To call this thing a book is something of a stretch. The pages are not numbered; I counted a mere 60. Better just to call it a masterpiece. With remarkable power and economy, Address Unknown (Souvenir Press) recounts the breakup of a friendship between a Jewish art dealer in San Francisco and his German business partner after the latter returns to Germany in 1932. Author Kressmann Taylor tells the story solely through their letters, which saves a lot of space on plot, dialogue and description. Yet the letters carry considerable freight.
"Back in Germany! How I envy you," enthuses Max Eisenstein to his old friend Martin Schulse in the opening missive. The warmth of the relationship is palpable as they recount their happy hours together, the minutiae of their business dealings and their increasingly divergent lives. "I am in distress at the press reports that come pouring in to us from the Fatherland," writes a worried Eisenstein from San Francisco a few letters later. Schulse observes cheerily from Munich: "I tell you, my friend, there is a surge a surge. The people everywhere have had a quickening. You can feel it in the streets, and shops." A few exchanges later, the two men are enemies.
What intervenes, of course, is Adolf Hitler. ("The man is like an electric shock," says an ever-more-admiring Shulse.) But Address Unknown is more than a portrait of a failed friendship or a tale of Nazism's rise. Without giving away too much, let me say that a death is avenged and a blow struck against a rising evil, both with great subtlety. And the weapons, fittingly, are letters.
Now the real story. Address Unknown first appeared in 1938 in the U.S. magazine Story and caused a sensation. A year later it was issued as a book, became a bestseller and was promptly banned in Germany. Reissued in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, it was subsequently translated into 15 languages. The French version sold 600,000 copies and was turned into a successful stage play. Last year the book finally appeared in Germany, and this year it was reissued in Britain.
And what of Kressmann Taylor? As explained in an afterword by her son Charles, she was born Kathrine Kressmann in Portland, Oregon, a wife, mother and contributor to small U.S. magazines. With Address Unknown, she enjoyed brief notoriety as "the woman who jolted America," then lived quietly as a college professor in Gettysburgh, Pennsylvania. Rediscovered after Address Unknown was reissued, Taylor spent a happy year signing copies and giving interviews until her death in 1996 at age 93. Her slim, deft, 64-year-old attempt to stir a complacent America to the dangers brewing across the Atlantic sits today in bookstores around the world, often right at the checkout counter a reminder that important messages can come in small envelopes.