By Jennifer Levasseur
We are steeped in narratives of the World Wars, the Vietnam War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and all the other major international conflicts. These novels and histories don’t simply inform or even entertain us: we use them to understand, to parse decisions and see how one act ripples with unexpected consequences. They also serve another important function: to position ourselves in these other times and places and help us wonder how we’d react. Can we honestly pat ourselves on the back for our untried ability to resist tyranny, to shield the oppressed and champion the right and just? Don’t we imagine we would have housed the Jewish child in the hidden attic or fought to end racial segregation? Who places themselves among the scared, cowardly mass just trying to keep fed and clothed, blinding themselves to the greater injustices enacted by neighbors or governments?
Imagine the novels we’d be missing without these subjects: Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Napoleonic Wars), All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Fly Away Peter by David Malouf (World War I), Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, Heller’s Catch-22 and The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (World War II), The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Vietnam). The list could go on for reams of pages.
My preferred area of reading, though, particularly with regard for novels, has long settled in that unsettling period known as the interwar years. That time when the volatility of economies and people wrecked by war and its resolutions did not settle into the stability that most civilians craved. The world of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity and The Post-Office Girl. The frantic optimism that tried to ignore the gathering clouds. The forced frivolity of desperation. If that period needs a slogan, it might be serviced best by a remark in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel, Tender is the Night, in response to the recent carnage: “No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.”
We love to look back at history and exclaim how obvious its unfolding had been—and to judge harshly those who did not see as clearly as we do now, with the benefit of time and distance.
There are, though, prescient writers who do warn in direct and veiled ways through their art, who see scary truths before most of us are willing or able to confront them. Two of these crossed my desk over the holidays: The Theoretical Foot by M. F. K. Fisher and Reunion by Fred Uhlman. Each entertained, challenged, comforted and provoked me.
The Theoretical Foot, a long-lost novel by beloved food writer M. F. K. Fisher (1908-1992) recently published for the first time (but set during 1938 at a Swiss farmhouse and written around that time), maintains a forced aura of holiday, in-between time. The hosts are married—to other people—and in forced exile until they can extract themselves from preexisting unions. Their guests include two American college students traveling together (read: in sin) for the summer, so not fit for proper company; a famous novelist obsessed with her brother; a finicky and judgmental painter who cannot enjoy a single moment of luscious food or leisure because she will not be mistaken for approving the sexual deviance unfolding under this roof; and a bevy of other young people falling in and out of love and lust as quickly as they change rooms or as the shadows creep across the lawn. And while each of these characters internally churns private dilemmas hidden behind a party face and a marvelous frock or suit, the world threatens to invade their flimsy frivolity.
As Jane Vandenburgh writes in the afterword to the novel, “One of the great strengths of this book is the matter in which the two almost inconceivable horrors—one intimate, the other global in scope—are kept tactfully at bay as Fisher’s characters seek, as an anodyne, to concentrate solely on the beauty of their peaceful lives in which all grievous hardship can still be ignored or denied.”
Even Fisher’s characterization of their language underscores the uncertainty of the time. Susan, who’s hiding her tryst from her family and unsure whether to break it off before she returns to school, tries (and fails beautifully) to explain herself. Her language, unlike her madly vacillating brain, contains no nuance. To try to clarify what she means by “lovely,” she adds some inflection: “but lovely.”
In this in-between area, people admit, at least to themselves, that they’re not quite sure who they are or what they think or how to concern themselves with these ambivalent feelings. It’s not just their allegiances that shift without warning; their ideas about each other move with the fluidity and spark of the champagne they imbibe. When Susan watches her boyfriend among these unknown people, she ponders her previous certainty: “She wondered why he was so different. She wondered also that she didn’t seem to care very much.”
The Theoretical Foot abounds with the kind of sudden realizations that come to us with no particular evidence but feel crystalline and true, those inexplicable dawns of insight that click into place. “Nan caught her breath for in that instant she suddenly knew that Sara loved her brother with all of herself, brain, bone, and ghost. How had she ever doubted?”
Perhaps because the houseguests try so hard to hold the world at bay with decadent food and jollity and elaborate floral arrangements—pushing aside the flocks of refugees they’ve seen on their way to Switzerland, the danger at hand for one guest’s Jewish activist boyfriend whose location is unknown—that they become untethered. They become more and more mysterious to themselves than they are to others. The uncertainty of their desires send sparks throughout the party, leaving them vulnerable to fleeting emotions that threaten to destroy their most important relationships.
Only Tim, the owner of the house, seems firm in his central premise: that he loves this woman for whom he’s thrown over his previous life. But even his internal, private but outward-looking ode to his beloved strains under a manic fervor:
Shall I go and tell them there is no need for them to look further, no use in trying other bodies or searching other minds? Shall I let them know that only I, in all the world, have found what all men look for, for the first time since the world began? They’d be right to think I’m crazy, I am crazy, but I’m sane, too, for the first time since my world began.
Reunion by Fred Uhlman (set 1932, written in 1960, first published in 1971) contains much more insight, passion and poignancy than its eighty pages might suggest. Uhlman grew up in Stuttgart, worked as an anti-Nazi lawyer, then fled Germany in 1933. While this slim novel is not autobiographical, the author found its form in the interactions he experienced at school. Reunion is simple story about a schoolboy whose desire for a friend seems to materialize an elegant young man with similar sensibilities, conveniently absent parents and an identical need for companionship. The novel begins almost like an elegy: “He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again. More than a quarter of a century has passed since then, more than nine thousand days, desultory and tedious, hollow with the sense of effort or work without hope—days and years, many of them dead as dry leaves on a dead tree.”
While Konradin Graf von Hohenfels stands separate from his new colleagues—“Somehow he looked older than us and more mature, and it was difficult to believe he was just another new boy”—in long pants, with an illustrious family, impeccable manners, crisp stationery and clean hands, the scruffy yet sensitive Hans immediately sees a possible bond.
“I studied his proud, finely carved face, and indeed no lover could have watched Helen of Troy more intently or could have been more convinced of his own inferiority. Who was I to dare to talk to him? … 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?”
While their friendship grows quickly and with ease, they come from different worlds. Konrad invites Hans over only when parents are away and finally confesses that his mother hates Jews. But even as the political climate changes and a new professor champions Aryan dominance (alongside a far-fetched Aryan-centric curriculum), these boys—armed with a rigorous education—are not immediately swayed.
Hans’s father, a well-respected doctor and decorated veteran of the Great War, also dismisses the rise of Hitler:
I know my Germany. This is a temporary illness, something like measles, which will pass as soon as the economic situation improves. Do you really believe the compatriots of Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven will fall for this rubbish? How dare you insult the memory of twelve thousand Jews who died for our country?
Despite all of this, as we readers know, the strange magnetism of the Austrian caused seemingly reasonable people to assert themselves as somehow better than their fellow citizens and to claim: “God has sent him to us.”
Reunion is at once a poignantly beautiful story of friendship, of realizations, of blind faith, of the reckless hope that good cannot be trumped by fear and hate. It contains one of the most devastating final lines of any novel I’ve read. Each time I revisit it, it lunges at me like a weight thrown from a great distance.
What these novels—and many of their interwar companions, such as Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations and After Midnight, Hans Fallada’s Wolf Among Wolves, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin—remind us is how little we know about the future, how we can put hope but not absolute faith in our leaders, that we the little people may not be able to enact global change but we can make personal choices that offer comfort, security, love and inclusion, and that these actions might put our own safety at risk but that we must welcome that risk.