I read The Class on the recommendation of Stewart at Booklit and was not disappointed by this complex psychological study of a school teacher.
Ungar was a Czech member of the Prague Circle of modernist German-Jewish writers. I enjoy reading these writers for their glimpses into a highly literary world of coffee-houses and late-night kitchen-table discussions which provoked such radical new directions in writing. You can get a flavour of this world by reading about a literary walking tour of Prague.
Poor Josef Blau seems to be totally lacking in self-confidence and also suffering from paranoia. He is convinced that he has no personal worth and that he only survives as a teacher due to an iron discipline which holds at bay the ravaging hoards of boys in his class. To his tortured mind, the slightest lapse of discipline would result in the collapse of his class and his expulsion from his profession.
To Blau, the boys seems to be a hostile army, constantly watching for opportunities to exploit his weak points and waiting for any opportunity to bring about his downfall. In reality of course, the class are a perfectly normal set of early teenage boys and the novel shows Blau’s complete failure to see them as individuals, such is his terror of what he sees as a disorderly mob.
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 He rejects anything that challenges his withdrawn life and interacts with other people as little as possible.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.