John Slavin – The Love Knot

In the name of love

Australian novel about an English woman in Munich between the two World Wars.

Who was Hitler? We all know who the man was, once he took power in Germany and set the world on fire. Although he was not such a fool as Donald Trump, he also had a big mouth. He was a great manipulator: when he spoke to crowds, he mesmerized the people and even eye to eye with people, he knew how to get to them. This is a story of a woman who tried to settle in Munich, during the days of the creation of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). At this time Hitler was one of the many who were not happy about how their country (in those times still called the Weimar Republic) was treated by the world after having lost WW1. They were also furious how the government in Berlin dealt with these losses.

Gudrun is a strong, English woman with a past. She lost a lover in Switzerland and then meeting German sculptor Loerke, she moved first to Dresden and then to Munich to start a new life amongst the Bohemians. She is trying not to look back. But she is forced to when writer Rupert Birkin, her brother-in-law, pops up in Munich. He too cannot forget what has happened and tries to free his soul, admitting to Gudrun how he cried over Crich, the man they had both loved. Gudrun’s sister Ursula is the opposite of Gudrun: she is happy in her marriage. She is the next one to appear in Munich with hopes of regaining her husband. She is afraid that her sister Gudrun, who does not believe in conventions and chases one man after another, will secretly start an affair with him.

Both Gudrun and Birkin are afraid to settle, to become a prisoner in marriage. Gudrun loves to feel free and tends to choose her lovers according to the power and money they have (and that is why she is not at all attracted to Birkin whom she considers a loser). She wants to be free, enjoy life and her work as an artist. Although she feels the tension building up in Munich life, mixing with powerful military and political people, she refuses to make a choice between the good and the bad. She plays the beautiful, independent woman who is above politics and just there to have a good time with whoever is around.

Although she is not attracted to Rolf Eidhalt, she recognizes his power and his utility. And though forced, she agrees to work for him in order to make life easy. But the bigger the Workers’ Party gets, the more violent its stance against people like Jews, foreigners and other adversaries. The more she sees friends like Loerke turning towards this powerful party, the more she starts doubting her involvement and her way of life.

The story progresses slowly, dealing with high ranking military men, politicians and other plotmakers discussing power and the loyalty of friends, just like any ordinary politic game. And it considers the life of Gudrun, not wanting to see the danger building up, confronted by Birkin with questions about love, still strongly believing in her power of beauty, but also haunted by her past with lovers like Crich and another one from her life in Dresden.

The turning point in the story is the Beer Hall Putsch on November 8-9, 1923, a failed coup because so many were still undecided to whom their loyalty belonged. Only then Gudrun realizes that she is not the only one playing with people. She is about to discover the real face of Rolf Eidhalt (an anagram of Hitler) and the book reveals more true political faces.

The Love Knot is written as a sequel to D.H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love (although there is no need to have read it, for understanding The Love Knot). Slavin wondered what Gudrun’s life would be after she met Loerke in Switzerland. I wondered why the two English sisters have a foreign name, something that confused me at the beginning of reading: it was simply Lawrence giving them these names. John Slavin wrote to me about the provenance of the names: “Somewhere in his letters Lawrence answered a query about this from one of his friends. He admitted that in an English context the names were a bit weird but he wanted to bring a mythic level to the story. In Norse literature Gudrun is a woman who is responsible for the death of her own husband. In Christian mythology – The Golden Legend – Ursula leads a team of virgins to the Holy Lands where as one of those naive saints who believes in the power of love to change the world she is completely unsuccessful in her attempt to convert the Islamic leader Saladin, and suffers martyrdom for her efforts. She becomes a saint who is identified as the perfect loving and faithful bride.”

I like this explanation, making Gudrun a kind of mythical creature, not a femme fatal who only wants to climb the social ladder. She is not really unsympathetic, we all like to read about strong women who can be wicked. She might be nasty, sometimes looking down on her sister who is just after a normal life. She rejects the men she is done with, but she also helps the girl, once a model, then assistant of Loerke, who ends upon the streets. She finally will see what Birkin is chasing after: a real sense of love.

Slavin’s writing is dense. His sentences sometimes may not run smoothly, but they are rich in images and provide plenty to think about. The story not only takes you to the streets and beer halls of Munich that are brewing a second world war, but also to the snowy mountains where a feeling of freedom is in the air. It is a daring story with historical and non-historical characters; it’s about love and independence, about chasing your dreams or just following the masses. A good read that raises questions about history and about relationships.

John Slavin – The Love Knot (Not yet translated in Dutch), BookBaby 2016

Kindle edition:

What more to read

Around the Second World War:

Uwe Timm – Icarië

Another story about ordinary men turned into mass killers:

Jonathan Littell – The Kindly Ones (De welwillenden)

More about Gudrun:

D.H. Lawrence – Women in Love