This is a hard one.
I have a game I play to make sure I do the work: I can’t mark a book as ‘read’ on Goodreads until I write a review. It’s easy for me to dash off a 300-word review in the time it takes to turn the page, but this book – at this time – has me thinking and still wondering what to write. I’m befuddled because it’s not a novel as much as a kind of ‘around the back and between the bushes’ manifesto told in fiction. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but, for such a quiet little book sitting on a table at Barnes and Noble, I was unprepared for it.
Be sure you start with the introduction by Margot Livesey. I didn’t know that Address Unknown is an old piece, originally published in Story Magazine in 1938 and then published as a book in 1939. Enough to say that Germany banned it from sales. Harper Collins publishes it now as a rediscovered classic, and most readers will understand why.
It’s short. I read it in barely over an hour on a Thursday morning, draped with a blanket on the couch. I intended to read the intro and get on to other things, but, once done with the first page, I couldn’t stop. It’s good writing with ideas as important now as they were in the late-1930s.
It’s hard not to give away plot points for a book so short, but it’s the story of two art dealers. One is Jewish and lives in San Francisco. His partner is a Gentile who provides prints for sale to his partner in America. He has moved back to his native Germany at the same time that Hitler rises in national politics. Both partners make boatloads of money.
Told through letters, the novel centers on changes in the German partner’s behavior. He nonchalantly brushes off issues in Germany as ‘the Jewish problem,’ and is excited about his country’s rise in stature and his family’s place in the new Germany and, soon, takes any step necessary to maintain his position.
Through letters, Taylor explains to the reader that we change in the same way we eat an elephant: in small bites, one at a time. Leaders explain that what we at first bemoan, is a necessary aberration. That necessary aberration is later reframed as something profitable for the most good. What is most good is held up as the most honorable action by which everyone is measured, and becomes the answer to every problem. Dissenters become parts of the problem.
I finished the book with a feeling I expect Taylor intended. I’m more vigilant now watching or reading news, knowing that every story is told from a particular viewpoint to effect a specific reaction. I’m not sure she intended my other feeling: that I have to take care not to fall into the same pit.
I’ve read complaints that Taylor’s picture of 1930s Germany isn’t accurate, that circumstances were much better than those she paints. I can’t speak to that, but know that 1940s Germany didn’t turn out well for the world or for many Germans. And I don’t know what a better world looks like with Adolf Hitler at the helm.
I give it four stars. It is the one book I read in 2021 that constantly forces itself back into my conversation.
See the book here at Borders Books, my hometown bookstore.
See it here at Amazon.
Go here to order it from Powell’s Bookstore in Portland.
Go here for my book review page.
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