THE best gift from Germany to prose literature is the Novelle, the long short story with its unity of time, place, and subject matter, simple plot, few characters, and concentration on Stimmung — which is an untranslatable word combining mood, atmosphere, and an intangible sense of foreboding and melancholy, of evening mist over a lake in autumn.
Storm, Stifter, and Keller in the 19th century were all, literally, peripheral, situated as they were in Schleswig, Austria, and Switzerland respectively. Uhlman, too, grew up in the extreme south-west of the country in Stuttgart. In 1933, he was forced to flee to England, where he achieved fame not as a writer, but as a painter.
He sets his tale in provincial Württemberg in the early 1930s, when the semi-autobiographical hero is 16 years old. This is a story of teenage friendship from a time when relationships of great intensity and purity were still plausible.
Released from the need to speak of sex, or even psychology, the author, like Jane Austen, is free to concentrate on the fine nuances of the relationship itself, of class, social status, and snobbery — sense and sensibility in a small-town setting. Events at national and international level are sensed rather than experienced, but when they do impinge on the Swabian idyll, the effect is devastating.
Hans Schwarz is the son of a Jewish doctor, who is also a First World War hero. The family are classic Assimilants with practically nothing Jewish about their lives and loyalties; they describe themselves as “foremost Swabian, then German and then Jews”.
Dr Schwarz says to the Zionists, whose vision he rejects: “It seems to me that the Jews, by not completely integrating themselves, still act as catalysts, enriching and fertilizing the German culture as they have done for centuries.” Eventually the little phrase “of Jewish descent” is to acquire baleful significance, when Hitler comes to power far away.
Into Hans’s life comes the handsome, glamorous, and aristocratic Konradin von Hohenfels. (Note that this scion of one of the most illustrious families in all Germany takes his place as a matter of course in the local Gymnasium, or grammar school.) The agonies of teenage attraction and longing for acceptance are depicted with the greatest delicacy, tenderness, and restraint. The boys enjoy one summer of happiness together, as the clouds gather.
First, when the children of the neighbours die in a fire, Hans has to face, with his background of religious indifference, the timeless question of the suffering of the innocent, just as he becomes aware of his own apparent insignificance in the cosmos.
Typically, Uhlman only raises the question. He does not go deeply in to it, as does Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov; but, like Alyosha, Hans turns the theoretical question into an existential one: “What was one to do with this valueless yet somehow uniquely valuable life?”
Second, when he meets Konradin, Dr Schwarz behaves like an idiot in a short, Shakespearian scene of farce, provoking agonies of vicarious shame in his son. But when Hans at last enters Schloss Hohenfels, passing by the forbidding and sinister heraldic griffons on the gates, he catches a glimpse of what might be Hitler’s portrait in the Countess’s bedroom; and now it is time for Konradin to have to explain. In a painful confrontation, after a scene of social humiliation at the opera, he says that he has had to fight for every hour with his friend, and asks: “Am I responsible for my parents?”
Third, a new teacher with Aryan views arrives, and Hans is taunted in class. “Already the long cruel process of uprooting had begun.” He is sent away to safety in America; and his father, after seeing off a bully, kills himself and his wife. In a last, highly ambiguous letter, Konradin speaks both of the magnetic attraction of Hitler, and also of Hans’s contribution to his new-found Christian faith.
Astonishingly, these events are simply recounted, without emotion, and practically without adverbs or even adjectives. The tale is epic, not lyric, yet in miniature. Uhlman writes with a painter’s eye for the significant detail, and with the precision of someone who has learned a second language in adulthood. Every word is exactly what it must, and could only, be. Every sentence is characterised by delicacy, concision, and finesse.
This is not a great Jewish novel, like those of the North American masters: it lacks their vigour and vulgarity, their racial and religious self-consciousness. Yet it is “of Jewish descent”, and it is also that great rarity, a German Novelle in the best literary English.
The denouement is “a masterpiece within a masterpiece”, at once shocking, unexpected, tragic, cathartic, and redemptive. The Gordian knot, into which all the strands have been twisted, is cut in a single sentence, and at a single stroke. Perfection! Readers should resist the temptation to turn to the last page.
The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.
Reunion by Fred Uhlman is published by Vintage Classics/Penguin Random House at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-86046-365-5.
REUNION — SOME QUESTIONS
• What lessons, if any, does Reunion teach us about friendship?
• Fred Uhlman claimed that his upbringing in Württemberg made him a “Romantic” for life: how do you think this comes out in his writing?
• In the Vintage edition of Reunion, the authors of both the introduction and afterword describe the book as “perfect”. To what extent do you agree with this assessment?
• How influential is religious faith, or the lack of it, in the story?
• How did the length of Reunion’s chapters, and the brevity of the book as a whole, affect your enjoyment of it?
• “Isn’t it time we both grew up, gave up dreaming and faced reality?” What does this book have to say about innocence?
• Conversely, what parts do shame and guilt play in Hans’s actions, both as narrator and protagonist?
• In his introduction to the novella’s first edition, Jean d’Ormesson writes that Uhlman “shows man’s baseness, stupidity and cruelty to be inseparable from his greatness and integrity”. How far do you think this is true?
• What do you think of the book’s ending?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 November, we will print extra information about the next book. This is David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. It is published by Penguin at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-241-95959-6.
Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath is a provocative study of underdogs, conflict, and competition. We think of David’s defeat of Goliath as the ultimate giant-killing, but might it simply be the triumph of nimble new thinking over the clunking immobility of convention? The book invites us to rethink “the advantages of disadvantages (and the disadvantages of advantages)”. Gladwell has said that the process of researching David and Goliath led him to rediscover his Christianity; the book’s final chapters focus on people who “were able to do extraordinary things because they were armed with faith”.
Born in England in 1963, Malcolm Gladwell grew up in rural Ontario. As well as David and Goliath, he has also published several bestselling books of social science and cultural commentary: Blink, an investigation of the power of subconscious thought; The Tipping Point, an examination of how trends and ideas achieve popularity; and What the Dog Saw, a collection of his essays for The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1996. He lives in New York.
Books for the next two months:
December: Carry On, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
January: A Lot Like Eve by Joanna Jepson