Friday 26 March 2010

Address Unknown - a warning for our time.

'Address Unknown.' Kressmann Taylor.
Having recently enjoyed 'The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society' 2008 by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows. I became interested in the letter as an art form, a way of telling a story and influencing events. BBC Radio 4 introduced me to Kressmann Taylor's wartime classic 'Address Unknown'. I heard part of a dramatisation but was interrupted by the door bell. This is a very small book - not much more than a short story but immensely powerful. Like the 'Potato Pie' book but published exactly 70 years earlier, it also uses humour and personal anecdote to tell of the horrors of World War two. This time from an American perspective. Kresssmann (Katherine) Taylor, her husband and young children were living in rural San Fransisco in the 1930s. She heard that liberal educated friends of friends had returned to Germany and been sucked into the Hitler phenomenon in a way that seemed totally out of character and made them behave most cruelly to their former associates. Mrs Taylor wondered how this could happen. Her family moved to New York in 1938 where it was easier for her to take up the reigns of her academic and literary career. Her research led to a terrifying insight into developments in Germany. She wrote these into a series of fictional letters between Max, a Jewish bachelor who remained in San Fransisco running an Art & Antiques Gallery; and his German non Jewish former friend and business partner Martin, who moved to Munich with his wife and his several babies and children. Max has a sister, Griselle, who was formerly Martin's lover and is now becoming professionally successful in the theatre in Vienna; the production is scheduled to transfer to Berlin. At first Martin is shocked by German poverty and loss of morale. He is sceptical of the almost hysterical adulation of Adolf Hitler and his meteoric rise to power. However Martin and his family need to develop a position in the local community commensurate with their wealth accrued in the USA. We see him and his family drawn into Nazism through social networks and his letter writing relationship with his old friend Max cools considerably. Martin becomes a Nazi officer and his son is elevated within the boys corp through a favour bestowed by a senior official whom Martin and his wife had impressed with her lavish dinner parties. The real turning point comes when Griselle is booed offstage in Berlin for being a Jewess and Max pleads for Martin's help to save her.
Katherine Taylor's publisher felt that such a weighty story needed the authority of a man's name and persuaded her to use her maiden surname as a Christian name. Like George Eliot and a whole host of women writers before her she kept her gender hidden. The story was widely published in journals in 1938 and in book form the following year. It was much acclaimed and provided a shocking insight into what was going wrong. It was of course banned in Germany. After the war the book fell out of public consciousness until its recent rediscovery, perhaps by those worried that political correctness or Islam or Christian fundamentalism could change consciousness and cause people to suspend their previously held liberal or academic philosophies, turn against their friends and destroy that which they had previously held dear. A book which should be required reading for everyone in the entire Western World at this un-edifying moment in our history. It has been translated into French and is apparently selling well in the USA. As we approach an election based on spin not substance I wish the BBC would put it out on peak time television rather than hiding it away as a midweek Radio 4 play - but no dramatisation will ever beat the power of being able to flick back and forth between the letters on the printed page, realising with horror what must have happened between each letter and the one which follows it. An easily readable, clever and astounding book!
(c) Jan Loxley 26 03 2010