A.N. Wilson's novel, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is the story of Winifred Wagner, the Welsh-born wife of Richard Wagner's son Siegfried, who was the chatelaine of the Bayreuth Festival between the rise of Fascism and the fall of the Third Reich.
As readers of Brigitte Hamann's chilling biography of Winifred - published in Britain two years ago - will know, she was an extraordinary and quixotic character.
Though apparently opposed to the explicit grosseries of Nazism, she received Hitler at Bayreuth, introduced him to her children as an uncle, idolised him unreservedly and protested his excellence until her death in 1980. As Hamann wrote in her biography, it was "the kind of life story you find only in novels". And now it is one.
The narrator of Wilson's account is Herr N----, from the industrial town of -----, a man with a conveniently partial recall of facts who began work as a secretary to Siegfried Wagner and continued, after Siegfried's death, as a factotum and confidant to the family.
The novel's conceit is that we are reading N----'s private testimony, written in post-war East Germany and addressed to the adopted daughter he knows to be Hitler and Winifred's child.
There's an arid preface from yet another framing narrator, "Hermann Muller", a Lutheran pastor in Seattle; he describes finding the papers among the effects of a deceased parishioner, but he's really a useful cipher, with duties limited to glossing tough German in footnotes, elucidating points of history and being sarcastic about the narrator's veracity.
Since Muller warns us more than once that "it is difficult to see how some of this story can be true" and that it is "just possibly, a work, not of fraud, but of fantasy", it's useful to know that there's no current evidence that Winnie and Wolf (her nickname for Hitler) ever had a sexual relationship.
The Wagner estate continues to withhold their private letters from biographers. As far as we know, then, the central device of this novel is a fiction, and with this in mind, it's hard to know how to take what the blurb describes as its "astonishing, unique portrait of Hitler".
The Führer's relationships with women have been frequently and fruitlessly scrutinised, and his childlessness used variously to indicate his impotence or his inhumanity. Beyond a meretricious first paragraph ("I received the typescript of this book from a woman I truly believe to be the daughter of Adolf Hitler"), it's hard to see what Wilson hopes to add to our impression of Hitler with such a gambit, especially as Hamann's biography of Winifred conveyed a far more shocking impression of Hitler by picturing him in scenes of cosy domesticity.
Many of those scenes are replicated here, leading to the suspicion that the love-child plot has been confected simply to further the illusion of novelty; either way, it's notable that none of the rumours and suppositions explored by Wilson's narrator matches the documented facts for shock value.
The psychic trouble involved in seeing Hitler as a charming opera nut, helplessly stage-struck by the Wagners and brimming with ideas for set designs, far outweighs that of imagining him having sex with Winnie and farting in bed.
Either of these visions, though, would outstrip many of the plot points that purport to make this book fiction rather than history: our narrator's infatuation with Winnie, his marriage to a Communist and the persecution of his family by the Nazis.
N----, as his name suggests and his vacillating politics prove, articulates one version of a typical German of the period; the clergymen in his family, who quietly resist Fascism and are deported, depict another.
But the characterisation is sketchy at best, and the impression develops that Wilson - whose recent biographies and histories have been better than his novels - is less interested in finding a medium for the delineation of character than one that will serve as a cursory frame for his deliberations on Wagnerian opera, mid-century Nazism, 19th-century German philosophy and so on.
It's telling that Winnie and Wolf is dedicated to Beryl Bainbridge, who is the mistress among novelists at combining fact and fiction.
But where Bainbridge's stories fit with seamless cunning into history, Wilson's tale proves less agile; it takes its liberties more obviously, shows off its research with greater ostentation, and often seems to struggle to justify its existence.
Still - very much in the manner of Wilson's take on Betjeman, another book in heavy debt to a recent longer work - if you don't want to read Hamann's biography, this makes a decent second best.
This review first appeared in The Telegraph.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007