The Class by Hermann Ungar, trs Mike Mitchell

Teacher, leave those kids alone!
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The Independent Culture

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 Moravian 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.

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 Moravian 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 their 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 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.

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