Last month I was set the challenge of finding a birthday present for someone with exacting taste: ‘a good book I haven’t heard of’. Fortunately, my colleague Stefan came in to work with a tip picked up on his nursery drop-off from Sheffield artist Christopher Jarrett.
As slight as the schoolboys whose friendship it depicts, Fred Uhlman’s The Reunion is a masterwork of restraint and clarity. Hans, the only son of a Jewish doctor and his wife, befriends the elegant, self-assured Kondradin, whose aristocratic family name von Hohenfels echoes through the histories taught in the Karl Alexander Gymnasium. Lonely, intellectually independent and hungry for fellowship, the two form a deep, sincere connection.
Uhlman was a painter as well as a writer, and his depiction of 1930s Swabia is an idyll of blossom, blue lakes and dark forests which Hans tells us they explored together: ‘On Saturdays Konradin and I used to take the slow train to go and spend the night in one of the many old heavily-timbered inns, where one could get a cheap, clean room, excellent food and local wine.’ But though Uhlman’s depiction of the region’s history and distinction makes clear that Germany has not long been unified, this is the twilight of an era about to be covered in darkness. This book never looks directly at the Holocaust and yet it’s all here, just out of sight. From the house fire which presages Hans’ loss of faith to his parents’ tranquil certainty of their Germanness, these moments gesture toward the scale of the devastation about to hit Europe. Uhlman knew this world, and he depicts its fine blend of German-Jewish life so tenderly that the grief of its loss can almost be felt. This is central. But he also makes clear that the Holocaust was an irrevocable wound to the whole of Germany – history, language and culture. It’s a remarkable work made all the more potent by its brevity, and well worth any reader’s time.