“This slim gem of a novella” – Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman Taylor

Max Eisenstein and Martin Schulse are 40-year-old friends who in early 1932 begin a two-year letter exchange that dramatises the changes in the political landscape of Germany and, more importantly, how their friendship is deeply affected at a personal level. Martin is a German national who’s been living in America for many years, and together the two men have been managing a thriving art gallery in San Francisco. 

In Address Unknown’s first letter, Max congratulates his friend on his recent return with his family to Germany. Throughout 1932, the men describe the economic depressions and privations in their respective countries. When Max first broaches Germany’s political commotion, Martin cautiously tempers his praise of Hitler and his enthusiastic followers: “They are in hysteria of deliverance, almost they worship him. . . . To you alone, Max, I say I do not know. I do not know. Yet I hope . . .” Although in a subsequent letter Martin admits that he doesn’t quite like everything about Hitler, he recognises many positive elements:

“I tell you truly, Max, I think in many ways Hitler is good for Germany, but I am not sure . . . The man is like an electric shock, strong as only a great orator and a zealot can be. But I ask myself, is he quite sane?”

Their letters continue and Martin’s acceptance deepens. He assures his friend that he still has doubts, but he must swallow them because of a prestigious new job at a leading bank. His son Heinrich has joined a local youth group. He dismisses the violence of the young stormtroopers as a phase:

“[These] things pass; if the end in view is right they pass and are forgotten. History writes a clean new page.”

In other words, a renewed sense of nationalism and pride is worth a few cracked skulls on the street or casualties while people are being rounded up; the nationalistic ends justify the current political means. 

This was not the last time that I juxtaposed the Trumpian era (as well as other worldwide, right-wing movements) with the events being described by Ms. Taylor. 

A couple of letters later Martin has become more belligerent in his support for Hitler and the changes that he is marshalling into the country. Martin scoffs at the dangers that he has already noticed:

“[These] may be minor things, the little surface scum when a big movement boils up . . . my friend, there is a surge . . . You feel it in the streets and shops. The old despair has been thrown aside like a forgotten coat. No longer the people wrap themselves in shame; they hope again.” 

Soon Martin drops any pretense about his feelings toward Jews and his own nationalism. “If I could make you see-the rebirth of this new Germany under our Gentle Leader!” He plays the ultimate card of the bigot. He claims that his friend, Max, is one of the good “ones”: “I speak in all honesty when I say I have loved you, not because of your race but in spite of it.” Martin elevates Hitler to the realm of a spiritual soldier.

“What can you know of this, you who only sit and dream? You have never known a Hitler. He is a drawn sword. He is a white light.” 

Although the novel’s ending is a bit telegraphed, creating a surprising, original conclusion is difficult because readers obviously recognise the Nazi Germany timeline. History has already provided the big picture for the end of the story; Taylor personalises the specific details in her novella with a deliciously ironic twist that revenges a tragedy involving Max’s younger sister Griselle who had an affair with Martin.

Any Cop?: “I originally read this novella as a transparent yet enjoyable political fable that equated the rise of America’s Trumpian era with the similarities to Hitler’s rise in the 1930s. I was preparing to construct such an analysis until I read the novella’s afterword written by Taylor’s son. Since I myself was completely oblivious to this novella’s history before I dove into it, I won’t spoil it for the uninitiated. Let’s just say that the publishing history of this slim gem of a novella is nearly as important and interesting as its contents.

 

Chris Oleson

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