Those of you who know Stuttgart, who have walked through its leafy Schlosspark, or wandered beside the Neckar in Tübingen, will be charmed and moved by this little gem of a book. Set in Stuttgart in 1932 it tells the story of the friendship between Hans Schwarz and Konradin von Hohenfels, who meet aged 16 at the Karl Alexander Gymnasium in Stuttgart. Both are solitary characters in need of a friend and their shared interest in coin collection blossoms into an intense adolescent relationship in which they discuss religion, philosophy, the meaning of existence- and even girls!- on the way home after school or on overnight hiking trips in the Black Forest.
The two boys come from different backgrounds: Hans comes from an integrated Jewish family, his father a respected doctor who served as an officer in the First World War, and Konradin from one of the best known aristocratic families in Württemberg. Though at first the fact of their different backgrounds does not affect their friendship, a visit to Konradin’s house when his parents are absent brings home to Hans and the reader the political leanings of the Hohenfels. As external tensions rise in the autumn of 1932, and Nazi ideas come more to the fore, the friendship finally comes under threat.
The story is narrated by an adult Hans 25 years later, looking back on that year and his friendship. In its attempt to describe the intensity of the friendship while evoking a feeling of a magic time, now lost forever, the tone is at times nostalgic and romantic. And not only in terms of the boys’ relationships, but also in its portrayal of the comfortable Stuttgart society, the bourgeois classes inhabiting their villas surrounded by cherry and apple trees, feasting on veal and potato salad, on ‘Schnitzel Holstein’ and trout from the Black Forest. We know that they are living on borrowed time- that their life of unquestioning ease will soon be utterly consumed by the war to come.
Yet the adult voice of the narrator allows the writer to reflect with the wisdom of hindsight on events and society at that time. He comments succinctly on the inadequacy of the school curriculum, with its emphasis on the classics, to equip pupils or teachers to properly evaluate or respond to the irrational claims of Nazi ideology. He describes, in a visit by Hans to the opera where the von Hohenfels are on show, the aristocracy’s belief in its own superiority and the collusion of the people in this belief. He portrays his own Jewish parents leading the comfortable lives of middle class Germans, as perhaps slow to see the threat on their doorstep.
It is this evocation of feeling in the personal story and the sobering portrayal of the rise of Nazism in this milieu which is for me the strength of the book. Not to mention the breathtaking twist at the end which makes us go back over some of our earlier assumptions and roots this story again firmly in the city of Stuttgart. Thanks to Mariella Frostrup in discussion with Michael Hofmann and Rachel Seiffert on Open Book http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b062hx63 for introducing me to this evocative text.