Mohr by Frederick Reuss
The engaging premise behind Frederick Reuss’s novel, Mohr, involves a family photo given to the author along with the slightest of stories. For much of his life Reuss tried to learn about his grandfather’s uncle, Max Mohr, but beyond the barest of facts (he was a playwright, novelist and doctor in Germany prior to World War II), little else was known. In 1997 a German publisher reissued one of Mohr’s books and it included an afterword by his grandson, a relative Reuss had not known existed. The two men connected and through his new cousin Reuss was able to view a collection of photographs of Mohr, his wife Kathe and daughter Eva, as well as friends Mohr made after moving alone to Shanghai. It was these photos that proved to be the catalyst for Reuss’s long fascination with Mohr and led him to write a novel based on what might have driven his ancestor to leave his family behind.
I couldn’t think of another novel that developed in this way and I was very curious to see just what Reuss accomplished from his cache of pictures. Mohr was clearly a complex and determined man, although it appears from the novel that he was also a genuinely restless one. He served his country with distinction in World War I and enjoyed a great deal of fame and critical acclaim from his writing in the period afterwards. But Mohr was Jewish and as anti-Semitism swept Germany he found his works banned and his livelihood destroyed. Reuss does not inject any sense of hopelessness or fear into the novel -- in fact Mohr’s decision to travel to China and leave Kathe and Eva behind (to join him at some later point, he promises) almost reads as a whim. If he had been a younger and more irresponsible man I would have thought he was following his dream. Reuss does not overanalyze Mohr’s motives too much, though -- he tells Kathe that he is leaving and almost immediately he is on his way. Left on their farm Kathe looks forward to letters and allows her mind to wander and to consider all of the things that distance will provide her husband, things that he seems to think closeness renders impossible.
In Shanghai Mohr builds a small practice and also serves as a physician at two different hospitals. It is here that Reuss allows the former playwright to wax philosophical on all matter of subjects. Even as he finds himself drawn to a pretty nurse who appears more than once in the pictures, he also cannot stop photographing himself with the pictures that Kathe has sent him of herself and their daughter.
His thoughts continue to wander. Can feelings be preserved in photographs? The way love letters can be written on a typewriter? Remember those last weeks in Berlin, Lindenstrasse, looking down on the tram stop? A thousand telephone calls to blasé consular officials who wouldn’t follow-up, who made him wait on the line and then simply hung up? He called to tell Kathe he was coming back via Prague, where doors were still open, and Eva came to the telephone and said, "Papa, please come home soon!" After that all he could bring himself to do was sit at the window and watch the trams. He sat there all day, alone and helpless, trying to talk himself into feeling big and ambitious once again.
After Lindenstrasse there were no more trips to conquer Germany, only dreams that saw the other side of the world. And if he still heard Eva in his heart, calling her father home, it was a call he no longer felt compelled to obey. In fact, if Mohr knew just how hard life would be for the child of a Jewish father in Germany, Reuss gives no hint. But he does know that Mohr went on vacation to Japan, even as the Japanese were invading his new country. What was he looking for there that persuaded him to take such a chance? And why wouldn’t he go home or send for his family so their chances could at least improve?
Throughout the book Mohr dwells on memories of his dear friend, the author D.H. Lawrence. He also recalls his moments of fame, his life on the farm with Kathe, his joy with young Eva. But none of this can compare to the excitement and sheer overwhelming activity of Shanghai, and none of it can stop the attraction to the nurse, Agnes, the woman who ultimately would send home to Kathe the last moments and memories of Max Mohr’s life.
I found Mohr to be an elegant, beautifully written book, and was impressed by the amount of story that Reuss was able to create around the fragments of Mohr’s life. Regardless of the degree of truth that is present here (and no one will ever know completely what happened in Shanghai or why Mohr went there), the story itself breathes with an enormous amount of literary truth on its own. This is a novel that readers will find easy to consume. Yet the story stays with you long after the last pages are turned. I could not let go of a lot of this book, particularly those passages which dwell on Kathe and her struggle. She is left to love Mohr, even though she lost him the moment he found his distant dream. At one point, she thinks:
There are local legends of people who disappeared into mountains: men and women swallowed by crevasses or buried in avalanches, who never came home. But disappearing into a landscape and vanishing from it are two different things. There are no final proportions. Without a body to lower into the ground, there is nothing to prevent you from dreaming him running down to the house from high up in the meadow -- forever.
What a lovely thing Frederick Reuss has done with this book and what an amazing tribute to his grandfather’s beloved uncle; the man who once upon a time, a long time ago, went far, far away forever.
Mohr by Frederick Reuss