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Nazi fable's modern resonance

  • 22 October 2019


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.

Then 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.