Four years before his death in 2012, Tom Unwin called his daughter Vicky into his study in London to give her a suitcase. In it were books and files relating to his father, the Czech writer Hermann Ungar. It was a stash: correspondences with Thomas Mann, Max Brod, and Camill Hoffman; the manuscript of a biography by Dieter Südhoff; and two volumes of criticism by the Czech scholar Jaroslav Bransky. In the years since this discovery, Vicky Unwin was compelled to commission an English translation of Südhoff’s biography, which she eventually published as a free e-book in quiet tribute.
Hermann Ungar had been a German-speaking Jewish writer from the small town of Boskovice, Czechoslovakia. He wrote three plays, two novels, and a collection of novellas and short stories, before he died from peritonitis at the age of thirty-six. The three works available in English are his stories and novellas, Boys and Murderers (1920); his first and best-known novel, The Maimed (1923); and his second novel, The Class (1927). He also wrote a book of reportage, Die Ermordung des Hauptmanns Hanika [The Murder of Captain Hanik], which is as yet untranslated. There are rumors that another novel exists, but it was not in the wonderful suitcase and may never be found.
“The most important writer of the decade” were the words the Neue Freie Presse, the leading Viennese newspaper, called Ungar in 1927. This was high praise for a contemporary of Döblin, Kafka, and Musil. But less than a century later, Ungar has been all but forgotten.
The Second World War has played no small role here. Vicky Unwin states that her family “vehemently denied” their Jewish heritage, but Südhoff’s biography tells us that Ungar’s father and grandfather were prominent figures in the Jewish community in Boskovice. When Ungar died in Prague in 1929, he left behind a wife and two sons, who fortunately escaped to England before the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Relatives who remained behind during the war died in concentration camps. Vicky Unwin only learned that she was Jewish—and that her grandfather was a writer—after she opened the suitcase.
There are other reasons. The books were controversial. About Boys and Murderers, Ungar’s first effort, Stefan Zweig tells us,
With a creativity that sends shivers down one’s spine, the author relates the fate of two people in a clear, cold, yes almost brutal language and with an intensity that only truly great authors achieve. With steeliness, no soft indulgences, he wields the horrific tool of psychology and plunges it into the core of their being. The reader hesitates, catches his breath, shivers as he reads—and still the author’s cruel hand pushes further into the feverish victim. Perhaps it is a little premature to mix delight with prophesies, but I still think that this new name heralds a great deal of hope and anticipation.
Boys and Murderers was endorsed by Zweig and Mann, among other German-language writers, but his first novel, The Maimed, was met with hostility. The story of two men—Franz Polzer, the fastidious bank clerk routinely raped by his landlady, and his longtime friend Karl Fanta, the maimed, a wheelchair-bound cynic who molests his wife between trips to the hospital—was recounted with an unwaveringly matter-of-fact tone: “There was something in the corner, waiting. Maybe it was a murderer with an axe. One never really knows the house where one lives.” No one knew what to make of it. Ungar’s skillful use of the “horrific tool of psychology” had perhaps been wielded too forcefully. Mann, for one, referred to it as “that revolting book” and “a sexual hell.” The critics couldn’t stomach Ungar’s indecent scenarios. Rather than pan the book, they ignored it completely.
Ungar died young and found new enemies in death. Max Brod, who had praised Ungar during his lifetime, later claimed to have “no recollection” of the writer. Willy Haas, the German screenwriter, found himself described in Ungar’s diaries as a “repulsive literate”—a discovery that quickly changed Haas’s intention of publishing Ungar. Brod and Haas were not men to cross in the 1930s world of letters; it seems that they worked to make this singular writer forgotten.
It would appear that Brod and Haas succeeded. Ungar is as virtually unknown today as he was in his lifetime. Yet somehow his books remain in print and English translations are readily available. This is our great fortune; nearly a century later, Ungar’s beautiful, clear prose, and shocking, comic narratives remain every bit as vital and original.
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Ungar was a master of humiliation; his works deflate swollen ideas of masculinity and pride. The shadow of insecurity looms large. The Class begins: “He knew the boys were watching his every move; the slightest chink in his armour could expose him to disaster.” In The Maimed, Polzer feels the eyes of mourners on him at his father’s burial: “In his helplessness he felt several times for the buttons of his pants to make sure that they were closed.” For his male protagonists, nothing is worse than being mocked—or, as is most often the case, to suspect as much and to search for evidence in every gesture.
Many of Ungar’s archetypes are established in his collected stories, including the great abomination: a pregnant woman. In “Story of a Murder,” a young woman named Milada is raped and impregnated by her uncle; all along, a young man, deeply ashamed of his father’s inadequacy, tortures small animals. Milada becomes cruel to match her uncle, and together they sexually assault the young man—an act so exciting and strenuous that it induces her labor. The young man looks at the new baby, and thinks, “It whimpered so thinly that one could scarcely hear it. It made me think of very young kittens.” Here, as in many of Ungar’s other stories, the pregnant woman represents the weight of a new life, always a son, who will inevitably be ruined by circumstances beyond his control, namely poverty, his father, or an unhealthy combination of both.
Every horror is a social critique for Ungar. Through his fiction, he coyly argues that everything would be easier if preordained—if every step forward did not have the potential of being a misstep. That would be freedom. Then life would be pleasant, even enjoyable—granted, that is, you are bourgeois, which sadly none of his protagonists are. The world is a grand theatre and some actors have been given more appealing roles. Take sinister Modlizki, for example. He appears in “Colbert’s Journey,” in Boys and Murderers, and reappears in The Class. He knows he has been cast a minor role in society, so he subverts things in kind: in small, almost unseeable ways. He changes the script and rigs the lights so they will fall and land on his enemies. All the while, there’s slow, dry clapping from the wings. He is a murderer with no blood on his hands.
Modlizki and his Francophile master, Colbert, in “Colbert’s Journey,” work tirelessly for months planning a visit to Paris. Colbert peppers his speech with arbitrary French words and phrases (“Quelle naïveté, mon ami! Who is speaking of that?”), methodically packs and unpacks his suitcase, and books their train tickets. He is so excited that he upgrades Modlizki’s ticket from third to first class. This will be their great adventure. On the morning of their departure, Colbert divulges his travel plans to his wife at the breakfast table. Suddenly Modlizki flatly refuses to go—his intention all along—and Colbert dies, quite literally, of disappointment. His tombstone reads: Here lies Josef Colbert / born March 14, 1859, here, / died May 7, 1911, in the very same place. He never sees the lights of Paris.
In The Class, a neurotic young schoolteacher, Josef Blau, is soon to become a father. Tormented by the thought that his pregnant wife may be desired by other men, he makes her cut off all her hair and wear ankle-length dresses. Blau is so deeply suspicious that his character will be attacked, and that his students will turn on him, that he spends most of his days thinking of ways to make his students keep both hands on their desks: “It was an underground conspiracy, a conspiracy under the desks, a conspiracy of naked calves when the upper bodies were bowed in obedience.” He fears the plots they could be scheming from the waist down.
Are these tales of aborted gay romance? Homoeroticism runs through all of Ungar’s stories, but it seems obvious to isolate this theme. Ungar’s psychological assessment points to all desire and calls it dirty and mean. Sexuality leads to humiliation, pregnancy, murder, or suicide: four equally tragic fates. Yes, the male dynamic is teased, twisted, and ridiculed, but the real binary is between darkness and light. And with Ungar, most everything is in darkness.
In The Class, Ungar sics Modlizki on Blau, a fresh victim. When, as young men, Blau and Modlizki are working on an estate, Blau is offered a position in a school. To congratulate him, their bourgeois employers invite Blau to their table. He leaves Modlizki alone in the kitchen. Slighted, Modlizki takes the most patient revenge. The narrator tells, “That Modlizki was of limited intelligence, uneducated, obsessed by confused ideas was no reassurance, for there was a logic to everything Modlizki said, a confusing frightening logic.” As adults years later, Modlizki tells Blau to wait outside a brothel at the same time that two of Blau’s young students are leaving. There is a confrontation. The more refined student, Laub, is horrified to be associated with such an establishment. Out of humiliation, he subsequently hangs himself. Blau feels responsible for his death but manages to pull it together to attend the wedding of his uncle and mother-in-law. At the reception, Modlizki leans into Blau’s ear and whispers, “If you’ll permit me something’s just occurred to me… Aren’t Blau and Laub the same, if you switch the letters around?” Devastated by this remark, Blau begins to plan his own suicide. Two birds and one stone: Modlizki collects another set of clean kills.
Ungar’s grand spectacle reaches its climax in The Maimed. We watch another young man, this time the clerk Franz Polzer, as he hurtles toward ruin. The culprit is not named—Modlizki does not appear, though his spirit is everywhere. What first struck me about The Maimed was its structure. Otto Pick published the first chapter in his book German Novelists from Czechoslovakia (Heris-Verlag) as a story titled “Der Bankbeamte” [The Bank Employee]. In this original version, the story begins,
Ich bin von meinem zwanzigsten Lebensjahr an Beamter einer Bank gewesen. Täglich um dreiviertel acht Uhr morgens ging ich in mein Büro. Ich verließ mein Haus Tag für Tag um dieselbe Zeit, niemals um eine Minute früher oder später. Wenn ich aus der Seitengasse, in der ich wohne, hinaustrat, schlug die Uhr vom Turm drei Mal.
Here, Ungar uses the first person: unadorned and not particularly introspective, but brimming with Polzer’s neurotic attention to detail. When the novel appeared in full, the perspective was changed to the third person:
Since his twentieth year Franz Polzer had been a clerk in a bank. Every morning at quarter to eight he would go to his office, never a minute earlier or later. When he stepped from the side street where he lived, the clock in the tower would strike three times.
Apart from the shift from “I” to “he,” the text is identical. And with this shift Ungar honed his unique skill: a cold distance from his subject. Ungar agonized over the change and its implications. In a letter to Mann, he discussed his inability to continue going forward in the first person:
Of course I doubt whether I can currently deploy the third person singular the ‘He-form’ and you yourself prefer to use the first person singular ‘the I-form’. It always seems to me as if the things … would become obsolete if they were divorced from me with the use of the ‘He-form’… It seems as if much in the novel would be lost, a certain sadness which lay over the whole story—and then you also have the careful statements, the last uncertainties.
The “careful statements [and] the last uncertainties” in the book concern the identity of a murderer. If written from the perspective of Franz Polzer, he may have been excluded from suspicion. This way, the reader concludes that everyone is to blame, including the reader, who is complicit in the horrors. Ungar’s critique is so finely tuned that no one is innocent (apart from babies, of course, thus terror at their imminent arrival). Ungar wants people and life to be better, but he also seems to suggest that being better is not possible.
The Maimed’s controversy is chiefly sexual. Ungar manages to write a book that describes incest without having any siblings among the characters. The landlady Karla Porges’s fairly harmless arrangement with her tenant looks a lot like companionship. But it is a violation. The reason? Franz Polzer once saw his aunt (who always parted her hair) leaving his father’s bedroom, and this whiff of incest means that seeing Frau Porges with the same parted hair leads Franz Polzer to think that he and Porges are somehow carrying on an equally incestuous relationship. The parted hair haunts him: “At night he saw her white scalp shimmering between the black hair to the left and the right.”
It is such impure thoughts that taint the novel more than any action. Suggestions of perversion become perversion itself. Ungar establishes an ominous climate of thought, in which the most unassuming of men—a diligent clerk or a man confined to a wheelchair—are actually the most suspect and evil people imaginable. The elaborate design of their thoughts could stain the most banal situation. If this is possible, then everyone has the potential to be evil.
Ungar has a singular gift for dismantling humanity, its pretenses and niceties. Polzer lives in great fear of being inappropriate. If he arrives at an outing and the suit he is wearing is not right for the occasion, he is filled with self-loathing. His ridiculous sensitivity about his own appearance reaches hysteria when Fanta is in the hospital having his arm amputated.
Polzer could not imagine how Karl would look without his left arm. It seemed impossible that he would have only his right arm, hanging down limply from his fat torso. He also wondered about the amputated left arm. He felt it would be absolutely necessary to find out what happened to it. […]
“What will Sonntag do with the amputated arm?” he asked.
Dora sobbed loudly.
“Oh God, Herr Polzer!” she said.
Polzer was filled with consternation. Dora would not calm down. He realized that he had asked an inappropriate question.
With a knack for detached irony, Ungar’s unadorned sentences slowly lead his reader to shocking places, taking her by the hand to the scene of a crime. But this style is also what makes horrible scenarios comic. Polzer’s outrageous question is developed so artfully that the fact of Fanta’s amputation is sidelined by the chaos of Polzer’s thoughts. Polzer is later informed by a nurse that “Amputated limbs are buried in the courtyard.” Kurt Pinthus writes,
The title, The Maimed, could actually be the heading for everything that Ungar wrote. With a thousand carefully thought-out lines of his pen, he drew images of the mentally mutilated and mercilessly abused, who only found respite from their own suffering by maiming and abusing others . . .
For Ungar, a question that might flicker in the mind for an instant should be examined and teased out, before sputtering to its most extreme conclusion. How else will we discover the reasons behind our shortcomings? This was an honest and unapologetic technique. Ungar went inside his characters’ heads, revealing something that most would prefer to bury. No wonder critics were repelled. Ungar bursts in on you while you’re defecating and examines your shit.
One of the last chapters of Südhoff’s biography of Ungar is titled “Obituaries.” Sadly, most of the criticism and praise for Ungar’s writing appeared not in reviews but in tribute to the author on the occasion of his death. Like most obituaries written for people who died before their time, they are full of wonder for what might have been. Victor Goll for The Bremen Weser Zeitung considered Ungar destined for fame and success, but that his early death meant he would “only remain a grotesque literary figure in his silent grave.” Echoing this sentiment is Arthur Eloesser, who wrote in the Vossische Zeitung, “Ungar’s art remains as unfinished as his life. He wrote like a hunted person.”
If Ungar’s protagonists have taught us anything, it is that to fear inadequacy is to mastermind one’s own undoing. These obituaries do little to honor a writer whose novels and stories are perfectly spare and rich, and offer something new with every reading. The problem with Ungar’s body of work is not that it is incomplete, it’s that it is underappreciated. There is no use in wondering what Hermann Ungar could have achieved—only in marveling at what he did.
Mieke Chew is the founding editor of Higher Arc magazine and a digital and marketing associate at New Directions Publishing. She lives in Brooklyn.