Michael Young is a graduate student at Cambridge who is completing his dissertation on the early life of Adolf Hitler. Leo Zuckermann is an aging German physicist haunted by the Holocaust. Together, they idealistically embark on an experiment to change the course of history. And with their success is launched a brave new world that is in some ways better than ours—but in most ways even worse.
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It starts with a dream ...
It starts with a dream. This story, which can start everywhere and nowhere like a circle, starts, for me — and it is, after all, my story and no one else's, never could be anyone else's but mine — it starts with a dream I dreamed one night in May.
The wildest kind of dream. Jane was in it, stiff and starchy as a hotel napkin. He was there too. I didn't recognize him of course. I hardly knew him then. Just an old man to nod to in the street or smile through a politely held library door. The dream rejuvenated him, transformed him from boneless, liver-spotted old beardy into Mack Sennett barman with drooping black mustache tacked to a face hangdog long and white with undernourishment.
His face, for all that. Not that I knew it then.
In this dream he was in the lab with Jane: Jane's lab, of course — the dream was not prophetic enough to foretell the dimensions of his lab, which I only got to know later — that is if the dream was prophetic at all, which it may well not have been. If you get me.
This is going to be hard.
Anyway, she was peering into a microscope and he was feeling her up from behind. He stroked between her thighs inside the long white coat. She was taking no notice, but I was outraged, outraged when the soft veef of hands rubbing nylon stopped and I knew that his fingers had reached the uppermost part of her long legs, the place where stocking ended and soft hot private flesh — hot private flesh belonging to me — began.
"Leave her alone!" I called from some unseen director's corner, behind, as it were, the dream's camera.
He gazed up at me with sad eyes that held me, as they always do, in the bright beam of their blue. Or always subsequently did, because I had, in my real waking life at that point, never so much as exchanged a single word with him.
"Wachet auf," he says.
And I obey.
Strong light of a May morning whitening the dirty cream of cruddy curtains that we meant to change months ago.
"Morning, babe," I murmur. "Double Gloucester ... my mother always said cheese dreams."
But she's not there. Jane, that is, not my mother. My mother isn't there either as a matter of fact. Certainly not. It absolutely isn't that kind of story.
Jane's half of the bed is cold. I strain my ears for the hissing of the shower or the crack of teacups banged clumsily on the draining board. Everything Jane does, outside of work, she does clumsily. She has this habit of turning her head away from her hands, like a squeamish student nurse picking up a raw appendix. The hand holding a cigarette end, for instance, might stretch leftwards to an ashtray, while she will look off to the right, grinding the butt into a saucer, a book, a tablecloth, a plate of food. I have always found uncoordinated women, nearsighted women, long, gawky, awkward women, powerfully attractive.
I have started to wake up now. The last granules of the dream fizz away and I am ready for the morning puzzle of self-reinvention. I stare at the ceiling and remember what there is to remember.
We will leave me lying there for the moment, reassembling myself. I am not entirely sure that I am telling this story the right way round. I have said that it is like a circle, approachable from any point. It is also, like a circle, unapproachable from any point.
History is my business.
What a way to start ... history isn't my business at all. I managed, at least, to stop myself from describing history as my "trade," for which I reckon I can award myself some points. History is my passion, my calling. Or, to be more painfully truthful, it is my field of least incompetence. It is what, for the time being, I do. Had I the patience and the discipline I should have chosen literature. But, while I can read Middlemarch and The Dunciad or, I don't know, Julian Barnes or Jay McInerney say, as happily as anyone, I have this little region missing in my brain, that extra lobe that literature students possess as a matter of course, the lobe that allows them the detachment and the nerve to talk about books (texts they will say) as others might talk about the composition of a treaty or the structure of a cell. I can remember at school how we would read together in class an ode by Keats, a Shakespeare sonnet or a chapter of Animal Farm. I would tingle inside and want to sob, just at the words, at nothing more than the simple progression of sounds. But when it came to writing that thing called an essay, I flubbed and floundered. I could never discover where to start. How do you find the distance and the cool to write in an academically approved style about something that makes you spin, wobble and weep?
I remember that child in the Dickens novel, Hard Times I thin k it is, the girl who had grown up with carnival people, spending her days with horses, tending them, feeding them, training them and loving them. There's a scene where Gradgrind (it is Hard Times, I've just looked it up) is showing off his school to a visitor and asks this girl to define "horse" and of course the poor scrap dries up completely, just stutters and fumbles and stares hopelessly in front of her like a moron.
"Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!" Gradgrind says and turns with a great sneer to the smart little weasel, Bitzer, a cocksure street kid who's probably never dared so much as pat a horse in his life, gets a kick out of throwing stones at them I expect. This little runt stands up with a smirk and comes out pat with "Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth ..." and so on, to wild applause and admiration.
"Now girl number twenty you know what a horse is," says Gradgrind.
Well, each time I was asked to write an essay at school, with a title like "Wordsworth's Prelude is the Egotism without the Sublime: Discuss," I felt, when I got back my paper marked E or F or whatever, as if I were the stuttering horse lover and the rest of the class, with their As and Bs, were the smart-arsed parroting runts who had lost their souls. You could only write successfully about books and poems and plays if you didn't care, really care, about them. Hysterical schoolboy wank, for sure, an attitude compounded of nothing but egotism, vanity and cowardice. But how deeply felt. I went through all my school days convinced of this, that "literary studies" were no more than a series of autopsies performed by heartless technicians. Worse than autopsies: biopsies. Vivisection. Even movies, which I love more than anything, more than life itself, they even do it with movies these days. You can't talk about movies now without a methodology. Once they start offering courses, you know the field is dead. History, I found, was safer ground for me: I didn't love Rasputin or Talleyrand or Charles the Fifth or Kaiser Bill. Who could? A historian has the pleasant luxury of being able to point out, from the safety of his desk, where Napoleon ballsed up, how this revolution might have been avoided, that dictator toppled or those battles won. I found I could be most marvelously dispassionate with history, where everyone, by definition, is truly dead. Up to a point. Which brings us round to the telling of this tale.
As a historian I should be able to offer a good plain account of the events that took place on the ... well, when did they take place? It is all highly debatable. When you become more familiar with the story you will understand the huge problems that confront me. A historian, someone said — Burke, I think, if not Burke then Carlyle — is a prophet looking backward. I cannot approach my story in that fashion. The puzzle that besets me is best expressed by the following statements.
a: None of what follows ever happened
b: All of what follows is entirely true
Get your head round that one. It means that it is my job to tell you the true story of what never happened. Perhaps that's a definition of fiction.
I admit that this preamble must look rather tricksy: I get as snortingly impatient as the next man when authors draw attention to their writerly techniques, and this sentence itself disappears even more deeply than most into the filthy elastic of its own narrative rectum, but there's nothing I can do about that.
I saw a play the other week (plays are nothing to films, nothing. Theater is dead but sometimes I like to go and watch the corpse decompose) in which one of the characters said something like this, she said that the truth about things was like a bowl of fishhooks: you try to examine one little truth and the whole lot comes out in a black and vicious bunch. I can't allow that to happen here. I have to do some unfastening and untangling, so that if the hooks do all come out in one go, they might at least emerge neatly linked, like a chain of paper clips.
I feel then that I can confidently enough begin with this little series of connections: if it weren't for a rotted clasp, an alphabetical adjacency and the predictably vile, thirst-making hangovers to which Alois was subject, then I would have nothing to tell you. So we may as well start at the point I have already claimed (and disclaimed) to be the beginning.
There I lie, wondering like Keats, Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music, do I wake or sleep? Wondering too, why the Christ Jane isn't coiled warmly beside me.
The clock tells me why.
It's a quarter to nine.
She's never done this to me before. Never.
I rush to the bathroom and rush out again, toothpaste dribbling down the corners of my mouth.
"Jane!" I bubble. "Jane, what the pants is going on? It's half-past nine!"
In the kitchen I snap on the kettle and frenzy around for coffee, sucking my peppermint fluoride lips in panic. An empty bag of Kenco and boxes and boxes and boxes of teas.
Raspberry Rendezvous for God's sake. Rendezvous? Orange Dazzler. Banana and Liquorice Dream. Nighttime Delight.
Jesus, what is it with her? Every tea but tea tea. And not a bean or bag of coffee to be had.
At the back of the cupboard ... triumph, glory. Mwah! A big Aquafresh kiss for you, my darling.
"Safeway Colombian Coffee, Fine Ground for Filters."
Back to the bedroom, hopping into cutoff denim. No time for boxers, no time for socks. Bare feet jammed into boat shoes, laces later.
Into the kitchen again just as the kettle thumps itself off, bit of a hiss from so little water, but enough for a cup, easily enough for a cup.
Oh damn it, no!
No, no, no, no, no!
Bitch. Sow. Cow. Angel. Double-bitch. Sweetness. Slag.
"Safeway Colombian Coffee, Fine Ground for Filters: Naturally Decaffeinated."
Calm, Michael. Calm. Bleib ruhig, mein Sohn.
I can keep it together. I'm a graduate. A soon-to-be-doctored graduate. I won't be beaten by this. Not a little nonsense like this.
Ha! Gotcha! Lightbulb-over-the-head, finger-snapping eureka, who's a clever boy? Yes ...
Those pills, those pep pills. Pro-Doz? No-Doz? Something like that.
Skidding into the bathroom, my brain half registers something. An important fact. Something amiss. Put it to one side. Time enough later.
Where they go? Where they go?
Here you are, you little buggers ... yes, come to Mama ...
"No-Doz. Stay alert. Ideal for exam revision, late nights, driving, etc. Each pill contains 50 mg caffeine."
At the kitchen sideboard, like a London cokehead giggling in a nightclub toilet, I crush and grind and chop.
The chunks of white pop and wink in the coffee mud as I pour the boiling water on.
"Safeway Colombian Coffee, Fine Ground for Filters: Unnaturally Recaffeinated."
Now that's coffee. A tad bitter perhaps, but real coffee, not Strawberry Soother or Nettle 'n' Chamomile tisane. And you say I have no gumption, Jane hun? Ha! Wait till I tell you about this tonight. I outdid Paul Newman in Harper. All he did was recycle an old filter paper, yeah?
A quarter to ten. Teaching at eleven. No panic. I stalk comfortably now, mug in hand into the spare room, quite in charge. Bloody showed her.
The Apple is cold. A nannying humming nag no more. Who knows when I may condescend to turn you on again, Maccie Thatcher?
And there, on the desk, neatly squared, magnificently, obscenely thick, Das Meisterwerk itself.
I keep my distance, just craning forward; we cannot allow even the tiniest drop of recaf to stain the glorious title page.
FROM BRUNAU TO VIENNA: THE ROOTS OF POWER MICHAEL YOUNG, MA, M PHIL
Way-hey! Four years. Four years and two hundred thousand words. There's that bastard keyboard, so plastically dumb, so comically vacuous.
Nothing else to choose from. Just those ten numbers and twenty-six letters permuted into two hundred thousand words, a comma here and a semicolon there. Yet for a sixth of my life, a whole sixth of my life, by big beautiful Buddha, that keyboard clawed at me like cancer.
Fiff-ha-hoo! Bit of a stretch and there's the morning workout.
I sigh with pleasure and drift back to the kitchen. The 150 mg of caffeine has hit the ground running and breasted the blood-brain barrier with arms upraised. I am now awake. Pumpingly A-wake.
Yes, I am now awake. Awake to everything.
Awake to What Was Wrong in the bathroom.
Awake to a piece of paper leaning up between the heel of last night's cheese and the empty wine bottle in the center of the kitchen table.
Awake to the reason that at eight on the tit I was not, as I should have been, awake.
Let's face it, Pup. It's not working. I'll call back for the rest of my things later today. We'll sort out how much I owe you for the car. Congratulations on your thesis. Think about it for a while and you'll know I'm right.
Even as I feel myself go through the necessary shock, rage and howls, a part of me registers relief, does instantly register relief, or if not relief an awareness certainly that this elegant little note accesses a smaller and less significant proportion of my emotions than have done the earlier absence of coffee or the possibility that I might have been allowed to oversleep or most especially now, the casual, the arrogant assumption that my car shall go to her.
The explosion of fury, then, is mostly for form's sake, a kind of compliment to Jane in fact. The hurling of the wine bottle — the wine bottle, the celebratory wine bottle, the wine bottle I had so carefully chosen at Oddbins the night before, the Chateauneuf du Pape that I had worked toward for a sixth part of my whole life — is a gesture therefore, a necessary theatrical acknowledgment that the ending of our three years together has earned at least some noise and some spectacle.
When she returns for her "things" she will spy the elegant curved streak of rusty sediment along the kitchen wall and her big feet will crunch on the glass and she will derive some satisfaction from believing that I "cared" and that will be that. Jane&Michael have ceased to be and now there is Jane and there is Michael and Michael is, at last, Somebody. Somebody, as Lennon would have it, in his own Write.
In the study, picking up the Meisterwerk, weighing it in my hands, ready to push it delicately into my briefcase, I suddenly goggle, with Roger Rabbit starting eyes to the accompaniment of a loud klaxon, at a small speck on the title page: it has erupted from nowhere like an old surfie's melanoma, just in the short time I was in the kitchen hurling wine bottles. It's not a spot of coffee, I am sure of that, perhaps just a flaw in the paper that only the strong May sunlight can expose. No time to boot up the computer and reprint, so I snatch a bottle of Liquid Paper, touch the tip of the brush to this naughty little freckle and blow gently.
Holding the paper by the edges I go outside and hold it against the sun. It is enough. 'Twill serve.
There by the telegraph pole is the space where the Renault should be.
Oh dear. Bad move.
Little delivery girl veers and races away, thrust over the handlebars remembering every terrible story she ever glimpsed on the front of the newspapers she daily dumps onto the doormats. Telling mummy on you.
Oh dear. Better give her time or she'll think I'm following and that won't do. I don't know why we have to have a newspaper delivery in the first place. Jane is a newspaper junkie, that's the fact of the matter. We even get the Cambridge Evening News delivered. Every afternoon. I mean, please.
I turn and wheel out the bicycle from the passageway. The ticking of the wheels pleases me. Hell, I am young. I am free. My teeth are clean. In my noble old school briefcase there nestles a future. Nestles the future. The sun shines. To hell with everything else.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Making History"
Copyright © 1996 Stephen Fry.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Having become quite the fan of Stephen Fry, thanks largely to QI, I became rather interested when I heard he'd also written a few novels. The plot of Making History only intrigued me more. It's basically this: Michael Young, a history PhD student at Cambridge writing a thesis on Adolf Hitler's childhood, meets an aging German scientist named Leo Zuckermann, seemingly a Jew whose father died at Auschwitz. Zuckermann passionately hates Adolf Hitler, and has created a machine that allows him to see into the past, and, it turns out, transport materials there as well (though not actually travel back in time). Young, a painfully awkward nerdy type, worried about taking his final step out of the world of education into the real world, convinces Zuckermann, overwhelmed with emotion due to his past (revealed in detail toward the end of Book One, I won't give it away), to use his machine to prevent the birth of Adolf Hitler. Both assume they are going to create a better world. As I'm sure you can guess, things don't turn out as planned, since it is not just the 'great men' of history that determine its course. Making History is an extremely impressive novel. I was expecting something with a lot of humour, this being Stephen Fry, and while there are some humorous moments, especially at the beginning of the novel, Fry does not let humour triumph over the plot, which is very strong. Though the novel comes in at nearly 600 pages, it's paced very well for the most part. The start was perhaps a tad slow, but it was beneficial because it established the characters well, making me care much more about their fate. Interspersed with the chapters from Michael's perspective (making up much of the book) are chapters in third person considering the early life of Adolf Hitler, particularly during his time in World War One. Fry portrays the characters well, and gives a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of Hitler, without making us like him. On the strength of this work, I'll probably be picking up at least one of Fry's other three novels. His passionate concern for the subject matter, combined with the strength of his characters and plot, make for a highly entertaining read.
I think that this book should considered a classic. I absolutely loved it. One of my favorite books ever. The concept is intriguing.. a world without Hitler.. but I wish that the results would have been more pleasant. I guess it goes to show that ANYTHING could be worse.. even without having Adolf Hitler in the world (And I can't believe I'm typing this right now, however if you read the book, you would see what I mean).
Although I admired and loved Fry's stylistically superb and witty writing, I was a bit disappointed by the simplistic plot of the book and its twists. Especially, towards the end of the book seemed to be finalised hastily and all loose ends were tied together loosely. But as said, I did very much enjoy the creativity and love with which Fry handle the English language. It made the book very much worth finishing.
Unfortunately mundane title for an engaging time travel story whose alternative-history fulcrum is somewhat guessable (although that doesn't lessen the suspense); a couple of surprises besides.
With a witty and even profound beginning, and an interesting premise for an alternate history, the story becomes increasingly tenuous and trivial as it accelerates towards its fairy tale ending.
Very gripping - couldn't put it down. Read it all morning. Liked the plot, hated the bits written as film script. Also the occasional flights of fancy bits. However his prose is awesome. 'The strip light spanked itself awake'
We all know what happens when characters in a novel mess with history, but try they must, especially when they have a chance to prevent Hitler from being born, and so they shall. This is what the protagonists of Making History think and who can argue with such an obvious course of action. Stephen Fry in his third novel comes up with a remarkable narrative construction, which is clever, endearing, smart, intelligent, amazing, and unfortunately grossly under appreciated. Us readers don't remember a novel for its clockwork plot precision, we remember it because we relate to people and the events happening to them.Without giving too much away, the hero and his sidekick Darwnin-esque-action-professor manage to first screw up history big time and then put things back in place with many personal lessons learned concerning life, love and the pursuit of alternate realities.Does it all work well together? Surely the novel is a great read and highly entertaining, but a there is also a persistent sense that Fry is trying to make a point he can't quite get across. Unfortunately the one obvious message can't be accurate since the reader might have to conclude at the end that we should be glad we had a Hitler because the most likely alternative would have been much worse. Certainly it is arguable that only one possible outcome is presented from a range of historical possibilities. However, other collaborating details, for example the personalities of the other soldiers waiting in the wings besides Hitler in the trenches of World War 1, can not give the reader any other options for seeing how things might have turned out for the better.Although this novel is written much later than The Liar, it uses surprisingly more primitive narrative constructs, something I wasn't expecting. For example Stephen Fry uses a lot of lists and litanies to get a point across, which is something the Victorians loved to do but which has run its course. Even Helprin in his novel Freddy and Fredericka discovered it doesn't work anymore and has since abandoned it. Fry shows off not only his deep knowledge of World War 2 but also flaunts his linguistic skill by subtly playing with English-isms vs American-isms. A clearer case of temporal plot for occurs when the author clearly points out when we should remember something for later usage. A box of bright orange pills spills on the ground and the owner starts screaming that these are highly dangerous. Surely these pills must be useful for something later in the book. And they are.It's hard not to like a Fry novel, the man is a really good writer and his plots are quite refreshing, not to mention that his stories are quite entertaining. Making History is an odd one however, it is a quick read of something that felt like it was meant to be something bigger. A recommended read but also pick up some of the author's other novels.
A science-fiction, alternate history, comedy novel. I loved Pup, who was a very realistic student (I thought it was very funny how he got that nickname). The way history was changed by what he and Leo did was believable but there were places where the story dragged and I was waiting impatiently for something to happen. So it was good, but not as good as Fry's "The Liar".
I'm not one for stories about Hitler, Nazis and the second world war, but I like Stephen Fry's writings- well, it turned out this was about time travel, not war! A fantastic book, very engaging. After making sure Hitler does not get born, a student, Michael, ends up in a different country, with different friends, and a different course of study, because history has changed, and so has his past. He of course does not "remember" anything in this new life, so does not know who his friends are, where the library is and where his parents live. The world does not seem a better place, and in the end, he goes back to his original life. But it is not quite the same as before!
An amazing work of fiction if there ever was! I had no idea what to expect when I first picked up this book, but I have to say I was more than pleasantly surprised. The whole plot of the book is so unique and cutting edge and I love that it was well thought out through to the end.If you like Stephen Fry and British humour you will love this book.
The weakest of Fry's novels in my opinion. While it explores interesting themes, and proposes an interesting and all too believable alternative history of the 20th Century, there's something unsatisfying about the story.
The book is, at times, quite disturbing and leaves one with an itchy feeling, while being absolutely hilarious and fantastic. I highly enjoyed it and plan on buying a copy of my own and reading it countless times
Making History takes on a totally new concept, what if Adolf Hitler was never born? Stephen Fry goes into great detail of what he thinks would have happened. There are two different stories, within the actual book. On follows Michael Young, a history, and later on philosophy major at Cambridge, England. The other follows Hitler, and then A man named Rudi Gloder. Rudi takes Hitler's place in history as the leader of the Nazi party. Michael Young struggles to find out what he has done. Hitler never being born seems like a great idea, but not when someone who is even more powerful takes his place. So many things go wrong when Michael tries to make the world a better place. This is the kind of book you can't put down. Stephen Fry tells this story so well, and makes it so easy to understand.
A bit of a disappointment, I hope his other two books are better, as the amalgamation of history, university memoir, and philosophy doesn't quite work for me. Better luck next time Mr. Fry!