Nazi fable's modern resonance

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Students of literature have to contend with books that could do extra duty as doorstops: think Middlemarch, War and Peace, and Bleak House. But it can be well argued that in favouring brevity rather than bagginess shorter novels pack a greater punch. Animal Farm, which dramatises the gap between Communist ideal and reality, is one example, while Heart of Darkness, that expose of the brutality of imperialism, is another.

Address Unknown by Katherine Kressmann TaylorThen there is Address Unknown, a novel so short (50 pages, and many of those also short) it can be read during an average trip to work, but one that can be said to join the previous two works in classic status.

Written by American woman Katherine Kressmann Taylor but originally published under the name Kressman Taylor because the story was deemed 'too strong' to appear to have been written by a woman, it was first published in 1938, becoming a hit in the USA and predictably being banned in Nazi Germany; it sank almost without trace in Europe, however, mainly because of the outbreak of war. But it was reissued in 1995, and published in Europe in 2002; it then became an immediate best seller all around the world, and has remained in print ever since.

An epistolary work, the novel charts the correspondence between German business partners who run an art gallery in San Francisco. Late in 1932, Martin returns to Munich, while Max, who is Jewish, stays in America. In his first letter to Martin, Max says he believes his friend is going to a new and 'democratic Germany, a land with a deep culture and the beginning of a fine political freedom'. The irony of this remark, however, soon becomes evident. As does the matching irony in Max's expressed belief that in friendship we 'can always find something true ... something that no falseness can touch'.

The two men are so close as to be virtually brothers, such closeness being deepened by the fact that Martin was once romantically entangled with Griselle, Max's actress sister. The early letters in the correspondence reflect this intimacy. But the second letter, which is from Max and dated January 1933, asks who this new man Hitler is. 'I do not like what I read of him.'

A few months and letters later, Martin expresses the view that in many ways Hitler is good for Germany. And so the radical and upsetting change in the friendship begins. In a touching appeal, as Martin becomes ever more in thrall to Hitler, referring to him (more irony) as 'our Gentle Leader', Max says he has always known Martin to be an American liberal. No longer, declares Martin: 'I am a German patriot!'

A major part of this so-called patriotism is anti-Semitism, and Martin soon uses the well-worn trope in which the prejudiced person makes an exception of an individual. After declaring that the Jewish race is 'a sore spot', Martin tells Max that he has loved him not because of his race but in spite of it, and that when it comes to the matter of the Jews, he has come to see stern measures as 'a painful necessity'.

 

"Max learns bitterly that people are not always as we assume them to be, while the reader learns of the dire ways in which certain ideologies can affect individuals, often irrevocably."

 

In an attempt to avoid spoilers, I can say only that the crisis comes when Max appeals to Martin once again, but is grossly betrayed: the betrayal occurs mainly because of Martin's fear for his family and his extremely comfortable and socially successful way of life. Max manages a grim revenge in a way entirely fitting with the rest of the novel. Justice is achieved, but only at great cost.

Max learns bitterly that people are not always as we assume them to be, while the reader of this brief but powerful work learns of the dire ways in which certain ideologies can affect individuals, often irrevocably. He/She also learns about the damage done by people who have an unshakeable sense of conviction, little insight into themselves or events unfolding around them, and absolutely no self-doubt.

Perhaps most of all the reader observes the insidious nature of corruption, the way in which it creeps up on individuals, and the way in which those same individuals can rationalise and justify any action or attitude. Katherine Kressmann Taylor died in 1996; one imagines she would be quite rueful if she could observe just how relevant her little book still is.

 

 

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Katherine Kressmann Taylor, Nazi Germany, Hitler

 

 

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Existing comments

The most accurate description I've read about reaching-out in letter form is: "Try and look on correspondence as a conversation not a diary" (Evelyn Waugh). Which may not be about friendship as such but about caution in undefined relationship. A not so subtle difference, I think. Be that as it may, it is a tragedy when two people lose their connection because of ideology. This makes them both less human and more of a commodity.
Pam | 22 October 2019


I recall reading this book at the age of 16 (in 1953 to be precise) and being profoundly affected by it. Strange, given your publishing chronology, that there was a copy floating around Sydney then. It had a dramatic impact quite beyond what you would expect from such a slim volume. That it was written before the was and long before the extent of Nazi anti-Semitic atrocities became widely known suggests that the author had some first hand exposure. Thanks for the reminder.
OldG | 23 October 2019


Thanks for this Gillian. good literature never dies. I've just finished re-reading The Crucible (Arthur Miller) and before that Doubt (Shanley) and following your article i've just ordered a copy of Address Unknown.
Ginger Meggs | 23 October 2019


Not a book that has crossed my path but definitely one to read. It is a sad reflection that being in thrall to a charismatic but inhuman leader can change people. I always believed that people did not change and that true friendship would outlast ideology but now I am not so sure.
Maggie | 23 October 2019


Thank you Gillian for bringing this book forward for reading and for comment. Regretably, anti-Semitism is still rife, particularly in the British Labour Party at the present time, but it also surfaces from time to time in articles and letters in the press.
Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 24 October 2019


Thank you for this very thought provoking article Gillian. The powerful punch that a book may have is not determined by its size or length, but indeed by its message. It also seems to be a sad fact that sometimes we think we know someone and even love such and in the case of Martin and Max, to find we were in fact deluded. Perhaps we didn’t foresee their potential for change or being snared, or perhaps by our own potential for same. Life from its initial fullness can sometimes turn quite tragic.
John Whitehead | 24 October 2019


Thanks for the review, Gillian. A 'must read' for me. I wonder if ideology shouldn't be one of several necessary pointers to the test of friendship. (The others would be intimacy, openness and honesty, I suppose, but even these wouldn't survive the amount of time it often takes to uncover without enforcement our shady, changing and often confused motivations). Quite recently I attended a reunion of a wonderful group of persons who liturgised at St Mary's, South Brisbane, where social justice and inclusion are the hallmarks of Peter Kennedy's 40 year-old ministry. There I caught up after many years with a person whom I'd considered an old friend, who in the course of our exchange revealed that he had left Britain for Australia because he heartily agreed with Enoch Powell that the UK was "being overrun by coloured people." It seems that it takes a while, as for example in the unfolding of correspondence in the book that you cite, to reveal the mixed motivations and faulty premises for the presumed solidarity and intimacy that draws people together. A cautionary tale in all this, I'm sure!
Michael Furtado | 24 October 2019


Thanks so much for this. I must read it!
Juliet | 26 October 2019


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