Lothar-Günther Buchheim Essay - Critical Essays

Buchheim, Lothar-Günther

Buchheim, Lothar-Günther 1918–

Buchheim is a German novelist and journalist, author of The Boat.

Propaganda items are voiced and ridiculed often enough, [in the Boat] but it is hard to see who is having the last laugh. The hard-case veteran skipper can admire the British, regret the destruction and sneer at the Gestapo all he likes, but he does what the Gestapo wants.

Much might hang on whether it is the author or the narrator who keeps wavering towards the "we have been betrayed" theory, for the latter case would open up all sorts of interesting ironies. It seems likely, though, that the simple view is right: the author likes his rough, repulsive crewmen, is engaged with comradeship and the spirit of 1943, and has written not a novel but a celebration.

Thomas Shippey, "Spirit of 1943," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 8, 1974, p. 1248.

Somehow it comes as a surprise that the German navy during World War II was made up of real people, people who complained about their leaders, drank, whored, loved and died…. [The Boat, a] novel, "but not a work of fiction," by Buchheim, who served on German minesweepers, destroyers and submarines and who like his principal character was a naval correspondent, describes the human, gritty side of a German U-boat crew…. He has written a memorable story of the power of the sea and of the horror of submarine warfare for the hunter and the hunted, whose roles change with dramatic suddenness….

It is inevitable that his description of the oceans will be compared to Conrad's, for example, but Buchheim's prose (with the superb English translation by Denver and Helen Lindley) stands on its own merit for sheer descriptive power. Toward the end there is a disingenuous and unnecessary espionage plot that is not fully developed and leads nowhere. The U-boat has enough problems with the British, the Asdic and comprised codes without having to fret about Mata Hari. The excitement of the hunt, the chase and the ocean is more than enough to satisfy the most cynical armchair adventurer, and lifts this novel out of the trough of commonplace war stories. (p. 26)

Robert J. Myers, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 24, 1975.

Certain novels seem definitive, in the sense that we would not want to read another on the subject; ["The Boat"] is one. Its only developed character is a U-boat on patrol in the Atlantic late in 1941, just as the tide of war begins to turn against the Germans. The author, like his narrator, was an official naval observer and served on just such a boat. He assures us his book is "a novel but not a work of fiction." No one with the stamina to read far into "The Boat" will doubt him; if its interest as a novel is negligible, its credibility as a naturalistic documentary on submarine warfare is almost unendurable. Why did the author wait a quarter century to write it? In war fiction ("The Iliad," for example) details of technology tend, as the war recedes into the past, to become emblematic, yielding to abstraction and concern with moral and psychological issues. Not so here….

We learn little about the men, but a lot about the boat….

Every imaginable disaster assails this hapless sub: attacks by air and sea, even sabotage and a hurricane that lasts four weeks. Buchheim believes the reader should spend as long with each disaster as must the crew: we must endure the anxiety of waiting for orders, the agony of waiting for explosions and (above all) the stink of fear—rotting food, vomit, sweat, urine and excrement.

More an act of journalism than a work of art, "The Boat" achieves a traditional goal of fiction: it tells us a great deal about something of which we knew very little. Even with its marginal characterizations, it suggests the dreadful nature of submarine combat. It may not be read long by those who care for fiction, but I suspect it will attain a kind of permanence in the bibliographies of those who write about war at sea.

Peter S. Prescott, "Men and Torpedoes," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), May 26, 1975, p. 76.

[In "The Boat"] Mr. Buchheim … takes us inside a U-boat on patrol in the Atlantic, and keeps us there until we want to climb the walls. This is a highly accomplished piece of reporting, but it is humdrum and pedestrian in its fictional dressing. The commander is an unflappable stickler for correct reports, the crew is a predictable cast that might belong on an American B-17, and the episodes—each minutely described—include stretches of boredom, a tumultuous storm, two attacks (each followed by nerve-racking attempts to escape enemy destroyers), and a scary mishap underwater near Gibraltar. Mr. Buchheim has caught the horror of combat—particularly that helpless form of waiting which is shared, perhaps, not only by men in submarines but by civilians in air-raid shelters and by infantrymen in trenches. Except for a few gibes at flag-waving Germans, he has no obvious political points to make, but there are moments when, surveying a burning tanker or wondering how many men must have been aboard a ship that was just torpedoed, his directness amounts to pity. (p. 110)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), June 2, 1975.

The soldier as a morally lobotomized professional is a familiar 20th century item. Indeed, pride in professionalism has too often become the true refuge of the scoundrel. Yet Buchheim skillfully dodges these issues by casting his book [The Boat] as documentary, fly-on-the-wall fiction. Its amount of factual authenticity about the 220-ft. submarine and its innards is mesmerizing. Technical data about pressure hulls, diesel engines, electric motors, torpedoes and underwater navigation form a web of fascinating distraction. The incessant diving, ogling of manometers and Papenberg gauges, and the flooding and blowing of ballast tanks run like a litany throughout the book. Buchheim employs some tricky literary gimbals to keep himself balanced between feelings of revulsion and respect for the men aboard this stifling tunnel of dead metal. He is adept at flattening his prose in the manner of much postwar German writing, creating an ironic though pat Götterdämmerung or adding a horrific touch of 1920s expressionism….

The Boat is an exciting adventure yarn, full of battle tension and long bouts of boredom on long patrols. But as a novel, its characters are considerably less alive than the technology that encases them. Even at an incredible 900 rivet-popping feet beneath the Atlantic, there is the uneasy feeling of bobbing rudderless on the surface. (p. K8)

R. Z. Sheppard, "Plumbers of the Deep," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), June 2, 1975, pp. K5, K8.

The Boat will appeal to anyone who ever wore a uniform in battle on land or sea, but especially to navy men, for the technical detail and devastating candor of life inside a wartime sub have seldom been approached elsewhere in fiction. No nice-nelly writing here, which is probably why the book has been reviled as well as praised inside Germany. It's a little like reading about the Civil War from the point of view of a Confederate soldier. He and his fellows were human, too, whatever the victors thought of them at the time. (p. 25)

Richard L. Tobin, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 28, 1975.

If war is hell, war fiction is an anteroom of purgatory. A good quarter-century after Mailer and Jones began to share out the blood and guilt of the South Pacific, "The Boat" puts in from the North Atlantic with yet another load of our fathers' sins to visit upon a generation now overburdened with its own.

This time we are asked to endorse the crimes of 50 Germans who volunteered for the most despicable campaign in the annals of naval warfare—the U-boat offensive against merchant shipping from 1939 to 1943. That it turned out in the end to be as lethal for them as it was for their civilian victims is no great claim on our sympathy, and the author offers—can offer—little in mitigation of cold-blooded murder at sea. On the contrary, he rather confirms a view that was then common but which has since lost ground to a no doubt prudent unwillingness to cast the first stone, namely that those attracted by the ruthless cruelty of U-boat warfare were either psychopaths or degenerates….

One reason why it takes 463 pages to tell [a] simple story is that each incident is dressed in enough technical detail to earn every reader who stays the course an instant master's degree. And once embarked on "The Boat," most of them probably will see the voyage through to the last gush of blood because all this expertise does eventually distract attention from the dullness of a crew with few ambitions higher than the navel. UA VII-C is by far the best realized character in the book.

Another reason for the novel's length is that Buchheim never relies on economy for his effects. The best passages occur when the floridity of his style is matched by the extravagances of the Atlantic, its weather and seascapes; elsewhere, the weight of his adjectives tends to glamorize the merely squalid and restore the "romance" he sets out to debunk.

This makes it the more chilling that he should have been reviled in Germany for insulting the memory of its naval "heroes," for this is clearly the last thing he intends. "The Boat" is a straight but unsuccessful bid to soften history's judgment…. (p. 14)

Donald Goddard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 29, 1975.

Billed as the "All Quiet on the Western Front of World War II," [The Boat], the episodes of which, the author tells us, "are the sum of his experiences aboard U-boats," is surely the most vivid and human picture of the underseas war ever written….

This is a man's story, punishing in its endurance, untainted by Hitlerism, and compassionate in its understanding. One appreciates why the truth and desperation in the novel have attracted an enormous readership in West Germany. (p. 81)

Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), July, 1975.