The Ring Master


743 pages
ISBN 0-7710-3666-3
DDC C813'





Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is an associate editor of the Canadian Book Review


David Gurr’s sixth novel opens in Spandau prison, with Fleet Street approaching the aged inmate for the inside story on Adolf Hitler. What follows are the brilliantly skewed memoirs of Edwin Casson-Percevel, which recount, among other things, his playing of the Fool to Hitler’s monster Lear, his obsessed archaeological traipsings after the Holy Grail, and his forbidden love for his sister Edwina, temperamental diva and first lady of Bayreuth.

The ambitious structure incorporates movements from the Ring cycle, as well as a grab bag of literary, journalistic, and other musical influences ranging from The Canterbury Tales to Naughty Marietta. Paradoxically, instead of the kind of synthesis that Wagner had envisioned for his Ring, an eclectic format in Edwin’s hands produces an illusion of chaos that mirrors the very real disintegration of the Third Reich. Edwin inadvertently creates a strongly Brechtian parody of Wagner’s music and, by extension, of the Third Reich itself.

Also contributing to the distancing that permeates the novel is the Punch-and-Judy quality of its characters, both historical and fictional. Edwin and Edwina go at their affair with a childlike and Rabelaisian abandon. There are wonderfully gossipy and bizarre portraits of Eva Braun, Ernst Roehm, Unity Mitford, Lloyd George (he and Hitler form a mutual admiration society), the eccentric Wagner clan, and Carl and Emma Jung, who dispense tea and mythological insights during Edwin’s visits to their Zurich retreat. Gurr’s Hitler (or “Wolf,” as he is affectionately known in Wagnerian circles) is a psychotic buffoon; in one of the novel’s most remarkable sections he is psychoanalyzed while convalescing at the Pasewalk Military Hospital in 1919.

If Wolf’s schizophrenia is pathological, that of the titular hero, Edwin, is assumed; his dual guises of Fool and Scholar neatly absolve him from responsibility for the atrocities taking place around him. Like his ditzy sister, Edwin is guilty of a willed blindness and must be forced, in the long run, to see “NOT STAGE DIRECTIONS, REALITY,” in a hideous awakening. But the lessons of history are short-lived. In Spandau, Wagner’s theory of art as therapy, redemption, and catharsis is repudiated by the fact that Edwin, now an unrepentant old man, is lured into confession by visions of turning a fast buck. Unsurprisingly, his autobiography see-saws between first and third person, as he strives to keep the past distant from his conscience, just as he did when he was living it.

Richard Wagner’s role in the Third Reich has always been problematic. Gurr suggests that the anti-Semitism of the composer is inseparable from the passion and grandeur of Bayreuth, and what motivates Wolf above all else is the fanatical wish to transform Wagnerian mythos into political reality. Not only is culture no guarantee against barbarity, it is, in its most perverted form, an incentive to it.

“[A] literary tour de force,” the jacket blurb proclaims. For once, it is no exaggeration.



Gurr, David, “The Ring Master,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 19, 2024,