Friday, August 08, 2014

Address Unknown: a rediscovered classic

Address Unknown / Kathrine Kressman Taylor
Washington Square Press, 2001, c1938.
64 p.

I picked up this book in a recent used book store shopping trip; it was a tiny volume slid onto the shelf and I'm just lucky that this title was one I'd lately put on my "to-read" list, so it caught my eye, squished in there.

It was first published in 1938 as a short story, in Story magazine. It was a huge phenomenon then, and I can see why, even as I read it now. It was sparked by Taylor's curiosity as to the effect that Nazism had on otherwise nice, normal Germans; how did it take hold?

The story is told through the exchange of letters between two business partners, Max Eisenstein and Martin Schulse, who are art dealers in San Francisco. As the story begins, in 1932, Martin has just moved his family back to Germany, where they are very well to do compared with those who've been living in a depressed economy since the end of WWI. At first, Martin mentions some hesitation about this new leader of theirs, Adolf Hitler; although he seems to have a lot of energy Martin hopes that it will lead Germans in the right direction. But his letters quickly change tenor.

His old friend Max, a Jewish American, becomes more and more alarmed at the change. Max also has a sister, Griselle, who is an actress in Europe, and who had a brief romance with the married Martin in the past. Things come to a head when Griselle takes a job in Berlin, against Max's advice, and then one of her letters is returned to him, marked "Address Unknown". In a panic he appeals to Martin to investigate, not being able to believe that Martin has been wholly changed. Things get pretty ugly from there.

Within these 64 pages, Taylor is able to illuminate the atmosphere in a newly Nazi state -- the paranoia, the conformity, the pure hatred and self-interest that prevails. The story is relentless, with Taylor not backing away from the horrific realities of Jewish-German life at this time.

It was a shocking read, a perfectly constructed story, an unblinking condemnation of Nazism, and a must read in every sense of the word. I don't know what I was expecting, but this is a powerful story, one that makes clear how much everyone knew about what was going on in Germany by the early 30's. It's one I can't stop thinking about.

12 comments:

  1. This one sounds memorable, Melwyk.

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    1. Absolutely. Chilling and perfectly done.

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  2. This sounds like an incredible read. I will be looking for a copy.

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    1. It is incredible. I think you will really appreciate this one, hope you find a copy.

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  3. Wow. What a powerful way to tell a story. I've got to get a copy of this book! I'm so glad you posted about it.

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    1. Yes, I do hope you can find a copy. You will appreciate it!

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  4. It is indeed a powerful book. I heard of it from a friend and was suitable inspired to locate the book from the library. While I awaited for that to arrive I checked YouTube to see if the book had been recorded and replaced there. It had been broadcast on one of the BBC radio channels (radio 4 possibly). It was on YouTube - https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL21DC3B963BC79338&feature=plcp and I listed and when the book arrived I read that too and two years later still recall the details.

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    1. Thank you for this info, Julie! What a way to first encounter this story. I'll have to go over and listen to it!

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  5. Isn't this so good? I felt like I had been punched in the stomach by the end, but in a good way.

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    1. I agree -- so horrible and startling and perfect.

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  6. I've just requested this one from my library's ILL system :) As much as I love audiobooks, I find I prefer my epistolary reading to be in paper form. Thanks for the review!!

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    1. I think you'll find this one very powerful. It's an excellent use of the epistolary form -- it couldn't be written any other way.

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Thanks for stopping by ~ I hope you will leave your comments and reflections to let me know what you think!