Letters of transit Address Unknownby Kressmann Taylor 54pp, Souvenir Press If I were to tell you that a novel made up entirely of letters, just 54 pages long (eight of them blank), came with a New York Times Book Review plaudit on its cover judging it “the most effective indictment of Nazism to appear in fiction”, you might think it the mother of all hype. Yet spend three-quarters of an hour with it and you’ll be jabbing all comers with the injunction: “Read!” Kressmann Taylor’s book was first published as a short story in an American magazine in 1938, causing a sensation. The Reader’s Digest reprinted it, subsequent publication in book form notched up sales of 50,000, and it was immediately banned in Germany. Reissued in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, its French translation has been on the bestseller lists for two years, having sold 600,000 copies; it’s currently also a successful Paris stage play. And among the 15-plus recent translations is the first German edition. It was Taylor’s inspired conceit to tell the story of a Jew living in San Francisco and his German business partner who returns, in 1933, to live in Germany, through their letters. At first the warmth between Max Eisenstein and Martin Schulse is palpable. With fabulous economy, Taylor maps their shared history and faintly diverging lives, the one still selling dud Madonnas to rich, vain Jews, the other with a perpetually pregnant wife. But as Hitler’s power grows (”the man is like an electric shock”), Schulse starts with the caveats, the “I have never hated the individual Jew . . . I have loved you, not because of your race but in spite of it”, and gives a German’s-eye view of the terrifyingly insidious spread of totalitarianism. Their correspondence shows how political ideology is played out on the personal plane. As Nazism spreads, along with Schulse’s enthusiasm for it, the friendship becomes corroded and the correspondence threatened. What follows next I can’t reveal, except to say that Taylor’s coup de thétre is not only brilliant – she turns the letters themselves into the plot – but demonstrates in a double sense how the written word might serve as a weapon against Nazi power. By using only the protagonists’ own communications, Taylor foregoes all those useful devices that can be supplied by an omniscient narrator. Yet it’s an artful swap, for as a result she is able to tip us right into the heart of the drama: we’re not just readers of the book, but become – like Schulse and Eisenstein – readers of the letters too. One gets the distinct impression of participating in something unmediated. A touching afterword by Taylor’s son (she died in 1996) relates Taylor’s literary career before the publication of Address Unknown (zilch) and after (professor of journalism, and fêted author with the rediscovery of the book a year before her death). He also traces its personal provenance in the experience of some of her friends. Taylor wrote specifically to counter American ignorance about what was happening in Europe, so her book’s reissue is timely. Remarkably, despite the multitude of testimony and first-person accounts of life under Nazism with which we’ve been deluged since its first publication, this old, slim fiction manages to smuggle us across time and space into one eloquent tale of perfidy. · Anne Karpf is the author of The War After.