I enjoy reading the literature of early 20th century Eastern Europe but sometimes find myself travelling into very strange places with writers such as Ungar. However, Thomas Mann wrote of The Maimed, “a masterpiece that would be honoured in any classic oeuvre”, while Will Stone in the Times Literary Supplement wrote “It is a mystery why Hermann Ungar’s remarkable novel The Maimed has taken seventy years to finds an English translation”. It is to the credit of Dedalus Books that they have published this and book by Hermann Ungar and also The Class.
Having said that, it is not surprising that it has been neglected for its themes are not a little bizarre and the book would definitely never be “popular” in the sense of appealing to the general reader. Its main audience would be those who have an interest in Kafkaesque literature from 1920s Prague, and in other writers of “the Prague Circle“. However, for those people it is essential reading.
The story revolves around Franz Polzer, a damaged individual who can only exist by sticking to rigid routines and rules. He rejects anything that challenges his withdrawn life and interacts with other people as little as possible. He has a child-like religious faith centred on a painting of St Francis which he has carried with him from his childhood and now hangs over his bed in his room in the lodging house owned by his landlady, Frau Porges.
Frau Porges is a widow with an astute head for business. Before long she is taking all of Polzer’s wages and is doling out the small amounts he needs for his lunch. Polzer seems happy with the arrangement so long as he is left alone and can interact with other people as little as possible. However, before long his desire for isolation is soon breached by his landlady who with a show of tears rebukes him for taking no interest in her as a person but merely treats her as a servant. The hapless Polzer finds himself agreeing to take her out on the following Sunday and finds himself somehow obliged to make this a regular commitment week after week. Needless to say, in no time at all, Frau Porges has (literally) dragged Polzer to her bed where he is forced to perform acts he finds repulsive and which breach every boundary he has set for himself.
At this point the story diverges to include a very strange character, Karl Fanta, a childhood friend of Polzer’s who is now severly unwell, having had both his legs amputated and is also covered in abscesses. His wife Dora looks after him, but Fanta is continually tormented by his belief that she finds him repulsive and has many lovers. In fact Dora is devoted to Karl, even when a few pages later he has another operation to remove an arm, leaving him with little more than a torso.
A male nurse is hired because of the difficulty of lifting Karl and Dora is much upset that her attentions are no longer required, while Karl continues to believe the worst of her. The male nurse turns out to be an ex-butcher, who wears a bloody apron and seems to be skilled with knives, but cares for Karl competently and devotedly.
Having set the scene with these bizarre characters, Ungar proceeds to let them interact together with alarming results. Karl Fanta and his nurse eventually move into Frau Porges house, forcing Polzer to vacate his room and move permanently into Frau Polzer’s room, leaving behind the last vestiges of his own personality and the frail routines and scant possessions which bolster it. Before long, Frau Porges announces that she is pregnant at which point Polzer’s despair is complete:
It is unnecessary to say more about the ending, other that it ends in the inevitable disaster involving the butcher/nurse’s knives and at this point the reader may find him or herself agreeing with Stefan Zweig, “The Maimed is wonderful and horrible, captivating and repulsive, unforgettable, although one would be glad to be able to forget it”.
The Maimed will never be a mainstream classic, but it is still an important book and together with The Class provides a good overview of the work of Hermann Ungar. It needs to be set in its historical context and it sits well with other books from this era and location, completing the picture of what was going on in the literary world in early 20th century Prague.
For a biography of Herman Ungar see this page on Twisted Spoon’s website.