In My Grandfather’s Shadow by Angela Findlay review – in search of the ‘macho bully’ she never knew

The artist goes on the trail of her mother’s father, a German second world war general, in this unsettling memoir of transgenerational guilt

A week after she was born to an English father and German mother, Angela Findlay’s maternal grandfather died. Yet “like a relay racer passing on a baton”, she writes, “he handed me something… just as we might inherit the physical or character traits of our forebears, we can inherit their unresolved emotions, traumas or crimes”.

Much of this strange, powerful but rather unsatisfactory memoir explores Findlay’s relationship with her difficult mother, Jutta. Glamorous, energetic and sociable, she was also a woman for whom “any allusion to weakness or failure always seemed to evoke the opposite of sympathy or compassion”. She often made remarks about her daughters’ weight and imagined futures for them involving “a sensible job with a vibrant social life, puffed up like a meringue in silk taffeta dresses, charming husband in tow”. The family learned to “tread warily” and “collude in protecting [her] inner vulnerability”.

Her mother was deeply shaped, Findlay argues, by the privations and dangers of her wartime childhood, when her father was away fighting for a decade. At the age of eight, for example, she was taken to a railway station to give water and coffee to wounded and dying soldiers.

In any event, Findlay rebelled against her mother’s ideals of bourgeois domesticity. She was drawn to “tricky men”, she writes, “and found a role for myself in their suffering or dysfunction”. She found “relief and a strange sense of homecoming” in teaching art to often violent criminals in several countries. And I very much liked the sound of an artwork called Rock Drop, where she explored her ambivalence about her dual heritage by “laying a bistro table with a pair of typical English and German breakfasts” and then dropping 10 kilo boulders on it from the high arm of a fire engine.

Angela Findlay
Angela Findlay. Photograph: From publishers

The book is centrally about transgenerational trauma, and convincingly shows us how Findlay’s self-doubt, depression and “acting out” were partly caused by her mother’s unacknowledged demons. But she also believes, much less plausibly, that she is in some sense haunted by the grandfather she never knew.

Karl von Graffen was a career soldier, wrote a book on ballistic missiles and became the head of an artillery school, where he once had to host a visit from Hitler. When war broke out, he was transferred to the supreme high command and spent a little more than two years on the eastern front, eventually as a commander. He later served in Italy before being imprisoned by the allies. Once released and back home, “with no work for returning generals”, as Findlay puts it, he was “reduced to whittling wooden yo-yos and selling them door-to-door”.

Reading one of his letters home from 1941, she finds him “a macho bully, the kind of self-justifying army officer I would have vociferously challenged had he been alive”. Yet she remains desperate to “cast him as a ‘good soldier’ who obeyed orders out of a sense of duty rather than conviction”. She therefore made the remarkable decision to follow in his footsteps by going to Russia, accompanied by her 75-year-old and severely diabetic mother. By “inhabiting the same patch of earth trodden by my grandfather”, she explains, she hoped for an improbable epiphany that would provide “the key to understanding what sort of man he had been”. She even left symbolic offerings of his beloved tobacco and some soil from her garden at various sites associated with him in Germany, though she is self-aware enough to admit that her “grandfather might have thrown such esoteric claptrap back in my face”.

If all this has brought Findlay some closure, that is obviously a good thing. But it still feels highly unsettling to watch a woman who has dedicated her book to “all those whose lives are affected by discrimination, oppression or war” searching so desperately for redeeming qualities in a decorated Wehrmacht general.

  • In My Grandfather’s Shadow: A Story of War, Trauma and the Legacy of Silence by Angela Findlay is published by Bantam Press (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Matthew Reisz

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