Frederick Reuss


(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 4, 2006)

"There is nothing wrong with supposing you belong to a continuum of human events that links you to a vanished past, part of which you may come to know, and all of which you are free to imagine.  I say you, but I also mean me.  In novels, personal pronouns can be misleading….Why can't I be you?  Or him or her?  At least here, for now, sitting on a bench outside this old Bavarian farmhouse called Wolfsgrub early one October morning in 1934?  And if I can be Max Mohr, I can be his wife, Kathe, too—whom he has left sleeping to come downstairs and light the stove."

Frederick Reuss, pondering his role as author at the beginning of his engrossing novel about Max Mohr, has personal reasons for wanting to get his story "right."  Max Mohr was one of his own distant relatives, his grandfather's favorite uncle—a physician, friend of D. H. Lawrence, successful playwright, and novelist, who died mysteriously in Shanghai in 1937.  Reuss has spent years haunting libraries and archives trying to glean information about Max Mohr, whose writings were burned by the Nazis.  He is especially curious about why Mohr left his wife and child, whom he apparently adored, in rural Wolfsgrub, Germany, and, in 1934, set out for China alone.  Putting himself into the minds of both Mohr and his wife Kathe, Reuss reconstructs their story, using a cache of family photographs to give shape to the novel and form to the life of Max Mohr.  The result is an insightful novel, a story of identity, as Mohr reveals who he is, who he was, and who he might have been.

Alternating the setting and point of view between Mohr in Shanghai and his wife Kathe in Wolfsgrub, author Reuss establishes dramatic contrasts between the quiet, rural farm life of Kathe and the frantic urban life of Mohr, who works as a physician during the Chinese civil war and China's battle against Japan.  Slowly, he shows us Mohr's inherent contradictions—his apolitical nature but his pragmatism about his future as a Jew in Germany; his naivete in going to Japan to climb Mount Fuji while Japan is attacking China; his love for Kathe and his young daughter Eva, even as he is beginning a new relationship; his kindness and sense of mission in saving people from the horrors of the war in China, while leaving his wife and half-Jewish daughter behind in Germany.

Gradually, as time shifts back and forth, a full picture of the enigmatic Mohr evolves, through his actions, the observations made by Kathe, letters, and through Mohr's reminiscences of conversations he has had with D. H. Lawrence, whom he visited until just a couple of months before Lawrence's death at age forty-four.  The nearly fifty photographs of Mohr, Kathe, Eva, the people Mohr knew in China, and even one of D. H. Lawrence, dramatize and enhance the reader's portrait of Mohr as a husband, father, and friend, while Mohr's actions and reminiscences show him as an individual.

Mohr, commenting on his life in Shanghai, recognizes that "he has no good choices—or, more precisely, no choices that leave him with any vestige of goodness, that no good can possibly come from any path he chooses to take," whether he stays in China, returns to his family, or moves elsewhere.  He recognizes that "smashing human connections is the easiest thing in the world to do," and he wonders, "Where was real life?  Was it here or there?"  He also knows, however, that "It is only the moment that is real.  [And] it is also only the moment that passes."  Ultimately, the reader realizes that Mohr and Kathe both recognize that despite their love they have different needs and that their lives involve a "question of separate destinies, how to be together and apart at the same time." 

In exceptionally clear, straightforward prose, Reuss creates an intimate portrait of Mohr, Kathe, and several other characters, while making thoughtful observations about life and our perceptions of ourselves.  Wartime Shanghai, with all its devastation and horror, is seen peripherally here--as it directly affects the life and thinking of Mohr--and when Mohr's story concludes in 1937, the reader is not surprised by the outcome, just saddened that individuals exercise so little control over their lives when ideologies become more important than people.  Ultimately, Mohr remains an enigma, a man who lived in the moment and who, like most of us, can never really be known. As author Reuss takes the reader along on his personal journey and makes connections with his own past, through Mohr, he himself illustrates one of Kathe's observations about Mohr:  "So much of who we are is also all that never was."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews

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Frederick ReussFrederick Reuss lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and two daughters. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014