Reading Erich Maria Remarque for German Literature Month

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November was German Literature Month, an event hosted by Caroline@Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy@Lizzy’s Literary Life. I’d like to thank them for devoting their time to such a great event. I’ve wanted to participate for years and I loved all three books I managed to read.
I’m a little behind with my reviews, trying to carve slices of time to write and succeeding only today in finally putting my thoughts together. My first contribution to the event was a short collection of stories by Franz Kafka which can be read here.

Remarque A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1954) is the first novel by Remarque that I’ve read. It starts with a rather graphic description of the ravages of war, of dead bodies and smell and the horrible weather that changes the human flesh in a way I didn’t really want to know but became fascinated with from the first page.
The main character, Ernst Graeber , is a German soldier who, after two years spent fighting in the war, finally gets a two-week leave to go home and see his parents. But home as he remembers it is no more. His parents’ house is a heap of rubble, as are quite a few of the houses nearby. He tries to adapt to this new reality, nurturing the hope that somewhere his parents are safe and one day he will see them again. When he meets Elisabeth, things don’t look so bleak anymore. Suddenly the two weeks that seemed like an eternity before, now seem too short to spend with Elisabeth.

Can a lifetime be lived in fourteen days? Can happiness and love blossom on the wasteland of war? Is living a normal life possible? I found myself pondering these questions as page by page, Graeber becomes more and more a person and less a character. He’s compassionate and he questions the part he had to play in the war. The conversations he has with Elisabeth are full of depth and meaning and sometimes they’re quite philosophical. Questions about life and death and the futility of it all, the disillusion of war, the reality behind what he’s been told on the front and what actually happened back home, it all becomes a living nightmare. But Remarque gives Graeber resources to keep on living and the wisdom to appreciate whatever morsel of goodness he finds.

What I liked the most was the dialogue. It gives the story a real and urgent pace, sprinkled here and there with humor, something I did not expect to read about in a war novel but there you go, it’s there and it’s done in such a way that it adds even more depth to the story. Many times I stopped and wondered at the passages showing the cruelty, the hope, and the ability of the characters to climb right back from the abyss of despair. It wasn’t an easy novel to read, but Remarque doesn’t let things get too bleak – an unexpected turn here and there, help coming from strange places, and the extraordinary beauty of the words make this truly a book to remember. And I’m sure I’ll remember the abrupt and beautiful ending. It could not have stopped any other way but I still have mixed feelings about it.

The Black Obelisk (1956)

Having liked “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” so much, I immediately dived into “The Black Obelisk”. This book is set in 1923-1924, a time when war was a thing of the past but its effects were still very much palpable. Inflation was running every business into the ground, and for those working for the funeral house Heinrich Kroll & Sons staying abreast was done with the ability of a juggler performing at the circus.
Georg, the owner, and Ludwig, the main protagonist, work together, trying to stay in business. And dying is a profitable business after all, says Remarque with an irony present from the first page. It is clear this book is a lot lighter, more than slightly ironic and a lot more humorous than “A Time to Love and a Time to Die”. The characters have their own idiosyncrasies, and they each play their part in something that resembles more of a spectacle than anything else. Eduard, the owner of the restaurant Walhalla, who once sold coupons to his customers thinking this will bring him more money, only to have inflation ruin his plans; Wilke, the carpenter who made coffins and sometimes slept in one; Isabelle, the young lady living in an insane asylum; Lisa, the temptress, married to a horse butcher; Knopf, the former general who comes home drunk in the evening, and Gerda, whose relationship with Ludwig made me remember that of Graeber and Elisabeth.

Ludwig is an idealist; a World War I veteran, he clings to his beliefs, keeping himself apart from the new world of greed and speculation. Because of this his relationships with two women don’t last. Through his conversations with Genevieve Terhoven, or “Isabelle” as she likes to call herself, he is as close to love as he can, but Remarque adds a twist to this story – the young lady is a schizophrenic and their relationship anything but simple.

I enjoyed this novel as much as the first but for different reasons. While “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” is somber for the most part, and more introspective, it is clear that in “The Black Obelisk” the author created a more relaxed atmosphere where humor plays a bigger role, and the conversations verge on cheerful at times, only to be punctured by the achingly heartfelt exchanges between Ludwig and Elisabeth. The black obelisk that gives the title to the novel is real and as I often wondered about its role in the story, it is at the very end that it is made clear. I have to say I love Remarque’s endings even if I wish they were different; the novels feel complete, and Remarque trades open endings for something with more substance, giving plenty of answers and not much ambiguity.
I’d be hard pressed to choose one book over the other. I liked both. The writing is superb, the dialogue is perfect, his characters believable and likeable. Unfortunately I can’t quote from my favorite passages since the books I read were Romanian translations, but there were so many! I would like to read more of Remarque’s work – perhaps his famous “All Quiet on the Western Front”. He’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors.

*Read in October-November 2015
*My rating 5/5 stars for both books

Caroline’s review

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14 Responses to Reading Erich Maria Remarque for German Literature Month

  1. This is such a lovely review, Delia, it makes me want to pick up these two from the library! I’ve only read his All Quiet on the Western Front (ages ago in uni 😀 ), but was impressed by the quiet intensity and beautiful prose. I often feel that much hype builds too great expectations, but I really think you’ll love All Quiet, too 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Thanks, Bina, I hope you get to read both books. Now that I’ve read these two I want to go for “All Quiet on the Western Front” and everything else by Remarque. I’m glad you liked the book. He’s a fantastic writer, isn’t he?

  2. Caroline says:

    I’m so glad you liked him so much. It’s very rare that I read one book after the other of the same author but when I discovered him I did. My favourites are still All Quiet and Arch of Triumph. The latter even a bit more. I mean, you can’t “like” All Quiet, it’s too horrible.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Caroline,
      Now I really have to read “All Quiet on the Western Front” to see why it’s so horrible, though I suspect why. Reading two books by the same author can be good in the sense that you can compare them right away as they are still fresh in mind. I’ll keep an eye out for Arch of Triumph, thanks for the recommendation.

    • Deb Atwood says:

      Yes, All Quiet is bleak, but the writing is insightful. And I love the scene in which the soldier addresses his “enemy.”

  3. Pingback: Erich Maria Remarque: Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben – A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1954) Literature and War Readalong November 2015 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  4. Sally Miller says:

    Thank you for this; I read ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ a couple of years ago and was captivated by Remarque’s writing, but I never got round to reading any more of his works. These two look like a great place to start.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Sally,
      It looks like everybody else started with the famous book and liked it. I probably would have done the same if I had it but I’m sure I’ll read it at some point. I love his writing too much not to. I hope you get to read these two and like them just as much.

  5. Brian Joseph says:

    I really want to read Remarque.

    A Time to Love and a Time to Die sounds very good. Such a plot, following a soldier during a short term leave, has such potential.

    On the issue of book conclusions, though I think that open endings have a lot of artistic merit, a definitive ending is indeed a l lot more satisfying.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Brian,
      I really hope you will. “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” is more melancholy and philosophical. I think you’ll enjoy the dialogue. You’re right about potential, this is such an intense book, I was sad to come to the end.
      Book endings are fine either way, a lot depends on what happens in the book – I wonder if I would have liked “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” better with an open ending.

  6. Vishy says:

    I am still reading the book, Delia, and so I will come back and read your review properly and comment. So wonderful to know that you were able to read one more Remarque book for German Literature Month.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Vishy,
      November was a slow month reading wise but so busy in other aspects.
      I look forward to comparing thoughts on “A Time to Love and a Time to Die”. I’m particularly interested in your thoughts on the dialogue in the book.

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