PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Mike Mitchell
A contemporary of Franz Kafka, Ungar was similarly a German-speaking Jew living and writing in the former Czechoslovakia. Like Kafka, Ungar suffered an untimely death. Although highly regarded in his day, Ungar's reputation diminished over the years as that of Kafka's grew. Thankfully, Dedalus have unearthed another treasure in their wonderful series of European classics, giving readers a chance to acquaint themselves with this hitherto unfairly neglected writer.
The Class is a nightmarish depiction of a man on the brink of mental collapse. Feverishly intense yet written in a prose of extreme care and precision, the work it most resembles is Dostoesky's Notes From the Underground, presenting the reader as it does with a world vision distorted by the central character's overwhelming sense of isolation and self-persecution. Ungar wrestles with matters metaphysical, but underscores everything with a fine line in dark humour, which spares this from being as cheerless as it is probably sounds. At times an uncomfortable read, but a very rewarding one for those in the mood.
Two new editions of Ungar's novels are being published, as part of Dedalus's aim to rescue major works of literature from being out of print. Although The Class was written in 1927, its themes remain timeless: the struggle of a teacher to regain power over his unruly class and the personal trauma involved in keeping a dying marriage alive. Joseph Blau does not have a good life. His pupils are out of control, his enigmatic wife, Selma, is too attractive to other men, and his mother-in-law, Mathilda, is a loud, coarse embarrassment who lives in his house.
The Class has dark undertones, as Blau's struggles to overcome his insecurities and to remain ordered and in control, propels him towards catastrophe. Ungar portrays obsession, poverty and deceit with a wonderfully grotesque attention to detail: the character of Uncle Bobek does not just eat, he wipes the fat off his moustache with the fleshy back of his hand, and washes the half-chewed hunks of flesh down with gulps of wine.
Joseph Blau's exaggerated sense of guilt ultimately leads to his downfall in this well-translated novel.
By the time his second novel The Class was published in 1927, Hermann Ungar was considered one of the most formidable writers of his generation, a provocative figure in an extraordinarily fecund period of German literature. Ungar was born in 1893 into an affluent Jewish family in the small Morovian town of Boskovice. His writing career commenced in 1920 and his short stories soon attracted the attention of Thomas Mann. Before long it was not uncommon for Ungar to be spoken of in the same breath as Kafka. After the publication of The Class, Ungar increasingly suffered from failing health, and after an aborted trip to Palestine, suffered an acute appendicitis and died in October 1929, aged only 36.
The Class concerns the fate of schoolmaster Joseph Blau, who comes from a poor background but teaches the sons of the wealthier citizens. His insecurity in the presence of the smartly attired, well nourished pupils is extreme, a hysterical manifestation of his own lack of self esteem. Blau believes he is being hunted down like a wild animal by the pupils. But instead of savagery, it is the silent mockery and secret disobedience which aggravate the tension and cause Blau to become ensnared in extravagant delusions.
Blau's overriding fear is that fate is governed by the slightest act, word or random event, that our destiny is linked to the seemingly innocuous utterances of others, that we are all horribly bound to one and another. To counter this, Blau enforces a monotonous regime of strict discipline, to subdue the pupils who he knows will one day erupt and overwhelm him. Naturally his behaviour only alienates the pupils even more and allows them to be easily marshalled against him under their leader Karpel. Central to the ensuing drama is the servant Modlizki, a rebellious and destructive Mephistophelean figure. This novel bristles with angst, and Ungar's revulsion at the monstrosity of human entanglements is only partially tempered in the final pages with a suggestion of the redemptive power of forgiveness and love. The Class will not easily let go of its reader.