In the past six months, I have taken over 5,000 pictures. Labeled by date and loosely chronologized, they sit somewhere on the hard drive of my laptop, a day-by-day, event-by-event record of these months in my life. I took pictures of people—friends, family, (far too often) my dog—and places, books and foods, big and small happenings. The “important pictures” (graduations, family reunions, vacations) are to be expected, but it’s surprised me how sometimes the most ordinary pictures can be the most revealing. Looking at a restaurant where we ate brings out every memory of the meal—the dirt on the salad fork, the artistically-folded napkins, the waiter with crazy hair—and not only the objective look, but the color of the place, things I would otherwise forget and often do forget until I see the pictures again. The way things were, and the way they felt.
With his latest novel, Mohr, Frederick Reuss (the author of Horace Afoot, Henry of Atlantic City, and The Wasties) takes a similar step. Reuss intersperses throughout the text of the historical novel almost 50 duotone photographs (circa 1920-1940) taken from the life of German novelist and doctor Max Mohr, the real-life protagonist of the book. Along with Reuss’s research on Mohr’s life, they provide the basis for the story, and link the necessarily fictional elements of the book (exact details and conversations) to Mohr’s real life.
Mohr is a novel of unraveling. It’s a love story, but not in conventional terms: this is not an infatuation story, this is not boy-meets-loses-wins-back-girl. This is a story of rooted, time-enduring love, husband-and-wife love. Mohr and his wife, Käthe, are only together briefly at the book’s opening before the restless Mohr feels compelled to leave their home in Wolfsgrub, but the entire rest of the novel, even as Mohr lives and works in Shanghai and Käthe remains in Germany, centers on their separated love. Reuss’s narration cycles deftly between their parallel stories, linking them through thoughts, photographs, letters and telegrams, showing with real emotion the little aches and sadnesses but also the overriding necessity of the love that the Mohrs share.
And as their love slowly unravels, so too does the world. While World War II begins as a mere hint of a faint backdrop, through chance references every 20 pages or so, it slowly looms into the foreground as fighting slides into China. Reuss portrays well the absurdity of war, the ways the world can tear itself back apart and only sometimes put itself back together, but it’s a testament to his success with characterization that the global events never overshadow the human relationships, only mirroring and in some aspects defining them. The ending is messy, not clean, but in a good way: because life is not clean, and an easy resolution would cheapen the impact of the book. Mohr fades out like real life, unresolved, un-neat, and a little achey.
Reuss’s prose rarely if ever impresses through sheer imagery or wordplay or beauty, but it’s concise and solidly-constructed, and it conveys his meaning well. The strength of Reuss’s writing is more in his observations, the way he builds emotions out of little details like the objects in the clutter of a room or the way a certain person moves. The writing and the photographs play off of one another, illustrating each other. And the images seem to perfectly capture the mood of the story as it goes on: is this the nature of photography, telling deeper truths in the instants it captures? Or is it because the novel was written based off of the photographs, because they colored the mood of Reuss’s prose and changed its shape?
The image at the start of the book’s final section sticks most strongly in my head: it is Mohr’s face staring silently out, level, tired, unreadable. A human face, a living person (at least in the photograph). With Mohr, Reuss has found another way to capture the impression of a person.
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