The slight disaster of The Children’s Book left me wanting to read something entirely opposite. I happened across Reunion by Fred Uhlman when doing some Christmas shopping in Persephone Books. It was on their table of books they wish they’d published – always a terrific selection – and caught my eye.
So when I found myself home alone one evening – well I say ‘alone’, but I was of course with little Vita, who was being unusually peaceful and falling asleep on me – I decided to pick it up. In stark contrast to The Children’s Book, Reunion is wonderfully slim at barely 80 pages of large type. Scarcely an hour had passed before I’d finished it. And it was completely brilliant. It was just what I needed as a corrective to the long drawn out anti-climax of AS Byatt.
The genius of Reunion is that it poses as rather an obvious and tragic book, about a Jewish boy in 1930s Germany … but actually it’s about the much more universal theme of friendship. It just so happens that this friendship takes place in Nazi Germany. Unlike The Children’s Book, here history is in the background with the lives and emotions of the characters at the fore; here the tragedy is not the Holocaust, but the severing of a bond between two adolescents.
Hans is enamoured with aristocratic Konradin Graf von Hohenfels from the moment he sees him:
I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.
He has a schoolboy crush, with its all-encompassing power. He suffers the agony of feeling inadequate and unnoticeable against this handsome, grand young man:
What could I, son of a Jewish doctor, grandson and great-grandson of a Rabbi, and of a line of small merchants and cattle dealers, offer this golden-haired boy whose very name filled me with such awe?
Hans is determined to befriend him, and shows off one gym lesson, succeeding in attracting his attention. Next he courts his curiosity:
A few days later, I came to school with a few Greek coins – I had been collecting coins since I was twelve. I brought a Corinthian silver drachma, an owl of Pallas Athene, a head of Alexander the Great, and as soon as he approached his place, I pretended to be studying them through a magnifying glass.
Gosh it’s so painful to read! How well Uhlman captures that awkward teenage time when you’re trying so hard to impress someone while pretending to be casual and uninterested. Then, three days later, when going home from school:
I saw Hohenfels in front of me and he seemed to hesitate and to be waiting for somebody. I slowed down – I was afraid of overtaking him – but I had to go on, for it would have looked ridiculous not to and he might have misunderstood my hesitation. When I had almost reached him he turned and smiled at me. Then, with a strangely gauche and still hesitant movement, he shook my trembling hand. ‘Hello, Hans,’ he said, and suddenly I realised to my joy and relief and amazement that he was as shy and as much in need of a friend as I.
I can’t remember much of what Konradin said to me that day or what I said to him. All I know is that we walked up and down for an hour, like two young lovers, still nervous, still afraid of each other; but somehow I knew that this was only a beginning and that from now on my life would no longer be empty and dull but full of hope and richness for us both.
It is so brilliantly rendered! That feeling of astonished relief when you realise that your idol is actually not so different from yourself, that they even seem to want to befriend you. Then that curiously blissful, exciting awkwardness of getting to know each other, the tentative first steps towards closeness.
The two boys strike up an intense, naïve friendship, where they are ‘inseparable’ and passionately debate matters like the existence of God, Post-Impressionist art and the theatre. They survive being horribly embarrassed by their parents … and then perhaps I shouldn’t say what happens next as this is where the plot thickens and twists and turns and it gets very good and moving indeed.
It’s an unexpected book. I opened it thinking I’d get one thing and found quite another. And even the brilliantly understated context, which could all be so obvious, was unexpected. For instance, it would have been easy to pile on the clichés and make Hans’ family extremely Jewish, but instead they are entirely assimilated, every bit as German as they are Jewish. His father is proud of his uniform from the First World War. His mother:
used to give money to the Jews for the assistance of Jewish children in Poland, and to the Christians for the conversion of Jews to Christianity.
Reunion reminded me how something so slim can be so powerful. That hour’s reading made a far greater impression on me than the previous two months’ slog. I felt that Uhlman could easily have written much much more, filled pages with moments of their friendship, details of their home life and school days, but he chose to be concise. He says just enough for the reader to glimpse the most important elements of a scene and thereby get it, rather than filling in every last distracting detail. I suppose he’s not unlike the great Penelope Fitzgerald in this respect. So I shall be concise too and just say, next time you find yourself with an hour to spare, you should pick it up.