Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 08 Sep 2017

Reunion by Fred Uhlman

The world of perfect novellas is a small one. One thinks of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, perhaps Henry James’s Daisy Miller, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. But they are a rare breed because the economics of publishing doesn’t favour them: they’re hard to package and even harder to sell. More mundanely, piled on bookshop shelves alongside the latest bloated blockbuster, they look poor value.

Well, to that small select band of novellas that on the one hand seem impossible to improve on, and on the other demand to be read, one must place the very slender masterpiece that is Fred Uhlman’s Reunion.

Fred Uhlman was born in Stuttgart in 1901 and died in London in 1985. Born to a family of middle class Jews he fled Germany in 1933, soon after Hitler became Chancellor. His journey to safety took him through Paris, Spain, London and ultimately to Wales, where he worked for many years as a writer and painter. 

I want to tell you as little as possible about Reunion because I don’t want to spoil the story. In a work of such lyrical, exquisitely written brevity, every word counts, and the full impact of the story revolves around a handful of perfectly judged events. First published in 1971, it is the story of how Hans Shwarz, a middle class Jew at Württemberg’s most historic and most famous gymnasium, meets the aristocratic Graf Konradin von Hohenfels. It opens in February 1932, with Nazism on the rise – but at this point barely intruding into the quiet hilly cobbled streets of medieval Württemberg. “I can remember the day and the hour,” says the young Shwarz, “when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.” But I will tell you that one word – the last word on the very last page – will cast everything you read in the preceding ninety-odd pages in an almost unbearably poignant light.

What makes Reunion so special is that Uhlman manages to capture not just a period – the rise of Nazism and the sense of utter hopelessness and loss many Germans would feel as they watched centuries of high German culture swept aside or, worse, shackled to the purposes of the thousand-year Reich – but also the feeling of intense adolescent friendship and the fierce intellectual kinship that sometimes accompanies such friendships as the world is explored for ideas and art and literature.

Reunion went virtually unremarked on its first publication. It was reissued in 1977 (with an introduction by Arthur Koestler), with little further notice, and again in the 1990s (in Fontana paperbacks). Despite being periodically rediscovered it is still not widely known. My paperback (pictured) is published by Vintage in the Vintage Classics series and I think it is the latest edition. Sadly, it doesn’t do the book justice. The paper is poor and the text badly proof read (it misses seven apostrophes in its ninety pages) and I shall certainly look for something better to replace it with. (If you’re going to rediscover lost and neglected classics, at least accord them some dignity when you do so!)

But that is by the by. Reunion takes barely a couple of hours to read and yet you will never forget it. It isn’t gruelling, demanding “Holocaust literature” and yet somehow, mysteriously, it does bear an immense and bitter weight of history on the slenderest and most graceful framework imaginable. Discover it for yourself. It is a beautiful book.

Alun Severn

September 2017