Novel of the week

Address Unknown

Kressmann Taylor <em>Souvenir Press, 64pp, £6.99</em>

ISBN 0743412710

Aristotle had a major disagreement with his teacher Plato over the nature of fiction. Plato's contention was that made-up stories would always falsify the truth. Aristotle retorts in his Poetics that art offers us universal truths which, while they may not be factually accurate, are imbued with meaning beyond that of any other form of literature.

Perhaps the greatest test of Aristotle's contention comes when examining fiction about the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis. Here, the evidence suggests that Plato might be right; it is the real substance of history that is more compelling and true than any fictionalised account of those events. So much fiction about such suffering reads as an exploitation of tragedy - one thinks of Robert Harris's gimmicky Fatherland, Martin Amis's disastrously tasteless Time's Arrow, Bernhard Schlink's unconvincing The Reader or Sebastian Faulks's Charlotte Gray.

Address Unknown is an admirable exception. A tiny story scarcely 20 pages long, it is constructed along Aristotelian lines and is, to my mind, one of the most challenging and truthful fictional portrayals of that horrendous time. The form is epistolary, comprising the correspondence between a Jewish art dealer, Max, who has emigrated from Germany to California in the early 1930s, and his partner, Martin, a German who has chosen to remain in the fatherland. We learn of their great friendship and that Martin, though married, has had a liaison with Max's sister. Hitler's rise to power is barely noticed by Martin at first, but gradually we see how he is sucked into believing Nazi propaganda.

The first moment of Aristotelian "reversal" occurs when Martin asks Max not to write to him at the bank. More moments of reversal and realisation follow, which lead to a believable catharsis - we feel true pity and fear by the end of the book.The denouement turns on the surprising theme of revenge.

This simple but profound work reminds us just how cowardly other story writers have been. While it is understandable that non-fiction might be too absorbed in the moment to consider possible responses to the Nazi atrocities, the creative artist can stand back to avoid predictable endings. Alas, predictability is too often the bane of Holocaust fiction, and dulls the reader's response.

Kressmann Taylor was, in fact, a woman, Kathrine Kressmann. Born in Oregon, she worked as an advertising copywriter, a travel writer, an academic, a farmer and a journalist. She first published this little gem in magazine format in 1938; it was issued as a book shortly afterwards, becoming an immediate bestseller. Yet despite its initial success, it slipped from view until 1995, when it was republished. It became a surprise bestseller (and a stage play) in France in 1999 - by which time Kressmann had been dead for three years.

Address Unknown remains one of the most significant, innovative and genuinely engaged fictions about the Nazi era.

Francis Gilbert is completing a novel set in wartime Hungary

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Lord Snooty and his party pals