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Hermann Ungar - Boys and Murderers

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boys & murderers


Boys & Murdererscollected short fiction

t r a n s l at e d f r o m t h e g e r m a n by

Isabel Fargo Cole

Twisted Spoon Press / Prague 2006

Translation copyright 2006 by Isabel Fargo Cole Afterword copyright 2006 by Isabel Fargo Cole Thomas Mann preface copyright 1960, 1974 by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH Commentary copyright 2001 by Jaroslav Brnsk This edition 2006 by Twisted Spoon Press All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form, save for the purposes of review, without the written permission of the publisher. isbn 80-86264-25-4

The translation of this work was made possible by grants from the Foundation of the Jewish Museum in Prague and the Stiftung Kulturfonds, Germany.


Preface by Thomas Mann


b oy s & m u rd e re r sA Man and a Maid Story of a Murder17


co l b e rts j o u r n eyColberts Journey The Wine-Traveler Reasons for Everything Tulpe 171 175 180 184 191 195 Alexander (A Fragment) Mellon, the Actor Bobek Marries The Secret War The Brothers 119 139 167

u n co l l e c t e d s to r i e sSanatorium A Dream Biba is Dying The Caliph Afterword Notes 201 205 213 218 223 227 235 245 251 243 209 Letter to a Woman

Little Lies (Dialogue for a Married Couple)

Commentary & Sources About the Author About the Translator

p re fac e

I owe the melancholy privilege, the happy duty of introducing this posthumous collection of Hermann Ungars work to a German audience, to the fact that I was one of the rst to recognize and call attention to the extraordinary talent of the deceased. Having championed his debut, Boys & Murderers, it would be wrong of me to stand by indifferently at the publication of his last, posthumous work whose inner beauty and artistic appeal stir me still more than the qualities of his rst collection did back then. Then all was hope, harkening, delight in the rising of an auspicious star, faith in life; today this life, endowed with such great gifts doomed to unfulllment, lies in the earth. Did we bet wrong, then, did our instinct fail our hope? No, I am not ashamed of having commended to life one who was doomed to die. Death is not a refutation, and it would take an irreligious, Philistine view of happiness and success to make lifes blessing the criterion for what is worth loving. The deceased reected profoundly, bitterly, and truly on victory and defeat, blessing and debasement. Today I know, he writes in the introductory passage of one of the stories in this volume, that talent swiftly grasps how easily it can serve every cause, and often its most telling trait is the ability to conform to the ordinary and nd a moral justication for this conformity. Seen from a higher vantage point, the victors in life are generally the vanquished. The deaths of the failures shine at times with the nimbus of victory.This text originally prefaced the collection Colberts Journey (1930), published shortly after Ungars death. See commentary to the stories. 9

That is what it means to see through appearances with incorruptible, magnanimous perspicacity, and if it is true that you shall know them by their fruits, one can be proud to have pupils with such convictions. Only one thing is forgotten or passed over here, that the true victories of lifes children often lie where the masses do not see them, that renown is neither a means nor a product of comprehension, and that lifes victors are also in need of humanity which admittedly means wanting everything at once. In retrospect, it seems to me that I always sensed the doomed aspect of Hermann Ungars art and being and that this very instinct was the source of my sympathy, the motive for me to champion the early manifestations of his nature. In his unlaughing comic sense, his sexual melancholy, in the bitter and often uncannily deliberate way in which he expresses his vision of life in his mental and even his physical physiognomy there is a pallor, a fatal mark, an austere hopelessness. It takes no second sight to interpret this prophetically, and it prevents me from regarding his early death as an accident. It did not surprise me that Boys & Murderers was immediately translated and much noted in France. The French esprit harbors more irony toward the t, more inclination toward noble inrmity than do we Germans, with Goethes legacy of a robust aristocracy of life seated deep in our blood. Unquestionably, all that is deaths is not noble, while all that is lifes is not base. But we best show our conscience-driven mockery against even the highest forms of conformity by bowing to deaths nobility. There can be no talk of fulllment here, of the grace of maturation and perfection; but before life dropped him with the carelessness which so often appalls and outrages our human sensibility, his spirit did manage to give more than might appear from what I have said above. Following the rst collection of novellas, we have a novel of10

anguished power, The Maimed; we have The Class, less momentous perhaps, yet still in its distinctive style and vision an expression of the cultivated primal quality which we call art; we have plays whose success in Berlin and Vienna did not come from conformity to the norm. And though to rebuke fate for its carelessness would be to take after the king who had the sea ogged, one is tempted to reproach it with all the things in Ungars melancholy oeuvre that woo life with such poetic ardor; it should have shown more favor toward such sensual delity. Take, for example, what his wine-traveler says in the pages to follow about the secret of his wares: In old wine is the scent of all owers, the rays of the sun, childrens laughter, mens sweat, the vision of the summer landscape, all ripe and heavy as the breast of a nursing mother. That is the song of life. Art may be marked by death, but it is always love, always life. You are an artist, says the wine-traveler, in a different sphere than the poet or the musician, but like them raised by your senses into a deeper and holier communion with Nature, lifted up from the inert masses of those whose eyes are as dull as their ears, their nostrils, their tongues and the nerves beneath their skin. Ungar, too, was raised by his talent into a deeper and holier communion with nature and it is these posthumously published stories which reveal this most vividly, showing perhaps more clearly than those published during Ungars lifetime what potential for development was nipped in the bud by his premature death, and their publication, for us, is a true human indictment of fate. What an immensely signicant gure, this servant Modlizki in Colberts Journey! This story is rightly featured at the beginning of this collection; it is a minor masterpiece and would occupy an honorable place within any classical oeuvre. The others do not have this roundedness; they are sketchier, fragments and intimations of an unrealized epic world but one need only read Bobek Marries to


sense what a hearty grip on life this melancholy talent had, what a grotesque sacramentalism of the sensual he could muster and what he could have brought forth! Hermann Ungar was born in 1893 in the Moravian town of Boskovice to Jewish parents. The Ungars were a family of merchants and farmers, the father was a merchant with scholarly and philosophical leanings. Hermann graduated from the German Gymnasium in Brno, studied law at the universities of Berlin, Munich and Prague and received his doctorate in the midst of the war. As a lieutenant in the reserves, he took part in the war from start to nish, spending the rst years on the front in Russia and Galicia, and was severely wounded. After peace was declared he spent a short time as Advokatur Konzipient then as a bank clerk in Prague, held for a time the position of a dramaturge in Cheb, entered the Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry in 1920 and was assigned to the Czechoslovak Embassy in Berlin as embassy secretary. He married a woman from Prague and became the father of two boys. Recalled to Prague in 1928, he contemplated abandoning his ofcial career to devote himself entirely to literature. We are told of an automobile accident which severely upset his nerves, paving the way for the illness appendicitis which, diagnosed too late, operated too late, carried him off the following year. Ungar had a pronounced sense of family and origins. In him the sentiment called love of country manifested itself as the conviction that the only proper and salutary sphere for a person is that of his origin and that it is a sin and a fatal mistake to exchange it for another. Never, he said in conversation, should people leave the native soil that brought them forth if they wish to live happily and in safety. He saw in every journey something thrilling and dangerous, a challenge to fate a mystical fear which probably played a role in the conception of12

Colberts Journey. He himself traveled to Italy and Paris, but admitted with rare honesty, and in contrast to the self-congratulatory bliss of the travel poets, that neither the blue south, the famous artistic sites nor the charms of the metropolis had much to say to him. For practical reasons, he best enjoyed life in Berlin, where he had friends and his sphere of activity. He began to write early on, long before Boys & Murderers, but revealed his literary ambitions only to two or three friends. It was typical of his character that those less close to him did not at all regard him as an intellectually interesting person. His fellow ofcers saw him as a good fellow who enjoyed entertaining the others, often with little regard for his dignity. His bank and legal colleagues knew him as an ordinary coffeehouse patron and were quite surprised to hear of books that he had published and that had even bee

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