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Book Review: Two Brothers by Ben Elton

By Brett Petzer for the Sunday Times

This is comedy writer Ben Elton’s first foray into Holocaust history, and a story he has reportedly waited into midlife to write.

Two Brothers is an uneasy fit between Holocaust social history, identity-swap goings-ons and a love triangle entirely free of nuance, but too much of it works for it to be an arduous read. However, the Berlin setting (Weimar to Red Army) mostly overwhelms the scale of the Manichaean cast and their engaging but tidy and symmetrical life paths.

There are twins, Paulus and Otto Stengel, who love a millionaire’s girl, Dagmar. All are Jews. Except that one twin is actually of purest Saxon peasant stock, vouchsafed to Mama at the hospital after a stillbirth. The twins and Dagmar and Silke, the child of the help, form a Saturday Club as young Berliners. Soon, the things that we know happened, happen, and they are in hiding or in the Waffen SS or the British Army.

Throughout, Elton’s research – though it could be wielded with a lighter touch – is dogged enough that the city of the 1930s and 1940s comes slowly to feel solid underfoot. From a position of deep scepticism I came to believe in the city that the Saturday Club inhabits, steals through and hides in, and now that the book is finished I miss it a little.

The dust jacket promises that this is Elton’s most personal novel to date – interwoven with the real trajectories of his extended family – and the precision anecdotes these have lent to the work are its chief glory. The absurdity of a ticket seller in a cramped booth who Hitler-saluted every customer with an arm crooked against the glass, or the lavatory conditions at the Nuremberg rallies, are memorable beyond this book.

Less eagerly remembered is the one in 20 of Elton’s sentences, which will tend to hammer home the point. Hammer it home so it stays said. Like this.

Often trailing off on the page.

Sometimes in italics.

The characters fare better at speaking. Elton has a fine ear for dialogue and the four young people who anchor the book speak a sort of British public schoolboy English that feels correct for the time.

However, the narrator’s pedantry keeps letting in daylight on the magic. We are told of an underground Weimar-era jazz bar: “Everybody came to the Joplin. High life. Low life. Good guys. Bad guys.”

Elton is rightly beloved as a comedy writer. He has given us a stirring evocation of war’s queasy mix of absurdity, humour and despair in Blackadder Goes Forth. Another critic has noted that this book would probably have made a better memoir than a novel, divested of its “Jeffrey Archer-ish” identity swaps.

Personally, I feared at every moment that we would veer into Inglourious Basterds territory. Now that the book is read, my feeling is strong that perhaps a dark, difficult comedy like that would have been a better recipe for someone of Elton’s talents.

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