An annual pre-Christmas treat for me is discovering which books have impressed the great and the good of the literary world over the previous twelve months. The lists in the heavyweight papers invariably give me two or three ideas for spending the book tokens I know are coming my way. One year Ian McEwan praised John Williams’s Stoner, which I found so strong that I didn’t hesitate a few years later to follow up another of McEwan’s recommendations, the more so as he wasn’t alone in picking it. At least two other contributors had been struck by Reunion, a novella of under a hundred pages written by Fred Uhlman, a German-Jewish painter and writer. When it was first published in 1971 Reunion went unnoticed; and though it was a little more successful when reissued a few years later, it wasn’t until a further reissue in 2015 that it was recognized as the masterpiece it is.
My tokens came, and as soon as the shops opened again I bought a copy. It looked an ideal read for the awkward days between Christmas and the New Year, but by the tenth page I was wondering whether to go on. It seemed far too close to that celebrated and painful account of growing up and losing paradise, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. I didn’t want either to read the same story again or to stir poignant memories of my parents, still missed after so long. On our way to my mother’s native Auvergne they’d taken me through the area where Alain-Fournier set his novel, the enigmatic Sologne.
But curiosity got the better of me. I fetched myself a glass of mulled wine, settled back, opened Reunion at the next chapter, and read on. I needn’t have hesitated. The elegant prose was a delight. It was hard to believe that someone whose first language wasn’t English could write it so well. Uhlman must have written in German, surely, and been translated. Apparently not. Over the years his English had become as stylish as that of two other non-native masters of the language who came to mind, Conrad and Nabokov. Hooked, I read straight through to the end, with its startling twist. (Warning: resist the urge to take a premature peek.)
It’s February 1932. We’re in Stuttgart, in a classroom of the school modelled on the one Uhlman himself attended. Among the class is the narrator, Hans Schwarz. He’s just turned 16; he’s clever, sensitive, a little bit bored, and he’s Jewish. One day a boy from a completely different world arrives. Asked to give his name, he stands up and announces ‘Graf von Hohenfels, Konradin’. His poise, his natural authority, in fact everything about him dazzles Hans. Partly, although it’s never described in those terms, it looks like an adolescent crush; partly, it’s the same snobbery that will later make Hans squirm when his father bows and fawns on meeting Konradin; but mostly, it’s that Hans has sensed he’s a kindred spirit, and he determines to make Konradin his friend.
Difficult, you’d think, given that Hans is a needy middle-class Jew and Konradin a proud Aryan from a thousand-year-old noble family so illustrious that even the President of the Republic bows to them. Nevertheless, Hans tries his best. In one memorable scene he shows off his gymnastic skills, like a medieval jouster out to win a princess. Eventually Konradin thaws. It turns out the two boys have much in common. They discuss poetry, philosophy; they compare book and coin collections, go to the opera, take trips together. It’s a friendship so intense I wondered how it could last. Sooner or later, something would wreck it, surely. Girls?
In my teens I too formed an unlikely bond with a lad from school. He was thoroughly English and Home Counties, I a half-French country boy. He lived in a villa with a tennis-court, I in a terrace with a backyard. Our friendship was sealed the afternoon I found him cradling an injured baby rook. Slowly we nursed it back to health until one day it upped and left us. For a few more months our friend- ship grew, to the virtual exclusion of all others . . . until a girl called Gillian happened, and that was that.
Likewise, the friendship of Hans and Konradin falls apart, but not because of a girl. In the year since Konradin erupted into Hans’s life, another story has been gathering pace: the rise of Hitler. With powerful understatement Uhlman weaves together the two stories, one intimate, the other nationwide. Big events are related from the con- fines of the two boys’ lives. As the Nazis tighten their grip, Hans is increasingly persecuted at school; Konradin’s virulently anti-Semitic mother won’t have him in her house; and then Konradin reveals his own high hopes for Hitler and informs Hans that their friendship cannot continue. Actually, it’s over anyway. Hans’s parents, who’ve seen the future, have already decided to pack him off abroad to safety.
In many respects Uhlman’s fate resembles that of Hans. In 1933 Uhlman fled to France, where he became a painter, although he’d originally trained for the law. Three years later he was in London, having married an English girl he’d met while living briefly in Spain. They had two children, and Uhlman continued to live happily in Britain with his family until his death almost fifty years later. As for Hans, he’s dispatched to America, also in 1933. There he finishes his education, marries, becomes a father and makes a career as a lawyer. He’s a citizen of the New World, living the American Dream. Old Europe is dead and buried.
Then one day, news arrives from his old school in Stuttgart and delivers the punch which ends Reunion – and which still knocks me sideways whenever I think about it.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 69 © Martin Sorrell 2021