Chances are you haven’t come across The Tristan Chord, the recently released first novel by an American psychiatrist called Glenn Skwerer.
It’s published by Unbound, an innovative imprint that funds each book through advance donations from people who would like to read it.
Those who put their cash towards the creation of The Tristan Chord made a good call – it is dazzling.
It jumps around a bit but is set largely in the high-culture whirlwind that was early-1900s Vienna.
Mahler conducts nightly and thrillingly at the national opera house, and painters, composers, writers and philosophers are busy upending the way of things and creating the modernist style that would define much of the 20th century.
Into this broiling environment arrive two teenage wannabes from the stuffy Austrian city of Linz, a talented violist called Eugen Reczek and his artist friend, Adolf Hitler.
“Rage and fear are indulgences that can, as history shows, lead us into dark places.”
The pair share a tiny, bug-ridden room in one of Vienna’s poorest quarters as they seek to establish a foothold in the glittering world around them.
Eugen succeeds, winning a place at the prestigious musical conservatory and gaining access to the salons and benefactors that offer the possibility of upward mobility.
Adolf does not – he is twice rejected by the Academy of Art. Impoverished, existing on sour milk and stale biscuits, simmering with frustration, he disappears into the margins of society, where his eccentricities transform into something more toxic.
“I have myself. I will always have myself,” he tells Eugen.
The Tristan Chord is a tremendous read but also a hard one. It demands you see the oddball but as-yet harmless Hitler as a human being – a bright, damaged boy, brutalised by his violent father and devastated by the prolonged, painful death of his beloved mother from cancer.
Skwerer skilfully draws out our sympathy for someone we usually find it simpler and more comforting to dismiss as a devil.
Young Adolf’s passionate love for a girl called Stefanie, to whom he cannot bring himself to utter a word; his sketchings of imagined set-designs for his favourite operas and the great buildings he dreams of creating; his devotion and generosity to Eugen; his tortured habit of sleeping “on his back, head back, mouth open, arms rigid at his side, fists clenched”.
These are all documented and true – the novel and the character Eugen Reczek are based on a memoir by August Kubizek, who was Hitler’s real and only “Jugendfreund” (Childhood Friend).
As ever, though, fiction proves is better for grappling with moral nuance and emotional complexity.
It’s a big ask, isn’t it, to accept Hitler as one of us? To let our natural emotional stabilisers kick in?
Much easier to go down the “born a monster” route. Gentler on the species-ego to define the man and his regime’s unspeakable atrocities as something other than human.
Given the scale and nature of Nazi crimes, that may be understandable.
But the book’s challenge is not irrelevant to today’s political culture.
World order is again changing, old certainties are dropping like flies, the destination is uncertain, and rage and fear seem to be the most common drivers of debate.
The other side is often seen not just as misguided or wrong, but as evil. Those with whom we disagree are stripped of humanity, their arguments caricatured.
As we push each other into corners, the solutions advanced by all sides become more extreme, less thoughtful, and more punitive.
Social media is the bloodstream of this rage-and-fear era, disseminating and connecting.
>> Keep up to date with the latest news with The P&J newsletter
It amplifies propaganda and outright smears, breaks down the wall between truth and lies, provides a platform and an audience for those who seek to exploit.
It only takes a moment to log on to Twitter and find a Trump voter (or even Trump himself) questioning the basic claim to humanity of an opponent, and vice-versa.
On this side of the Atlantic, Corbynites denounce Tories as murderers and Tories attack Corbynites as traitors.
Brexiteers howl with fury at Remainers, who respond in kind.
In Scotland, four years after the referendum, the Yes and No camps still too often treat one another as bitter enemies rather than fellow citizens who honourably disagree on the best future for the nation.
Rage and fear are indulgences that can, as history shows, lead us into dark places.
Those who call for moderation, or engagement with complexity, or for the need to find compromise, struggle to get a hearing.
Their message isn’t eye-catching enough, their prescription too undramatic. And then it’s too late.
The actual Tristan chord comes from Wagner’s opera Tristan Und Isolde.
Today, it is instantly recognisable as the foreboding sound that marks a thousand TV murder-mysteries’ moment of high suspense.
Once, though, its dissonances meant it was regarded as revolutionary – it was a “descent into chaos”, said one music critic. A ringing soundtrack for our times.