Kressmann Taylor: Address Unknown

There is a sense of history from the opening pages of Kressmann Taylor’s Address Unknown (1938), mixing the echoes of the Great War, still vivid in its characters’ memories (“Fourteen years since the war! Did you mark the date? What a long way we have traveled, as peoples, from that bitterness!”), with their deeper personal connection. Told in letters between Jewish American, Eisenstein, and his business partner, the German Schulse, this (very) short novel spans fifteen months in the early 1930s during the Nazi machine’s rise to power.

In the first few exchanges the friends are genial, talking shop, Germany (“the breadth of intellectual freedom, the discussions, the music, the light-hearted comradeship”), and mentioning Griselle, Eistenstein’s headstrong sister and former fling of Schulse, who is traveling Europe as an actress. Liberal politics abound, then darkness descends as Eisenstein asksĀ  (“Who is this Adolf Hitler who seems rising toward power in Germany?”)

What is initially frightening about Address Unknown is how Schulse, privileged in Germany following his economic success in America (“we employ now ten servants for the same wages of our two in the San Francisco home”) makes the rapid volte-face from declaring Hindenburg “a fine liberal whom I much admire” to a scathing attack on liberalism:

A liberal is a man who does not believe in doing anything. He is a talker about the rights of man, but just a talker. He likes to make a big noise about freedom of speech, and what is freedom of speech? Just the chance to sit firmly on the backside and say that whatever is being done by the active men is wrong. What is so futile as the liberal? I know him well because I have been one. He condemns the passive government because it makes no change. But let a powerful man arise, let an active man start to make a change, then where is your liberal? He is against it. To the liberal any change is the wrong one.

The powerful man that arises needs no introduction, and it’s not so much Hitler who features in the novel but the poison that his Fascist tenets instills in a man’s mind. From an early observational capacity Schulse describes him (“the man is like an electric shock, strong as only a great orator and a zealot can be”) but it’s soon obvious that any impartiality is slain by the sword of oratory:

As for the sterm measures that so distress you, I myself did not like them at first, but I have come to see their painful necessity. The Jewish race is a sore spot to any nation that harbors it. I have never hated the individual Jew — yourself I have always cherished as a friend, but you will know that I speak in all honesty when I say I have loved you, not because of your race but in spite of it.

Although the change in relations between the two men seems rapid, with the letters following each other as the pagination insists, its the long gaps between these in the story’s time, often months, that add to the book’s power. We are left to wonder what has been happening in these unwritten periods. How has Schulse allowed himself to secede and convince himself of the efficacy of Hitler’s regime? Have Eisenstein’s nights been sleepless as he anticipates the next reply? And what of their common bond, Griselle, travelling between Vienna and Berlin, especially when her brother notes about the letter he has sent her?

…it has been returned to me, the envelope unopened, marked only address unknown, (Adressant Unbekannt). What a darkness those words carry! How can she be unknown? It is surely a message she has come to harm.

Into its minimal pages Address Unknown packs an incredible wealth of content, describing through one man Germany’s “hysteria of deliverance” under the auspices of a doer —

The whole tide of a people’s life changes in a minute because the man of action has come. And I join him. [...] I am a man because I act. Before that I am just a voice. I do not question the ends of our action. It is not necessary. I know it is good because it is so vital. Men are not drawn into bad things with so much joy and eagerness.

— and showing how words are just as much a weapon as armaments, perhaps even more so with their power to control people that will readily renounce who they truly are to follow a crazed destiny they would otherwise never consider. When Schulse talks of German destiny —

If I could show you, if I could make you see — the rebirth of this new Germany under our Gentle Leader! Not for always can the world grind a great people down in subjugation. In defeat for fourteen years we bowed our heads. We ate the bitter bread of shame and drank the thin gruel of poverty. But now we are free men. We rise in our might and hold our heads up before the nations. We purge our bloodstream of its baser elements. We go singing through our valleys with strong muscles tingling for a new work — and from the mountains ring the voices of Wodan and Thor, the old, strong gods of the German race.

— the words of the Nazi doctrine are evident, for this is a man who has lived comfortably in the United States, and never suffered the hardship of post-war Germany.

If the compact nature of Address Unknown is powerful itself for Schulse’s journey, Taylor strengthens it further by working the idea of words’ power to a wonderful twist that plays on the paranoid, censorious nature of the regime it successfully lambasts. Taylor could not have known what horrors were yet to come from Nazi aggression, but in this tale she rallies against its rise, and the results, when they arrive, are both satisfying, abrupt, and apt.

December 15, 2009

13 responses to Kressmann Taylor: Address Unknown

  1. Zaba said:

    I found this statement to have truth: ” Just the chance to sit firmly on the backside and say that whatever is being done by the active men is wrong”.

  2. What a marvellous discovery. I’ll be buying this one, the quotes and your analysis totally sold me.

    Lovely point on Schulse not having lived through the trials he describes, how the rhetoric has almost overwritten his own past.

    How did you come across this?

  3. Stewart said:

    Thanks, Max. A couple of copies of the book had been sitting in Borders for a couple of years and I’d always picked it up and put it down again. Then, with all the discounting going on, I decided to finally buy it and, as you have read, I wasn’t disappointed.

  4. Tom Cunliffe said:

    A very interesting review of a book which is definitely up my street – if a little short. However, I can pick it up on amazon for 34p plus postage. Hmmm.

  5. I’ve placed my order today Stewart, I’ll let you know how I get on.

  6. Pingback: Addressant Unbekannt « Pechorin’s Journal

  7. Eva Stalker said:

    I agree with Max Cairnduff: an excellent discovery. I’ve finally placed my order today. x

  8. Shelley said:

    I was interested in this book being set in the thirties, since that’s the era of greatest interest to me. So much was going on in Europe and in the United States–political turmoil that affected the everyday lives of citizens. And so sad to see the runup to the Holocaust.

  9. Tom Cunliffe said:

    Just my sort of book – thanks for the review. If you’ve not read Kahn and Engelmann by Hans Eichner I could recommmend it to you highly

  10. Shelley said:

    I am always happy to see a book set in the 1930s, the period I write about, because I think that decade is overlaid with such a rich sadness as we look back on it with our knowledge of the horrors to follow, as well as the economic pain of that time.

  11. Pingback: Susan Hated Literature | Address Unknown

  12. Zainab said:

    What a brilliant analysis! I am currently studying this novella for my A-levels and this analysis has really broadened my horizons.

  13. Stewart said:

    Happy to hear it, Zainab.

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