Review by Anna Barber
As Rachel Seiffert says in the afterword to this extraordinary novel, it is rare to use the word perfect to describe a book. I don’t hesitate here. In this taut seventy page story the narrator reflects upon the twin forces which changed his life immeasurably when he was a teenager; the first being the rise of Nazism in his beloved homeland, and the second, a deep friendship with a young German nobleman called Konradin.
The fictional narrator shares key similarities with Fred Uhlman. Like Uhlman, Hans Shwarz attended the Karl Alexander Gymnasium in Stuttgart; and, like the author, Hans was a German Jew who witnessed the rise of Fascism. That lends the novel a terrible sense of inevitability, and yet it does not dominate it; the looming threat of Nazism is just one of the two pillars which share the burden of supporting this profound story.
It begins with a prelapsarian description of Germany. Hans describes the lush scenery, the bourgeois wealth, and the decadent food with a lushness reminiscent of Stefan Zweig:
When night fell the view was as magic as looking down from Fiesole on Florence: thousands of lights, the air hot and fragrant with the small of jasmine and lilac, and on all sides the voices, the singing and laughter of contented citizens, getting rather sleepy from too much food, or amorous from too much drink.
As the son of a revered local doctor Hans comes from a comfortable middle-class home. He and his parents are entirely German – his mother donates money to Jewish and Christian causes alike, meets her friends once a week to drink coffees mit Schlagsahne, and speaks with a distinctive Franconian accent. His father is a decorated war hero, with an Iron Cross 1st Class. Their Jewishness, Hans says, is no more significant to him than the colour of his hair. But for the fact that he is rather lonely, he has a very easy, typically emotive teenage life.
This all changes when Konradin von Hohenfels arrives at the Karl Alexander Gymnasium. Konradin is handsome, charming, noble – his family is embedded within German history, boasting a long line of military heroes. The more socially aspirational members of the school hope to entice him to join their cliques, and yet the newcomer remains aloof and friendless. Eventually, after Hans performs a feat of gymnastic daring in class in order to make Konradin notice him, the boys speak for the first time – and quickly find themselves caught up in an extreme, life-changing relationship.
These two lonely figures find in one another a deep and abiding connection: they discuss literature with the peculiar earnestness of adolescence, share a fascination with coins from Ancient Greece and Rome, and even talk about girls with shy chivalry. It reminded me very much of the opening scenes of Journey by Moonlight, in which again, a highly intelligent, middle-class boy befriends an enigmatic aristocrat, with a similar kind of fierce intensity:
“I don’t know how it was: within seconds he had become my best friend, the sort of friend you dream about, as an adolescent, with no less intensity, but more deeply and seriously than you do about your first love.”*
(As an Hungarian Jew, Antal Szerb was similarly persecuted by the Nazis, eventually dying in a forced labour camp). And yet Konradin is the epitome of the Fatherland, whilst Hans is the son of a Jewish doctor. Tragedy seems inevitable.
What I wasn’t quite prepared for was how deeply painful the novel would be. The crisis comes upon the reader so quickly, and the final pages are so perfectly formed, that with just a few strokes Uhlman manages to evoke the kind of intensity you might usually associate with a saga. It is perfectly intimate whilst also managing to represent the fate of a nation through the lives of these two friends and their families. I can’t say too much without spoiling the plot, but in the devastating conclusion Uhlman reveals simultaneously the utter baseness and true nobility of the human spirit; and in doing so, leaves the reader hovering somewhere between grief and hope.
Reunion is one of the finest novels I have read. I would advise against reading it on a train – as I did – but please, read it. There are a number of writers whose work has become synonymous with this horrifying period of European history – Fred Uhlman should certainly be one of them.
Anna Barber blogs at https://myartisliving.wordpress.com
Fred Uhlman, Reunion (Vintage: London, 2015). 9781860463655, 74pp., paperback.
* Quotation taken from Journey by Moonlight, original text © Estate of Antal Szerb, English Translation © L B Rix 2000 (Pushkin Press, London, 2013) 978 1 901285 50 5