Boys and Murderers by Hermann Ungar
It would be perfectly apt to entitle Hermann Ungar’s entire fictional output Boys & Murderers encapsulating, as it does, his trademark concerns with sex and death and damaged lives. This collection includes Ungar’s debut (itself entitled Boys & Murderers), which itself comprises the two novellas A Man and a Maid and Story of a Murder, his last collection of stories Colbert’s Journey, and some previously uncollected ephemera. The opening novellas are the strongest work (tight, unsettling), but the stories The Wine-Traveler, Colbert’s Journey itself (which features the creepy Bartleby-esque servant Modlizki from Ungar’s novel The Class) and Tulpe are each adroit, blackly humorous and perturbing.
Ungar was born in the Jewish town of Boskovice in 1893 and died, after an operation for late-diagnosed appendicitis, in 1929. A year later Colbert’s Journey was published with a glowing introduction (“extraordinary talent … an auspicious star”) by Thomas Mann. During his lifetime, Ungar had published Boys & Murderers (the language of which Stefan Zweig described as “utterly sharp, utterly clear, almost violently naked language”) and two highly respected novels. The Maimed was published in 1923 and won horrified admiration containing as it does the kind of sexual decadence and horrible cartoon quality of a Grosz painting. In 1927, The Class was published: it isn’t as successful as his first novel, but it remains a powerful – if paranoid – investigation into the incipient chaos that laps around even the most ordered lives.
Kafka is often suggested as a reference point to Ungar’s work, but that is not right: the crazed Old Testament morality to some of the writing reminds one more of Flannery O’Connor. Ungar is convinced of our fated lives. We struggle to maintain order and propriety but, for his characters, the struggle is inevitably doomed. The orphan in the horrific "A Man and a Maid" cannot leave behind the strong, sexual imprint of the maid Stasinka. He returns to Boskovice to take her back to the States with him, where he is now a successful industrialist, only to sell her into sexual slavery. The narrator of the Story of a Murder was, as a child, “not embraced by love as others’ are”. As we learn of the circumstances of his killing of the hunchback barber Josef Haschek, who had spent so long seeking the undoing of his pathetic father, the town’s laughing-stock, we realise that they are “reasons for everything. They are there. But unfathomable, strange and almost unendurable.”
Dark though his writing is, Ungar is not without his humour. His rigorous work is clear about life’s absurdity. When “Senior File Clark Tulpe died at 10 in the morning” his colleague File Clerk Kleinmeyer was shocked and upset. He accompanies the body back to Tulpe’s house: “’This plate of cheese,’ said Widow Tulpe, taking the plate out of the cupboard, ‘I fixed it for Tulpe for his supper’ … her voice choked with tears. Meanwhile Kleinmeyer wondered whether this would be a good time to ask the Widow for Tulpe’s top hat for the day of the funeral.”
(A version of this review first appeared in the 12th October issue of the TLS.)