ he said, ‘a Nazi fan club in America.’
Thanks for sharing these extracts Stephen. They have made me feel very lucky to have Champion on my TBR.
What else have you brought along and why?
I’ve brought recordings of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, antidotes to the tedium of lockdown. While listening to them it’s hard not to smile.
Both have such wonderful voices.
I’ve also brought a summer pudding. My wife made it from fruits harvested in my step-son’s garden, and I’d love to share it with you.
Now, you can come back again if you’re going to bring summer pudding. It’s years since I had any and I love it!
I’d also bring a selection of books by three of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, Harry Mulisch and Zora Neale Hurston. Their writing is both accessible and challenging, with wit and intelligence apparent on every page.
Oh! I have to confess I haven’t previously heard of Zora Neale Hurston. Thanks so much for staying in with me to share your new book, Champion, Stephen and for introducing me to a new to me writer. You serve up the summer pudding and I’ll tell readers all the Champion details:
Dark haired, slight, with deep-set haunted eyes, Herschel Grynszpan is an undocumented Jewish alien living in Paris. He receives a postcard from his parents – recently bundled from their Hanover flat, put on a train and dumped, with 12,000 others on the Polish border. Enraged, Herschel buys a gun and kills a minor German official in the German Embassy. The repercussions trigger Kristalnacht, the nationwide pogrom against the Jews in Germany and Austria, a calamity which some have called the opening act of the Holocaust.
Intertwined is the parallel life of the German boxer, Max Schmeling, who as a result of his victory over the then ‘invincible’ Joe Louis in 1936 became the poster boy of the Nazis. He and his movie-star wife, Anny Ondra, were feted by the regime – tea with Hitler, a passage on the airship Hindenburg – until his brutal two-minute beating in the rematch with Louis less than two years later. His story reaches a climax during Kristalnacht, where the champion performs an act of quiet heroism.
Published by Unicorn on 1st July 2020, Champion is available for purchase here.
About Stephen Deutsch
Stephen Deutsch was born in New York and moved to the UK in 1970, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1978. He was trained as a pianist and composer, spending the first part of his career composing music for concert hall, theatre, television and film.
He has been a lecturer in film sound and music, and has edited a journal on that subject, The Soundtrack, and later The New Soundtrack. He is the co-author of a coming book Listening to the Film: A Practical Philosophy of Film Sound. He has written plays for television, broadcast on the BBC. For 25 years he composed the music for all stage, film and TV works of the playwright Peter Barnes.
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