Classic Novellas Week: Reunion by Fred Uhlman #NovNov22 #germanlitmonth

Sometimes a novella is the perfect literary vehicle to distil a concept in terms of length but concentrate the message. This is the case in Fred Uhlman’s masterful Reunion, which can be read in one quick sitting, but explores more than most full-length novels.

Set in Stuttgart in 1932, it tells the relatively simple story of a short but intense friendship between two fifteen-year old boys during the rise of the Nazi part in the early 1930s and how the political upheavals of that time eventually make their friendship impossible.

Hans Schwartz is the first person narrator. He is the son of a middle-class Jewish Doctor who is proud to be German. An awkward and shy boy, he befriends Konradin von Hohenfels, an aristocrat and son of an ambassador. Despite the differences in their backgrounds and the snobbery that is rife at their school, the two bond over an interest in history and literature and the friendship quickly becomes close.

I realized to my joy and relief and amazement that he was as shy and as much in need of a friend as I…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

This period of hope and richness is brief, as Hans soon learns that Konradin’s mother hates Jews and anti-Semitic teachings creep into their classroom. The Germany that both boys love is changing and it becomes impossible to live in it without taking sides and reframing loyalties. Just as the boys’ friendship deteriorates, so too does the situation in their country and Hans’ parents eventually send him to the United States, to avoid the fate that is soon to befall them.

Uhlman has taken the story of one of the most terrible crimes of the 20th Century and told it in miniature, through the lens of simple friendship between children. Reunion could have easily succumbed to sentimentality or worked as little more than a cautionary fable, but he manages to avoid these pitfalls by centring his narrative on the deep connection underpinning the Hans and Konradin’s friendship and rendering it wholly believable through its very simplicity of chats about history, girls and God. He also hints at how different life could have been for so many people, had history not played out in the manner that it did.

But life in general went on as usual…There seemed to be nothing to worry about… We thought the most urgent was to learn how to make the best use of life… discovering what purpose, if any, life had and what the human condition would be in this frightening and immeasurable cosmos. These were questions of real and eternal significance, far more important than the existence of such ephemeral and ridiculous figures as Hitler and Mussolini.

This rise of Hitler is key to the narrative, but remains in the background and is never allowed to dominate the story of the two boys and the strong bond between them. The differences in their social standing are handled with a sensitivity and understanding and the friendship is depicted with great delicacy. Coming in at just 74 pages, there is not one word here that does not have its place and the restraint shown by Uhlman distils the devastation of the Holocaust down to its essential components. He gives the reader just what they need to fully comprehend the human cost of this political movement.

What makes the book so impressive and ultimately so moving is Uhlman’s skill in embedding so much complex social history and political upheaval into such a short and seemingly simple narrative.

The reunion at the end of the novella is not what you might expect and the final paragraph – in fact, the last line – is a masterclass in plotting and reveal, adding another layer of depth and understanding to what has already been an impeccable read.

I had originally planned to review Reunion for Novellas in Translation week, but Lizzy Siddal pointed out to me that it was originally written in English, so I have included it in Classics Week instead.

There are some great reviews of Reunion around the blogosphere, including Kim’s at Reading Matters, Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life and Kaggsy at Kaggsy’ s Bookish Ramblings

Novellas in November The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

21 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Oh gosh, I have to read this! Thank you for such a great write-up. (I’ve just read Claire Keegan’s Foster and Natalia Ginzburg’s The Dry Man, two novellas that I loved. I think I’m on a roll with novellas and now can’t wait for this one.)


  2. Great review Cathy and thanks for linking to my post. It’s a terrific read and you are right: it covers in such a short number of pages more than most big novels manage. It’s one of those stories that remains with you… there is so much to cogitate on.

    I should warn you to prepare to have this as one of your most visited posts now and into the future. My review gets a steady stream of hits even all these years later. I suspect it’s on a school curriculum somewhere.


  3. My 95-yo mother always reads the first part of a book and then the very ending of the book and then everything in between so she would TOTALLY spoil this book for herself. LOL

    I envy anyone who is just now reading the book and will soon get to the last line, for the first time.

    Liked by 1 person

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