Adam Thorpe Home

The Rules of Perspective

Publication date: 05/05/2005


It is April 1945, and the historic town of Lohenfelde is about to be overrun by the Allied Third Army. Huddled in the vaults of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Museum are Heinrich Hoffer and his three colleagues. Their petty rivalries and resentments surface quickly in this claustrophobic confinement as the four prepare themselves for their fate.

Above the ground, picking through the rubble, is Corporal Neal Parry, who wishes he was back in West Virginia studying art. When he finds an exquisite painting in what remains of the museum vaults, he is immediately reconnected with a lost world of beauty and order. It is this small 18th-century oil that is the poignant link between the young American soldier and the four charred corpses he finds at the same time. As the narratives interweave, the story of the painting reveals the hidden story of Herr Hoffer and his three associates – and in doing so uncovers other, darker mysteries.

I had planned quite another novel, full of exciting action. But both Parry and Hoffer demanded to be heard: they entered quite unexpectedly, fully formed. I went with them, and am happy I did so. My late father, Barney Thorpe, was a serviceman in the war, and I drew from his experiences as well as from the eye-wtness accounts of my brother's German in-laws.



James Buchan: May 21, 2005

The Rules of Perspective opens one morning in April 1945, as a phosphorus shell, fired by the advancing US 346th regiment, sets fire to the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in the fictional town of Lohenfelde in Thuringia in central Germany. A US patrol enters the smoking gallery in search of drink and girls, and finds instead kitsch Nazi bronzes, charred canvases and five corpses, four burned or asphyxiated where they were sitting in the vaults and one dead of bullet wounds.

The reader of Adam Thorpe's fifth novel thus knows the fate of chief characters from the first page, as plainly as he or she knows the outcome of the Second World War. It is how those characters got to be down there that makes for the interest of the story. The museum itself, whether standing or burning, is very intensely imagined and depicted, and there are more than enough mysteries laid among the attics or under the pavement of the vaults.

The patrol disperses but its commander, Cpl Neal Parry, an aspiring commercial artist from Clarksburg, West Virginia, who had "got the Kensitas girl in front of a waterfall", stays on and finds an undamaged picture. It is a landscape by the rococo Dresden master Johann (or Jan) Christian Vollerdt. Though a mere copy of the original in Magdeburg, the picture's "trees and pools and rocks" take Parry's breath away.

For all the characters in Thorpe's book, even the most vulgar Nazi leering at a Venus by David Teniers the Younger, art is the justification of the present and the hope of the future. For Parry, the little Vollerdt is a sort of ticket to a world after war. He cuts the painting from its frame and stows it in a niche in the wall till the pockets of resistance in the town have been cleared out.

Interleaved with the story of Cpl Parry is the tale of the corpses. One of them, whose round spectacles Parry has noted glinting in the torchlight, was once Herr Hoffer, the acting director of the museum. A passionate romantic as a student at Heidelberg, he had thought of Hitler at first not as some "back-street barber . . . but a manifestation of will". He soon came to hate and fear the vulgarity and philistinism of National Socialism. In one of several excruciating scenes, Hoffer remembers the travelling exhibition of "degenerate art" in 1938 where he was forced to expose badly hung modernist masterpieces to the ridicule of the public. SS leaders and the town party boss have robbed the gallery of its fleshiest female nudes.

While he has shipped much of the collection to a salt mine in the south, Hoffer ("Hoper", as it were) has carefully hidden the great masterpieces in the vaults, where he is now sheltering with his secretary Frau Schenkel ("whose chief dread was being raped by a Negro"), the archivist Herr Oberst and Hilde Winkel, a pretty research student who is also a glowing Nazi. The fifth person is an SS officer, Bendel, who has an obsessive attachment to the pearl of the collection, an enigmatic Van Gogh which may or may not be a self-portrait. Dirty, starving, distrustful, scared for their lives, both terrorised and enthralled by the remnants of the collapsing Reich, they smoke their last cigarettes and wait for the Americans.

Thorpe, who made his name with a novel of English history, Ulverton (1992), has recently found his themes on the continent. No Telling (2003) was set in Paris at the time of the 1968 Events, while in this book the British appear only as squaddies in a passing lorry, shouting out to the Americans in their quaint way, and then hitting a mine. It is a brutal, if unconscious, signal of Thorpe's new direction.

For a novelist with no first-hand knowledge of National Socialist Germany, Thorpe either possesses or has acquired through reading and conversation a feel for German bureaucratic culture. The subterranean conversations (which would also make a terrific stage play) seem to me more "historical", in the sense of representing German attitudes at the close of the war, than almost anything I have read in English or German.

Nobody, German or American, has the faintest idea of how the battle is proceeding. We might be in Iraq. In the best scene in the book, Hoffer watches some "SS boys" dragging an anti-tank weapon on a manure cart to a position in front of the museum, but does not realise (as the reader does) that it will be the death of them all. Throughout, the poet in Thorpe delights in the bizarre images and juxtapositions of warfare. His literary self-consciousness, barely evident in No Telling, has vanished.

The novel's ending, in which the fates of Parry and Hoffer, American and German, are finally intertwined is both technically faultless and aimed straight at the heart. This is the end of time, the Zero Hour or Stunde Null as it is known in Germany. Across this great void or discontinuity, there passes a single survivor, a notebook and the scorched copy of a lost rococo landscape painting. From those oddments, Thorpe is saying, an entire civilisation can be made.

Sunday Telegraph

David Robson: June 05, 2005

FEW CONTEMPORARY British novelists started as brightly as Adam Thorpe, whose 1992 debut Ulverton was widely hailed as a masterpiece. Thorpe has since emigrated to France, which should be neither here nor there, but can often cost a writer his place in the London pecking order. Of the novels Thorpe has produced since Ulverton, I thought Nineteen Twenty-One was superb, although it made little impact in Britain; and I rate The Rules of Perspective just as highly. It is an intricately constructed, powerfully written piece, the work of a serious, hard-working novelist in his prime.

The setting is a fictional German town in April 1945. The town has just been liberated by American troops, one of whom, Corporal Neal Parry, comes across four charred bodies in the vaults of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum. Thereafter, the narrative splits neatly into two, part real-time, part flashback. Half the chapters tell the story of Corporal Parry, an ex-art student from Virginia, who is ill-equipped for the carnage of war and finds solace in the paintings stored in the museum. The other half tells the story of the four charred bodies.

One of them is that of Heinrich Hoffer, the acting director of the museum, a fundamentally decent man, doing his feeble best to withstand the pressures heaped on him by the Third Reich. In his youth, Hoffer had worshipped Hitler, the painter-cum-national-saviour; but he can no longer ignore the brutal philistinism of the Reich, with "degenerate" art, such as masterpieces by poor mad Van Gogh, being sidelined in favour of soulless German Modernism. To add to his misery, he strongly suspects that his wife is having an affair with a boorish SS officer who calls him "Ingrid".

As Thorpe broadens out his canvas, the mastery of the composition becomes clear. Hoffer and Parry, the corpse and the man who discovers the corpse, are soulmates divided by the horrors of war. They share, not just a love of art, but a common faith in humanity - Parry will end up trying to dig Hoffer's daughters from a ruined building. And, if the novel sounds a touch simplistic on paper, it is saved from being formulaic by the depth of characterisation.

We care about both these men: naive idealists wandering the ruins of Europe. In the nexus of art, war and flawed humanity, Thorpe has found a thrilling, evanescent beauty.

Daily Mail

Ned Denny: June 3, 2005

POET and novelist Adam Thorpe has won high praise for his previous books, and The Rules Of Perspective - a dense, meticulously researched, slowly pondered novel of the sort you don't often see these days - is unlikely to disappoint his many admirers.

It's set in April 1945 in the historic town of Lohenfelde, which is slowly being torn to pieces as the Allied Third Army bombards it with heavy artillery.

Sheltering in the vaults of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum are four members of the staff, filling the time - as the shells thunder overhead - with conversation, bickering and the occasional gramophone record.

Running simultaneously with this narrative is the story of reluctant soldier Neal Parry, who, picking dazedly through the charred ruins of the museum in the aftermath of the bombardment, comes across a small and miraculously unharmed painting.

Landscape With Ruins, as the canvas is called, this phoenix rising from the ashes of destruction, then becomes the focus of a wholly gripping meditation on the place of art and beauty in a world governed by violence.

And it links, too, Parry's life with the four blackened corpses he finds in the vaults.

Beautiful and compelling.

Independent on Sunday

Matt Thorne: May 22, 2005

Unlike many readers, I've never been a particularly big fan of war novels (or films, for that matter). Most of the time the material feels too familiar and, unless the author has had firsthand experience, it often seems as if such books are seeking a significance they do not deserve. But I've always had a soft spot for Adam Thorpe (partly because his novels stand next to mine in the bookshop, but mainly because I read Ulverton at an impressionable age), so I was prepared to put my prejudices aside.

Nevertheless, at first I thought The Rules of Perspective was going to be a slog. It is, essentially, a bunker book, with a narrow focus, concentrating mainly on the minimal conversation between the four staff of a small-town museum, the Kaiser Wilhelm, huddled together in the building's vaults. These four main characters, such as Frau Schenkel, who smells of toilets mingling with damp wool and mothballs and whose 'chief dread was being raped by a Negro', seemed like unpleasant personages with whom to spend 350 pages.

Thorpe's male protagonists are diminished, sad figures; the women completely undesirable: one is suspected of 'letting off' in the confined space of the vaults. His prose contains some strange tics too. Whenever breasts are described, which is more often than you might think, they are usually 'surprisingly' something. 'Surprisingly clean,' on page 102, 'surprisingly cool' 19 pages later. I understand that seeing a woman's breasts is a more unusual event for his characters than it is for us today, but this still seems a little silly. He is capable of moments of great beauty, but there is also plenty of bathos.

About halfway through, he started to win me over. While the conversation is fractious and unpleasant, each character has a vivid internal life that Thorpe explores in convincing detail. He avoids cliché and unnecessary heroism, as well as managing to open the narrative far beyond the small confines within which his characters are trapped. This is not a conventional wartime romance and, if senses are heightened by circumstance, this does not provoke passion in his protagonists but instead an existentialist agony that feels utterly convincing. Much of the book seems to be about how to behave with dignity when there are so few options left, and how to cope with your life when the smallness of your ambitions is revealed to you.

In constructing this novel, Thorpe has drawn on the memories of his brother's mother-in-law, as well as personal accounts by GI veterans on infantry division websites. Alongside the stories of the four colleagues, Thorpe also describes the thoughts of an art-loving American soldier, Corporal Neal Parry. Shellshocked, he is sustained by the possibility of preserving a single painting, Landscape with Ruins, in whatever ripped and blistered state, from the museum.

The Rules of Perspective has a readymade audience. If you're a fan of Atonement or Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, you will undoubtedly enjoy Thorpe's novel but, even if you're allergic to Second World War fiction, the novel should entertain anyone with a serious interest in art. While none of the characters is especially appealing, there is a psychological truth to all of them, and the novel is a genuinely worthy and interesting addition to the genre. It is about the cost of art as much as the cost of war, and the value of human life compared to the value of a painting: a question that lies at the centre of this uncomfortably challenging book.


Nicholas Lezard: June 24, 2006

Novels which are clever, or advertise their intelligence, often do so at the expense of feeling. But not automatically so; and The Rules of Perspective is one such that does not lose sight of the heart. Nor, remarkably, does it see entertainment as a secondary duty, although "entertainment" is perhaps a rather frivolous word to describe the serious grip it exerts upon the reader. We are in the (fictitious) town of Lohenfolde; the novel begins with the destruction of the museum, and the death of its remaining staff, hiding in the vaults, along with a selection of the museum's pictures, now mostly destroyed. A few hours later, Corporal Neal Parry, part of the American force driving its way through Germany, finds himself in the museum vaults, discovering the bodies and a painting clasped tightly by one of them.

The novel alternates in telling the stories of Parry and Heinrich Hoffer (which is, I think, almost German for "hoper"), the acting acting director of the museum. The absurd repetition of the word "acting" in his job title is indicative of the high turnover of staff during wartime; Parry himself is his platoon commander, and in his own view a very unsatisfactory one. But one of the quiet points Thorpe makes is that they are, even though in various ways slightly dishonest, perfectly good at fulfilling their duties; in their different fashions, they are heroic.

There is this crucial difference in the two narratives: we know that Hoffer is dead from the outset. The hint of hope in "Hoffer" is particularly poignant. But hope, along with almost all other decent human impulses, had been smothered by the Nazis since 1933; Hoffer, who has a passion for modern art, has had to stand by and watch while the ideals of his country had been perverted; until the day during which the novel takes place, the worst day of his life had been the opening of the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in his museum, when the crowds came to jeer in their hundred-odd thousands. "The Degenerate hanging was an execution," as Thorpe/Hoffer puts it, almost too patly. "The pictures were crooked and he put them back straight and he was told off . . . 'They are supposed to be crooked. That piece of painted internationalist crap is supposed to be on the floor. Take it down and put it back on the fucking floor so it can get kicked.' "

When the pictures are taken either for storage in a salt-mine, or simply stolen brazenly by Nazi officers, Hoffer starts secreting a couple of his most cherished works; including, most riskily, a Van Gogh; upon which, you realise about half-way through the novel, the plot starts revolving menacingly. But this is not just about the role of art, and the artistic impulse. It is about death; about the business of becoming a corpse; or a "dead", as Parry and the GIs put it. It is about looking at war not only as a matter of survival, but as a machine for turning people into corpses. Thorpe has always been interested in deads; from the long barrow that overlooks Ulverton in that eponymous first novel, to the ossuary opened to sightseers in Nineteen Twenty-One; or the meditation on West Kennet in his last poetry collection, Nine Lessons From the Dark. In The Rules of Perspective , his characters, trapped either in vaults or bunkers or cellars, exist in a kind of half-life, only contingently alive, like Schrodinger's cat (not that Thorpe makes that comparison); at times, Thorpe nudges us to make us think of the underworld, although he is not dogmatic about whether it is a Christian or pagan hell. He does not labour the point, although he does remind us of Hitler's "satanic" power; it is Hitler who presides over this inferno.

There is so much going on in this richly satisfying novel that summary can only go so far. You can sense that it is packed not only with impressive research but emotion; the acknowledgements, and dedication, testify to a deep awareness of the cost of war. It is also beautifully written, without a duff note; when Thorpe describes SS uniforms as having the effect of lacquered Japanese tables, you are struck by the aptness of the simile. Perhaps it is such exactness that helps make it, as a whole, so heart-rending.