The first English translation of Czech author Ungar’s extremely interesting second novel, published in 1927, preceding the better-known The Maimed (1928, 2002).
Josef Blau, schoolteacher, has a full-blown case of paranoia, driven by an unrelenting sense of inferiority from having been born to the working class. Now, he’s absolutely certain that his group of 18 high-school boys—all from the very well-off classes—are simply biding their time, waiting for him to make some mistake that will let them get the upper hand and ride rough-shod over him, revealing that his authority over them is baseless, humiliating him utterly. A more strict keeper of order, therefore, you could hardly imagine than Josef Blau, so stiff and formal that Ungar never even mentions him except by his full name: Josef Blau—not even in the scenes in his apartment at home with his pregnant (and very pretty) wife Selma, his mother-in-law, and their frequent visitor Uncle Bobek, gourmand, souse, sponge, nostalgist, braggart. What will happen? On an outing into the countryside, Josef Blau is certain he hears his boys taunt him—especially when he then senses them turning toward Herr Leopold, the handsome, companionable, athletic new instructor. Things only worsen as Josef Blue runs into money trouble, thinks Herr Leopold is wooing Selma, and believes that the richest boy in his class has a secret that he’s about to use to humiliate his instructor. Josef Blau’s childhood friend, the very strange and bitterly class-conscious Modlizki, suggests a plan to turn the tables and get something to blackmail the boy in return—by spying on him in the red light district. But there’s a snag, and the plan brings results more horrifying than ever intended or imagined, and the question becomes one of whether Josef Blau can survive at all.
Like a glimpse three-quarters of a century back into a world that has wholly vanished: formal, constrained, class-ridden, quintessentially European. Fascinating.