Erich Maria Remarque

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Erich Maria Remarque 1898–1970

(Born Erich Paul Remark) German-born novelist, playwright, journalist, poet, and essayist.

Remarque is considered one of the most important war novelists in contemporary literature. At one time he wrote articles on sports, travel, and the "good life" for various magazines. Critics dismissed Remarque because of the frivolous nature of many of these pieces. He also wrote two early novels and a collection of poems and essays which were virtually ignored by critics and readers before the publication of his highly-acclaimed war novel All Quiet on the Western Front. In this novel and the ones that followed, however, Remarque seems to disregard technique in his concern with illustrating the physical and spiritual doom of the First World War generation in Germany. Remarque's strengths as a writer are cited as the simple, direct language of the war novels—in contrast to the often violent subject matter—and his ability to create moving, realistic characters and situations, but some critics feel that his writing occasionally suffers from an emphasis on content.

Remarque is best remembered for All Quiet on the Western Front. Although an introductory paragraph states that the novel is supposed to represent the feelings of a whole generation, it actually deals only with those soldiers who learn to hate the futility and destruction of war. Initially All Quiet was enthusiastically received by critics for its realistic presentation of the war and what it meant to the average soldier. Eventually, however, the book was attacked by certain political factions in Europe for its pacifist denunciation of the war. All Quiet was one of the books publicly burned by the Nazi regime in 1933. Generally, though, Remarque's illustration of the inhumanity of war through the words and reactions of a common foot soldier is highly praised.

Because of political conflicts, Remarque moved to Switzerland in 1938, renouncing his German citizenship, and later became an American citizen. He continued to write about the war, particularly its aftereffects, but none of his later books received the critical acclaim of All Quiet. The Road Back, a sequel to All Quiet, recounts the collapse of the German army and the efforts of returning soldiers to adjust to civilian life. Arch of Triumph, the story of World War II refugees struggling to survive in Paris, is generally viewed as Remarque's only important novel after All Quiet. A Spark of Life, set in a concentration camp, is noted for its grim, moving depiction of one man's attempt to measure the amount of pain one can tolerate.

Critics often deny that Remarque's works have literary merit, citing the author's uneven writing style and frequent use of sensationalism. Nevertheless, Remarque's novels are still extremely popular with readers. Most importantly, however, Remarque will be remembered as a humanitarian decrying the brutality of war. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Richard Church

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Surely everyone, again and again, has asked himself with misgiving and horror what is this conspiracy of silence maintained by the men who returned from the War? For it is true that, in spite of the many professional books written, no convincing revelation has been made of the heroism, the treachery, the foul intimacies, the brutality and coarseness, the gradual moral, social, and emotional decay, which made up, with a myriad other happier factors, the story of the soldier's life in the trenches. One timidly and somewhat shamefacedly asks questions of the individuals who were there, and the courteous and interested replies are always evasive and hopeless. It is as though the men despair of making one see the first elements of that world; as though they are trying to make one...

(This entire section contains 479 words.)

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understand a race, a scenery, even a law of gravitation, peculiar to another planet, and so incapable of explanation in terrestrial terms to terrestrial senses.

One, therefore, comes upon [All Quiet on the Western Front] and trembles. This is no literary trope; it is true. I read a few pages, and stopped. I returned, read on for a little, found myself living at last in that world forbidden to the civilian, and again I had to stop, gropingly trying to orientate my mind, my nervous organism, to the overwhelming experience re-enacted by the genius of this German soldier. It is not an armchair experience, a vicarious life in the library. It is three-dimensional, nay, four-dimensional life, pulsing in one's arteries and loading one's brain with a weight of memories of things seen, heard, and suffered, so that one's life is no longer the same as it was; is older, more honest and disillusioned, stripped of false politeness and pruderies, and all the idle amenities of our normal social intercourse. (pp. 624-25)

[This novel makes] one realize that in four years of this hell which no nightmare could imitate, the culture and intricately beautiful civilization built up since the beginning of human history, was torn off by these men as a frivolous appendage, and trampled angrily into the crimson-streaked mud of the trenches. But you may ask, "What, then, held these people together: what was that which kept them sane, and prompted them to such magnificent endurance, and to such ferocity of effort when occasion demanded?" And the answer is simply "Comradeship." That is the soul of this book. It was the young soldier's one light. He had been too young to find anchorage in love, religion, or a profession. No memories of these things, no hope of return to them, were there to support him. Comradeship was his substitute for these forces, and by its strength he conquered death, and carried through to some sort of preservation. (p. 625)

Richard Church, "War," in The Spectator (© 1929 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), No. 5260, April 20, 1929, pp. 624-25.

Frank Ernest Hill

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Erich Maria Remarque was a German soldier during the World War and has written a record of life in the trenches ["All Quiet on the Western Front"]….

[As] the terse story marches forward we encounter the things that other war books have made known to us: the trench mud, the lice, the ineradicable rats, the tension, noise, fear, pain, hunger, horror….

On this long pilgrimage, so often ghastly and ferocious, there is more than the routine of the trenches…. Perhaps most important there is the inner drama—the fever that rises and falls in the souls of the fighters as the war goes on. To this, indeed, the whole story is shaped—its sharply etched descriptions of suffering, endurance, grim humor and climactic event….

"All Quiet on the Western Front" will give any sensitive reader a terrific impact. It is a book that strikes a succession of hard, inescapable blows. In this sense it is a work of art. For only because of its economy of design, its compactness of episode and its trenchancy of utterance has it managed to fuse the almost unmanageable minutiae of war material into a narrative that has the lean savagery of an Ibsen tragedy. It pays in loss of color and sense of greatness for this concentration of utterance, yet the price is perhaps not too big….

One could quote much and poignantly from this record. There are the passages of vulgar humor, Germanic yet universal in character….

Remarque says in a few sentences of foreword that he will "try to tell of a generation of men who, even though they have escaped its shells, were destroyed by war." This task is well performed. Never obtruding his feelings, he reveals them naturally and convincingly as they grow….

The generation that grew up before us, though it has passed these years with us here, already had a home and a calling, now it will return to its old occupations, and the war will be forgotten—and the generation that has grown up after us will push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most of us will be bewildered—the years will pass by, and in the end we shall fall into ruin.

This philosophy, rounding out the compact record, is in its permeative quality German. So, perhaps, is the thorough devotion to duty which seems to leave the soldiers incurious as to their enemies, except in prison camps. Yet the book is surprisingly un-national; it might almost have been written by a Frenchman or an American, or an English common soldier of intelligence…. It remains a gaunt, dynamic thing, lacking, I feel, something important in literary texture, speaking with remarkable directness of life-in-death. (p. 2)

Frank Ernest Hill, "Destroyed by the War," in New York Herald Tribune Books, June 2, 1929, pp. 1-2.

Louis Kronenberger

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In ["All Quiet on the Western Front"] it is the war as, in all its physical horror, it passed before the eyes of a twenty-year-old German private, an intelligent but not unusual boy who, with no preparation, with no fixed principles, was sent away to fight. We are told in a foreword that it is not to be a confession, or an accusation, or an adventure he chronicles, but the tale of a "generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war." They were destroyed because they were cut off from life before they had found a fixed scheme for living….

[The] sense, less of being uprooted than of never possessing roots, is the governing motif of the book, the tragedy that Paul Bäumer and all his fellows instantly recognized and that has proved itself in the ten years since the war. Here are boys bewildered not only by war, but also by lacking standards to which they can revert in a psychological escape from war….

One may see how badly the war upset these lives and yet realize that theirs was not the supreme torture. For this soldiery of whom Remarque, through Paul Bäumer, writes took the war more unflinchingly, more directly, in a certain sense more phlegmatically, than many other participants. Certainly they saw it in all its physical horror, and in "All Quiet" we have a picture of that physical horror unsurpassed for vividness, for reality, for convincingness, which lives and spreads and grows until every atom of us is at the Front, seeing, mingling, suffering. For us readers, indeed, the picture finally acquires a kind of fascination; it so rivets our senses that it no longer terrorizes our imaginations. Under such a spell we can take in everything and need run away, psychologically, from nothing.

It almost certainly had no such fascination for these soldiers; yet "All Quiet" remains, essentially, a document of men who—however else their lives were disrupted—could endure war simply as war. It is for that reason representative of the largest number of men who fought, an Everyman's pilgrimage through four years of fighting. For the same reason, it is about youngsters who were half-puzzled over what it all meant: who were not driven to mental torture because they could not endure what they knew or check their imaginations at what they saw. They sit around, half shrewd, half naïve, and speculate now and again…. But there is no sense of terrible knowledge, of moral responsibility. That is why, as pure revelation, "All Quiet on the Western Front," though magnificent within its own limits, is yet definitely limited.

Louis Kronenberger, "War's Horror as a German Private Saw It," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1929 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 2, 1929, p. 5.

Joseph Wood Krutch

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[In "All Quiet on the Western Front"] a German tells in three hundred simple and vivid pages that same "truth about the war" which his fellows on the other side have already told: War is an interminable, exhausting, and nightmarish business without alleviation or purpose. The soldier is prepared by the gratuitous brutality of the training camp for the necessary brutality of the trenches, and, once he has been launched in his trade, there is no variety except in the kinds of misery.

Remarque tells his plain tale with a sort of naivete which is the result, not of too little experience, but of too much. He has given up rhetoric because it is inadequate and given up analysis because he has gone through more than can ever be analyzed. He must be content to record with a simplicity which is terrible because it could never have been arrived at except through an experience so long as to make the unspeakable commonplace….

"All Quiet on the Western Front" is the German equivalent of [Anders] Latzko, [Henri] Barbusse, and [John] Dos Passos. Inferior to none of the others in vividness or power it is, like them, not only impressive in itself but still more so when taken in conjunction with its fellows. Four men of different race, education, and temperament are thrown into the same great catastrophe. Each, victor and vanquished alike, returns to his own home and each reports, not only men and events, but moods and manners, so precisely similar that if a few words were obliterated it would be impossible to tell which was French and which was German, or Hungarian, or American. All agree in what they leave out—glory and patriotism; all agree in what they put in—suffering, and fear, and disgust. "Death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it," says Remarque, and each in his own way has said the same. Between them (and with the aid of numerous less-talented confreres) they have created a new image of war. In literature at least it can never be the same again. Brass-band versions of the old romanticism may serve the practical purposes of statesmen very well when the next occasion arises, but in art there is no pride, pomp, or circumstance left for Glorious War. Too many literate persons survived to tell their tale with a unanimity which leaves no room for doubt.

Joseph Wood Krutch, "Glorious War," in The Nation, Vol. CXXIX, No. 3340, July 10, 1929, p. 43.

The New York Times Book Review

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The world has gained a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. Of that there can be no longer any question. On the two themes which he has thus far chosen, Remarque has surpassed all his contemporaries. "All Quiet on the Western Front" justly won its place as the best picture of the common soldier in the war to be done in any language; now, in "The Road Back," Remarque has given the most powerful handling it has had to the story of that soldier in the post-war years. "The Road Back" is a finer book than "All Quiet," a book that drops like a plummet into the hearts of men….

It is a finer book than "All Quiet," first of all because it is a book with a wider vision, with a fuller range of life for its scope. And it is better written. It reveals Remarque as a craftsman of unquestionably first rank, a man who can bend language to his will. This is prose … which can be piercingly sweet or vibrantly dramatic, as the theme demands. Whether he writes of men or of inanimate nature, Remarque's touch is sensitive, firm and sure.

The form is again the loosely autobiographical one which was employed in "All Quiet"; the difficult readjustment to the world at home is seen through the eyes of a returned soldier…. The story opens on the eye of the armistice, in a temporary silence so strange, so unaccustomed, that Ernst and his comrades grow calm and "are almost glad to hear again the familiar, trusty noises of death." It ends on a note of peace and hope that the road back to life may be found….

The period between had its terrors and disillusionment, its despair and its grasping at life no less sharp, no less keenly felt, than those of the war itself, and it is these which make the substance of "The Road Back." That for the youth of Germany these trials were heightened by poverty and disruption more acute than was suffered by any other nation, except Russia, does not destroy the universal basis on which this story rests. Just as in "All Quiet," Remarque spoke for the youth of all the world, crushed beneath the heel of machine-made war, so in "The Road Back" he gives voice to the cry of youth the world over, returning and not finding what it had hoped to find….

And for the sensitive youth like Ernst, thrown into the front line at the very moment when life was opening before him, yet still held its mysteries and its soft promises, there was the wrenching effort to recapture that bloom which the world once wore….

Because Remarque's vision is clear and whole, he sees that for some of his comrades, less sensitive than he, the readjustment was not so difficult, just as others, without his resilience, are crushed in the effort to make it. His book, therefore, springing from the personal as every true book must, transcends it.

J. D. A., "Remarque's Farewell to Arms," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1931 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 10, 1931, p. 1.

William Faulkner

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There is a victory beyond defeat which the victorious know nothing of. A bourne, a shore of refuge beyond the lost battles, the bronze names and the lead tombs, guarded and indicated not by the triumphant and man-limbed goddess with palm and sword, but by some musing and motionless handmaiden of despair itself….

It is the defeat which, serving him against his belief and his desire, turns him back upon that alone which can sustain him: his fellows, his racial homogeneity; himself; the earth, the implacable soil, monument and tomb of sweat.

This is beyond the talking, the hard words, the excuses and the reasons; beyond the despair…. Victory requires no explanation. It is in itself sufficient: the fine screen, the shield; immediate and final: it will be contemplated only by history. While the whole contemporary world watches the defeat and the undefeated who, because of that fact, survived.

That's where the need to talk, to explain it, comes from. That's why [in The Road Back] Remarque puts into the mouths of characters speeches which they would have been incapable of making. It's not that the speeches were not true. If the characters had heard them spoken by another, they would have been the first to say, "That is so. This is what I think, what I would have said if I had just thought of it first." But they could not have said the speeches themselves. And this method is not justified, unless a man is writing propaganda. It is a writer's privilege to put into the mouths of his characters better speech than they would have been capable of, but only for the purpose of permitting and helping the character to justify himself or what he believes himself to be, taking down his spiritual pants. But when the character must express moral ideas applicable to a race, a situation, he is better kept in that untimed and unsexed background of the choruses of Greek senators.

But perhaps this is a minor point. Perhaps it is a racial fault of the author, as the outcome of the War was due in part to a German racial fault: a belief that a mathematical calculation would be superior to the despair of cornered rats. (p. 23)

[The Road Back] is a moving book. Because Remarque was moved by the writing of it. Granted that his intent is more than opportunism, it still remains to be seen if art can be made of authentic experience transferred to paper word for word, of a peculiar reaction to an actual condition, even though it be vicarious…. No matter how vivid it be, somewhere between the experience and the blank page and the pencil, it dies. Perhaps the words kill it.

Give Remarque the benefit of the doubt and call the book a reaction to despair. Victory has its despairs, too, since the victorious not only do not gain anything, but when the hurrah dies away at last, they do not even know what they were fighting for, what they hoped to gain, because what little percentage there was in the whole affair, the defeated got it. If Germany had been victorious, this book would not have been written. And if the United States had not got back its troops 50-percent intact, save for the casual cases of syphilis and high metropolitan life, it would not be bought (which I hope and trust that it will be) and read. (pp. 23-4)

[The Road Back] moves you, as watching a child making mud pies on the day of its mother's funeral moves you. Yet at the end there is still that sense of missing significance, the feeling that, like so much that emerges from a losing side in any contest, and particularly from Germany since 1918, it was created primarily for the Western trade, to sell among the heathen like colored glass. From beyond the sentimentality, the defeat and the talking, this fact at least has emerged: America has been conquered not by the German soldiers that died in French and Flemish trenches, but by the German soldiers that died in German books. (p. 24)

William Faulkner, "Beyond the Talking," in The New Republic, Vol. 67, No. 859, May 20, 1931, pp. 23-4.


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Remarque's range is limited, but within it he has no superior among living novelists. One skill he has conspicuously, an ability to make commonplaces evoke the profoundest emotion, to focus immensities through the smallest and simplest details…. In "Three Comrades," his new novel about the Germany of 1928, a gang fight between two garage staffs over the possession of a wrecked automobile comes close to epitomizing ten years of human and social deterioration. When Lenz, one of the three comrades, is killed for no reason except the impulse of a storm-trooper, one of the "young bastards who were still in their cradles then," he is buried in his old uniform blouse with the blood-stains and shrapnel tears of an earlier wound….

The shooting of Lenz is the only scene in which the theme of the disintegrating Germany is overt. Elsewhere it is neither phrased nor alluded to, but it is the ether in which all the events of the book, all the acts and feelings of the characters, necessarily and inexorably exist. (p. 3)

Remarque's method is simple and so stark that sometimes, especially in the last scenes, it suggests [Ernest] Hemingway; but the book moves on many more levels of meaning than ever got into a Hemingway novel. The last scenes, too, have a setting that recalls "The Magic Mountain," but are the very antithesis of [Thomas] Mann's metaphysical drama. Remarque is content to tell the immediate story of immediate individuals; he tells it with a compassion that brings the universe in their wake. He plumbs deep through a narrow aperture, sees far off by looking near at hand. "Three Comrades" is a memorable love story; it is also a memorable novel about the tortured spirit of man. It tells a story of four inconsiderable items in the back streets of Berlin, and how they lived from day to day in a small routine of hazard and panicky competition; so it contrives to tell, gravely and implacably, more about Germany in the vortex than has been told in any other novel. One reads it with an intensity so quiet that not till the end is it recognizable as desperation. This significance that comes upon you unaware, as a necessary consequence of an imaginary story of imagined lives which seem to be only themselves and to symbolize nothing more, is surely as fine a quality as fiction can have. "Three Comrades" is the art of fiction in its properest functioning, unmixed with anything extraneous, a novel to be remembered much longer than most, an achievement of the first order. (pp. 3-4)

Bernard DeVoto, "Germany in the Vortex," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1937, copyright renewed © 1964, by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XVI, No. 1, May 1, 1937, pp. 3-4.

J. Donald Adams

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The qualities which distinguish Remarque as a writer are abundantly displayed in "Three Comrades." Simplicity and strength, humor and tenderness, a poet's sensitive reactions both to the things that are tangible and to those that are not—all these have been united in his work from the beginning, but to them there is added now, I think, a growing power of characterization. The people of "Three Comrades" are more fully depicted than those of Remarque's two earlier books, and there is evident for the first time the power to build up the story of the unfolding of a human relationship—for "Three Comrades" has for its focus one of the most poignant love stories that have been told in our time.

The development of that story is definitely a new achievement for Remarque. Looking back on "All Quiet" and "The Road Back," it is the perfection of certain detached episodes that one best remembers; in "Three Comrades" the episodes are handled in as masterly a fashion, but there is a continuity that was lacking before, a progression in the tale that seemed essential to Remarque's full development as a novelist….

[When] Pat Hollmann stepped into Robby's life the world slowly but perceptibly changed. They would not admit to themselves or to each other at first that it was so, but their steadily growing consciousness that this was not a casual relationship but the central fact in their lives, is what, in Remarque's delicate and sure delineation, gives the story of these two its quality and points the tragedy of its conclusion.

It is a story that brings inevitably to mind that of Lieutenant Henry and Catherine Barkley in Hemingway's "Farewell to Arms." "Three Comrades" ends with an identical scene, on an identical note, after Pat's death from tuberculosis in the sanatorium. It seems to me that Remarque's story is more than a little the better, good as Hemingway's is. And for the reason, I think, first of all, that the relationship in "Three Comrades" is more fully developed and the characters of Robby and Pat are more fully realized. And Remarque's is the greater compassion and the more completely stated understanding of love.

J. Donald Adams, "Erich Remarque's New Novel: 'Three Comrades' Marks an Advance in His Creative Power," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1937 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1937, p. 1.

Goronwy Rees

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Herr Remarque has the high merit of being very readable; yet [Three Comrades] is a failure. It has three themes, comradeship, love, and their contrast with the futility of life and the horror of the War that is over and yet continues; for Herr Remarque cannot forget the War…. [His] intense obsession with an important and universal subject gives Herr Remarque dignity, though the intellect will not accept his book; indeed, it is perhaps precisely the feeling that "the living seem more shadowy than they" which makes the ostensible subject of his book less real than the shadow which falls across it.

The girl herself is a shadow, an angel-shadow, the darling object of love, the subject of nothing; and comradeship here is inarticulate, and perhaps has to be so, for if Herr Remarque submitted it to the same bitter examination as life in general, it might not maintain its high place in his esteem. To these criticisms must be added that the novel suffers from what is perhaps a purely technical defect. It is narrated in the first person by Lohkampf; but Herr Remarque destroys the unity of effect which such a method might give by allowing the narrator soliloquies, outbursts, expostulations in which his character is not his but his author's; and this brutality and arbitrariness to his own creation antagonises the reader.

All this is unfortunate, because Herr Remarque by his experience is well fitted to be a chronicler of the times; and at moments he is a vivacious and sharp observer. But throughout a note of falseness breaks in, disturbing and difficult to identify although unmistakable. If one were asked the root of it, one might perhaps say that it grew out of an unfounded spirituality, which wholly abstracts certain elements, love and friendship, from the dirt of human life, and finds compensation for truths felt to be unbearable by concentrating on these abstractions an overwhelming sweetness; and by the trick, oddly like Hemingway's, of making his characters inarticulate, except when he takes their place, Herr Remarque tries to protect them from too prying a scrutiny. This does not prevent him from assuring us that what they feel is of the highest quality, the more so for being invisible; this quality is indeed demonstrated in actions shining like good deeds in a naughty world, but the trouble is that the actions do not belong to the characters but are Herr Remarque's demonstrations. Herr Remarque has two admirable qualities, moral disgust and a lively sense of fiction; but they never coalesce into the integrity of an artist.

Goronwy Rees, "The Shadow of a War," in The Spectator (© 1937 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 158, No. 5681, May 14, 1937, p. 916.

Ben Ray Redman

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Remarque's subject [in "Flotsam"] is profoundly important and alive with tragedy: the fate of the exiles, the refugees, the many thousands who have been made homeless in recent years because of race or political sentiments. It is from Hitler's Germany that most of these unfortunates have been uprooted, and it is with Hitler's victims that "Flotsam" is chiefly concerned….

Remarque has fully depicted or briefly illuminated almost every aspect of the exile's life, with the very different responses of very different characters to a common fate. He has painted an animated, changing gallery of haunting portraits. The episodes that he has selected for the elaboration of his theme range from the horrible, through the monotonous, to the ludicrous; and he makes every one of them, of whatever kind, effective. He has been content to let his story speak for itself—or, rather, his many stories: there is no personal intrusion of an author moved to fury by his outrageous subject. Fury is there, but it burns beneath the surface. Shall we say, as a novelist's fuel?

That Remarque is a skillful and powerful writer has been demonstrated often, and in "Flotsam" it is demonstrated again. Yet one reviewer cannot escape the conclusion that the parts of "Flotsam," or some of them, are greater than the whole. The entire novel is less affecting than, for example, the single scene in which Steiner bids farewell to his wife after his escape from the concentration camp—yet the scene requires only four pages. The reason is that the novel does not build, does not gather power as it goes forward. It moves without rising. Each episode is effective, but the effectiveness is not cumulative. Remarque has, I think, created a fictional pattern that exhibits more artifice than art, and owes much to cinematic technique. Time and again he lights the path of Kern and Ruth with hope only to thrust them back, time and again, into the darkness. Repetition, approaching monotony, dulls the reader's sensitivity, diminishes the intensity of his response on successive occasions. There can be no quarrel with the happy ending that is finally provided for the young couple, for life itself often provides happy endings. And Steiner's end is as fine and moving as it is inevitable. But one may suggest that the love story which figures so largely in "Flotsam" would have been more convincing and more stirring if all fleshly elements had not been so zealously excluded from its telling. I admit to having had a sensation of bafflement, feeling that the Kern-Ruth story was being only half told.

However, all this adds up only to the judgment that "Flotsam," as a whole, is not as great as its theme; and when one considers the greatness of the theme one need not wonder at any novelist's failing to realize its possibilities fully. Remarque's comparative success compels admiration.

Ben Ray Redman, "The Breaking of Men," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, April 26, 1941, p. 5.

William K. Pfeiler

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Neither in length, scope, nor importance can the work of Erich Maria Remarque, whose novel, Im Westen nichts Neues [All Quiet on the Western Front] (1928), became a world sensation, be compared to the epic achievement of [Arnold] Zweig. Its success will perhaps never be satisfactorily explained, but one fact seems certain: it cannot be due exclusively to extraordinary merit.

Remarque is an artist. By his impressionistic talent he knows how to draw characters and situations that engage attention and arouse deepest sympathy. His language is versatile and concise; his narrative is rich in contrast of situations and reflections, and his composition is done with a brilliant stage technique. Lyric and idyllic scenes alternate with the most lurid and coarsest sort of realism. The intricate problems of life and of the War are cleverly reduced to such plain propositions that even the poorest in spirit can grasp them. (p. 141)

But what are the facts and ideas of this book which claimed to tell of the fate of a whole generation?

A number of adolescents, college students, have been induced by their teacher to volunteer for war service. They and a few older men form a group somewhere at the Western Front. Their fate is the subject of the story, which was to be "neither an accusation nor a confession" but an attempt to give a report of "a generation that was destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells." These pretensions of the author must be refuted. Ample evidence shows that the heroes of Remarque are not representative of a whole generation, but only of a certain type. This is not to criticize Remarque for military and other inconsistencies, but it is significant that in a book which claims to be a report of the front by a front soldier, of 288 pages of text only about 80 pages deal with situations at or right behind the front, and even they are heavily interspersed with reflections. Furthermore, it may be characteristic that the actual life at the front is described in general terms without ever a definite location given, while scenes behind the front, at hospitals, at home, in the barracks, etc., are given in a more clearly outlined realism. The implication is obvious; it leaves little doubt that many of his situations are fictitious.

What is more, the ethical character of the book provokes critical reflection. Through sordid detail and the description of gruesome and inhuman happenings, through reflection and innuendo, the condemnation of war amounts in the last analysis to a sweeping indictment of the older generation. It is as simple as that, and it would not evoke any criticism on our part, the guilt of the elders being a genuine problem, were it not for the superficial way in which Remarque goes about his task. Their teachers get the blame for the boys' being in a war which is of use "only to the Kaiser and the generals." With adolescent swagger, they call all culture "nonsense" [Quatsch] because they have to be out at the front, and when they have a chance they will pay their torturers back…. [In one scene,] Lieutenant Mittelstedt "gets even" with his former teacher, now a drafted private. This particular scene …, told with the malicious glee of an adolescent, is typical of the immature and sophomoric attitude of the heroes. So is the ever-recurring swagger and boastfulness of the young men who pose as old warriors well versed in all the tricks of warfare, though there is not one description of a feat actually executed, such as we find so abundantly and realistically in many other war books.

Individual incidents are given typical significance, less by an abstract process than by the exclusiveness with which they are presented. Thus the reader gets the impression that all officers are brutes; all teachers are cowardly shirkers who let others do the bloody and dangerous job of fighting for Germany's glory while they stay safely at home; and all doctors are inhuman monsters. Against this world of brutality are set off in shining lights the simple but genuine virtues of the common soldiers. They are all good fellows, and it arouses our sympathy to see them fall prey to power-drunk, sadistic superiors.

Immaturity and partiality by omission detract from the ethical import of this work which must be admitted to have force and human appeal. That the writer projects his 1927 mentality into the life of young World War soldiers is perhaps not so great a defect as is his wilfully narrowed outlook. Im Westen nichts Neues is scarcely a serious ethical document. Rather it is symptomatic of an age that saw the final revelation of the war in the adolescent self-pity, resentment, and sentimentality the novel embodies. Really it is the story of an egocentric, immature youngster of whom one may well wonder how he would have developed without the war. There is, indeed, plenty of authority for holding that the war helped many to find themselves and prove their mettle, and that it also exposed the brittle human substance that might have been broken by life anyway, without ever having been exposed to the destructive shells of war. It goes without saying that this observation—contradicting point-blank Remarque's claim to speak for a whole generation—implies neither that the war did not destroy the best of human values, nor that war was justifiable because it developed character. (pp. 141-44)

William K. Pfeiler, "Remarque and Other Men of Feeling," in his War and the German Mind: The Testimony of Men of Fiction Who Fought at the Front, Columbia University Press, 1941, pp. 140-52.∗

Robert Pick

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In our own time there have been few, if any, parallels to the instantaneous success of "All Quiet on the Western Front"—and as the author of that novel, Remarque has ever since 1929 enjoyed international fame. It was not easy to place him as a literary figure, or even to balance the literary merits of his triumphant first novel against the courage of its humanitarian appeal. Remarque's art had not broadened in his later efforts; the book preceding ["Arch of Triumph"] came close to being a failure. It is gratifying now to receive from his pen a volume—his fifth—which possesses many of the characteristics of a great novel. At any rate, it is one of those rare books which, fated for bestsellerdom, will at the same time interest, move, and satisfy the serious, adult reader….

"Arch of Triumph" is above all the story of a great love. There have been pathetically few distinguished love stories these past years. This one, moreover, is free from any pseudo-psychological theorizing. Sex is the natural basis, not the goal, of Ravic's and Joan's relationship. Many a subject is touched on in their long (perhaps overlong but never verbose) dialogues, but whatever they are talking about, they talk love….

There is an occasionally bewildering wealth of episodes throughout this book. Most of them are astonishingly full-blooded. Madame Rolande, for instance, the petty bourgeois overseer of the brothel, seems to come directly out of a [Guy de] Maupassant story.

The author even tries his hand at a colorful picture of society life in the mid-summer Paris of '39. Perhaps "Paris on the brink of catastrophe" has been the subject, or background, of too many recent novels, which may be the reason why Remarque's otherwise so richly rewarding book is less impressive as a historical study.

To be sure, some of his figures—such as the disillusioned American heiress married to a titled good-for-nothing, or the Czarist ex-colonel and present nightclub doorman—have had their predecessors; and when all is said, Joan Madou is but another femme fatale, although less demonic and much more winning than any of her nineteenth-century sisters. But Ravic is a masterpiece of original characterization. He is the twentieth-century man who survives.

Robert Pick, "Prelude to Disaster," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1946, copyright renewed © 1973, by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 3, January 19, 1946, p. 7.

Charles Poore

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["Arch of Triumph"] is a novel of Europeans between wars yet forced to be perpetually at war, a novel that is animated by a spirit of savage disillusionment toward this last war before it had even begun, foreseeing the war's caprices and disasters.

"Arch of Triumph" is a part of Erich Maria Remarque's somber, stylized panorama of modern Europe's broken and dispossessed, begun in "All Quiet on the Western Front," continued in "The Road Back," "Three Comrades"" and "Flotsam," and now given a classic setting and told in the classic way, a story of exiles in a land of exiles. It makes absorbing reading, though it is sometimes overcontrived; it is briskly paced, though the lacquered writing lacks the simple spontaneity of "All Quiet on the Western Front." And through its penetrating stories of human fortitude it should stir even those of us who have been telling ourselves that the people who helped us win our common victory are not really as badly off as some would say….

What Remarque has to tell us is often unbearably true; the way he chooses to tell us is often unnecessarily theatrical. The taut lines of puppet strings guide Ravic, the brilliant, sardonic hero of the story….

It may be that only by theatrical situations can we be stirred through the layers of protective complacencies we have built up…. [Some scenes] could be less theatrical, with advantages in credibility. But they are skillfully done, though Ravic himself sometimes notes that a scene is "like a melodramatic movie." Even then, the scene is saved by such a detail as an actor carefully dusting his knees after he has knelt before a woman he has just fatally shot. (p. 1)

No one since Eliot Paul has rendered the look and smell and substance of Paris more devotedly than Remarque, and probably no one at all has ever written so much about the Arch of Triumph in all seasons. The bistros and the boulevards are here, the quays and bridges, the endless courtyard of the Louvre, the Luxembourg gardens and the strange, small hotels, the parks and fountains and churches and cemeteries, the taxis and the light. The chicanery and skulduggery that go on in Paris are probably not too different, in the aggregate, from the chicanery and skulduggery that go on in any other city its size, but somehow authors take a special pleasure in searching out things like that in Paris and Remarque conscientiously follows that rule. (pp. 1, 22)

Charles Poore, "Blackout before the Deluge: A Novel of Munich-Haunted Paris—'A Time between Two Catastrophes'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1946 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 20, 1946, pp. 1, 22.

Orville Prescott

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Mr. Remarque in all his works has shown his fierce concern with the major issues of our time, war and collapsing social structures and the tragedy of exile. Arch of Triumph is a story of exiles in Paris in 1939, which illuminates with masterly skill all the despair and misery, the sense of impending doom, the folly, futility and fear of that lull before the storm. It is a sad and melancholy book, a tired and disillusioned one. But because it is steeped in a stoic atmosphere of fortitude in adversity, it is not without an affirmative faith of a grim and ironic sort.

Through the eyes of a refugee German surgeon Mr. Remarque shows us Paris as a city: its grimy night life, its desperate poor, its cynical and corrupt elements, its garish violence. The surgeon is in love with a worthless woman, and he is bent upon revenge if a certain Gestapo agent should ever cross his path. The love story and numerous flamboyantly theatrical scenes of surgery and vice are the weaker parts of Arch of Triumph. Its strength lies in its fine gallery of representative characters wonderfully revealed through expert dialogue, its narrative power, and its eloquent interpretation of human character in a time of catastrophe.

Orville Prescott, "Outstanding Novels: 'Arch of Triumph'," in The Yale Review (© 1946, copyright renewed © 1974, by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXXV, No. 3, March, 1946, p. 573.

Quentin Reynolds

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"Spark of Life" is a grim, agonizing but terribly wonderful story of what happened to the political and religious nonconformists in Hitler's Germany. It concerns itself with the horrible reality of a concentration camp as it was in 1945, but the six years that have intervened are not strong enough to dilute the importance of his theme. Remarque is crying angrily, "Watch out or this may again come to pass. Be on guard against those who would curb your liberties, for this is the inevitable result."

"Spark of Life" is a book which is hard to read; it is a book that once begun is impossible to put down. Once you know the tragic remnants of humanity who, too weak to work, are segregated to die in what was known as The Small Camp (at Mellern), you find it impossible to desert them….

His meticulous research (he spent five years on this book) was directed to finding the answer to the question, "What kept [the prisoners] alive?" He found the answer in that passage in Genesis which begins, "So God created man in his own image," and at first called his book "Gottes Ebenbild" ("God's Image"), a reflection perhaps of his own abiding Catholic faith and a reaffirmation of the doctrine that there is within man a divine spark. Remarque discovered, just as John Hersey had discovered before him, that the ones who had the courage to kindle this spark and keep it burning under conditions of utter despair, humiliation and starvation were the ones who survived. Those who had nothing but physical strength didn't last long; men like 509 who were able to draw upon the inexhaustible resources of the spirit stayed alive the longest.

Inevitably "Spark of Life" must recall "The Wall." [John] Hersey's monumental epic, however, concerned itself with one group—the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto and of how when all else had failed they drew strength from their ancient religion. The heterogeneous group in Barrack 22 had no such spiritual common denominator as a Jewish heritage; each man had to find his own particular well of strength on which to draw. (p. 1)

Quentin Reynolds, "The Divine Light That Defies Darkness," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1952 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 27, 1952, pp. 1, 23.

Frederic Morton

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"Only the unhappy man appreciates happiness. The happy man … displays it merely." These are words spoken in "Three Comrades," the novel by Erich Maria Remarque which would seem farthest from his latest because it is set in peace and relates young men's revels. Yet they are words that would make an accurate epigraph to "A Time to Love and a Time to Die," as well as to every other major work Remarque has written. As he returns, for the first time since "All Quiet on the Western Front," to the stench and terror of bomb shelter and infantry trench, it becomes apparent that he has never really left them. All his stories are moral, if not physical, war novels; all his heroes soldiers that dream of peace….

With "A Time to Love and a Time to Die,"… Remarque brings up to date a raw documentary of our century. He pictures an era in which crisis has become routine, catastrophe moves on ball bearings, death is efficiently administered and unsentimentally cleaned up, terror is commonplace and melodrama humdrum. Not only do individuals perish, but individuality collapses. For a while the malaise seemed to infect Remarque's own literary faculties. In recent books he expended them on events and conditions, not on beings and feelings. In "Arch of Triumph" and "Spark of Life" particularly he was concerned with the technical minutiae of suffering rather than the personal agony of the sufferer….

Unpretentious as this story is, it encompasses all the panicked perversions of war, all the brave incorrigibility of peaceful hope, and the tragic paradox that both these things root deeply in the human heart.

It is a story refracted entirely through the nerves and thoughts of its protagonist [Private Graeber]…. It is a book that seizes on incidents that have become stale through other tellings and, by pinpointing details with tiny relentlessly zeroed-in spotlights, thrusts upon a familiar picture an almost unbearable fresh glare.

Most important of all, "A Time to Love and a Time to Die" is a book forged out of two searingly contemporary themes. The first involves Graeber's discovery of a moral will inside himself…. Storm Troop Commander Binding incarnates [a new challenge for Graeber]. One of the most effective characters in the book, Binding is a lackadaisical, jovial fellow, sincerely generous with the loot he has accumulated from his victims. From him Graeber learns that to be lazy about evil, whether in spectacular fashion as in Binding's case, or only passively as in his own, is to become part of evil oneself. Graeber's schoolboy-like groping for what is good, and his adult manful commitment once the search is over, climax the narrative. He dies under the command of his conscience. Having made the first true choice in his life, he reconquers in death his identity.

This represents a broadening of Remarque's scope. His previous heroes were too busy toiling at sheer survival to have leisure for ideals…. Because of this added dimension, there is added humanity in "A Time to Love and a Time to Die."

The book's other theme has run through all of Remarque's work. Handled masterfully even in his weaker novels, it is the realization that the preciousness of existence may be distilled out of its very precariousness, that life is doubly sweet because, as Graeber says, "we are no longer dead and we are not yet dead." In every Remarque book there is at least one scene where its characters, staggering down the slope of destruction, grasp hands, halt, and celebrate the everlasting miracle of life.

In his earlier books this was accomplished by a single incident; in "A Time to Love and a Time to Die" it is conveyed by the relationship of Graeber and the girl Elizabeth, not limited to passages but throughout the book. (p. 14)

In "A Time to Love and a Time to Die" all motivations except blind obedience and fear have been crushed from military life. Griping and goldbricking, so characteristic among American soldiers as protest against the unnaturalness of military compulsion, are unhealthily absent. Only tired utilitarian exchanges remain about bread, frostbite, and the disposal of the dead. It isn't merely danger which saps these young men. They were calloused and animalized even before they entered the army.

Thus the naive infinite capacity for horror which made "All Quiet on the Western Front" so indelibly human a document has been extinguished. The new hero is no longer willing to be shocked. His fate appalls and deluges the reader moments before it touches him. Remarque has let his sensibilities harden along with those of his figures. I am not quite sure whether it is because of or despite this fact that "A Time to Love and a Time to Die" ranks with Theodor Plievier's "Stalingrad" as the most laceratingly powerful German novel to come out of World War II. While Plievier conjures up the inferno of divisions, Remarque recreates, more immediately and vulnerably, the hell of a single private.

Viewed against Remarque's career so far, the new novel shows that he still writes whereof he suffers. Like Hemingway, he was permanently damaged and therefore permanently inspired by war. Like Hemingway, he dramatizes a generation "hard … afraid of feelings, without trust in anything but the sky, trees, the earth, bread, tobacco that never played false to any man." (The quotation, taken from "Three Comrades" could easily be fitted into "The Sun Also Rises.") But whereas Hemingway, being American, had to nurture the vision of violence in foreign bull rings and transatlantic wars, Remarque, the German, saw it redescend upon his own country. Exile became his passage d'armes. He does not possess the genius for bare symbolic dramaturgy of his American counterpart, but, on the other hand, his figures are not encumbered with the heavyweight-contender-complex of some of Hemingway's hairy prima donnas. Remarque, for all his international celebrity, his familiarity with the villas of Lago Maggiore and the bistros of Beverly Hills, has not lost the sensitivity or eloquence of his old wounds. In "A Time to Love and a Time to Die" he has said something enduring with the truth of pain. (p. 15)

Frederic Morton, "The Sweetness of Death," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1954 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVII, No. 21, May 22, 1954, pp. 14-15.

Maxwell Geismar

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A central "school" in modern fiction has been made up of writers who have considered themselves the outlaws and outcasts of modern society…. In the Forties and Fifties the tone of this literature had shifted from the tragic to the satirical: the comedy or farce of social desperation.

Erich Remarque's ["The Black Obelisk"] fits perfectly into this new category. The scene is the post-World-War-I Germany of economic inflation….

Whether it is great literature, is difficult to know; but it is such good reading that I am suspicious of it. The first half of the novel, at least, is a brilliant tragi-comedy of these poor provincial souls who have become so desperate as to be both outrageous and hilarious. The effect of the narrative is rather like a cross between "The Three-Penny Opera" and "The Tropic of Capricorn," just as Remarque has something of both Berthold Brecht and Henry Miller in his own temperament. He is a brooding poet of despair, who takes refuge in outlandish farce. (p. 4)

The tombstone business is also in a bad way, since each sale is another step toward bankruptcy. But Ludwig Bodmer, the provincial hero, keeps it, or himself, solvent by unorthodox means. He is a war veteran, a frustrated writer (there are fine sections on the Poetry Society of Werdenbrück), a lover of women who is always disappointed, a seeker after truth. What is life?—and Remarque provides a series of bitter and witty aphorisms on this recurrent refrain. Ludwig is in love with Isabelle, the schizophrenic beauty of the local lunatic asylum, who perfectly represents the splintered universe that surrounds him. When she recovers her "sanity," she cannot remember her love.

Perhaps all the "characters" in the novel represent aspects of Remarque's own vision of life rather than complete human beings. In this work he is not so much a novelist as a poet of the social underworld—of the homeless, the dispossessed, the ruined little men and their unspeakable women. (But why, thinking over the novel, does one begin to laugh all over again?) I am sure there are altogether too many freaks, cranks and subhuman oddities in this weird German town of Werdenbrück. It is impossible—until one remembers that this scene also represented the last flowering of German individuality, macabre as it may seem, before the resurgent "patriotism" and "discipline" of the Nazi party. (pp. 4, 18)

Maxwell Geismar, "Men and Women in a Lunatic Time," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 7, 1957, pp. 4, 18.

The New Yorker

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[The Black Obelisk] is set in a small city in Germany in 1923, when the effects of the First World War are still cruelly felt and the signs of the war to come are growing clear. Ludwig Bodmer, twenty-five years old and a war veteran, has taken up life again in his native city and is scraping a living as the advertising manager of a tombstone firm…. Bodmer, who tells his own story in the present tense, is a man of singularly attractive personality. His view of life is tough, romantic, sympathetic, and amused. He feels anger at the injustice and despair he observes all around him, but he refuses to allow his anger to spread into a habit of daily bitterness. It is doubtful whether he can ever be sour. He has the air of a man who can see his most treasured dreams break and not try to console himself by picking up the pieces; consolation is not a thing he expects to find in life. He is looking for a girl to have an affair with, and his attempts at courtship are as funny and awkward as they are direct…. Mr. Remarque is completely in command of his story and in the best of form, whether he is evoking the dreams and desires of youth or observing the wretched struggle of ordinary people in defeat or simply passing the time in a city that he remembers well and that he makes familiar from the first page. The story is tragic, on the whole, and alive with the everyday manifestations of human pain, but from beginning to end it is characterized and illuminated by an incorrigible and irresistible humor. (pp. 174-75)

"Briefly Noted: 'The Black Obelisk'," in The New Yorker (© 1957 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXII, No. 8, April 13, 1957, pp. 174-75.

Maxwell Geismar

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In some respects Erich Maria Remarque has had a curious career, but it is a great tribute to this aging literary veteran of World War I that now, at the age of 66, he has produced what may be his best novel. A famous European counterpart to Hemingway, Remarque has, through the years, almost converted a handsome minor talent into a major one; whereas Hemingway almost reduced his own large talent into a more limited one.

At least I think "The Night in Lisbon" is Remarque's most brooding and thoughtful novel; it is the novel most involved with the destiny of 20th-century man. It is the novel in which the artist most fully comes to grip with the meaning of his own life and his own historical period, and which he leaves to us as the testimony that art is always the final witness to history….

In the forties, with such works as "Arch of Triumph," he had settled, apparently, for a kind of charming entertainment and love romance, yet I remember that even as I read that novel with a sense of disappointment, I was still beguiled by it, for precisely like Hemingway, Remarque had an extraordinary sense of surface texture in his prose.

His Paris of bordellos, refugees, expatriates and social outcasts of a city and a culture on the brink of catastrophe is still vivid to me, even if the tormented and cynical love romances of that period of Remarque's work were both sentimental and theatrical. But what has not been sufficiently recognized, I think, is that in the middle and late fifties, in his late phase, Remarque has again been writing notable and serious fiction.

"The Black Obelisk" (1957) was a brilliantly satirical novel of German life at the outset of Hitler and his National Socialism—the chronicle of a diseased nation almost in the style of Brecht…. Remarque's new novel, while very different in technique and tone, is every bit as good. A desperate, depressing, horrifying, touching, beautiful and tragic tale of the German refugees under the Nazi terror, it may not quite be a great novel, but it is surely one of the most absorbing and eloquent narratives of our period.

In this novel Remarque reveals his extraordinary talent for entertainment and narrative suspense. He is a very gifted artist on the human level who can be playful, witty, nostalgic and tender in turn; like Charlie Chaplin he is both hilariously funny and a great tear-jerker. At the same time, "The Night in Lisbon" is a kind of modern inferno describing the disintegration of Western European culture.

It is almost a manual of underground refugee existence, depicting the life and "culture" of the hunted and dispossessed during these years. It is also an indispensable "introduction" to the 20th century, the age, as Remarque says, "of technological progress and cultural retrogression." The central story is a curious kind of romance—that of a desperate, cunning and obsessive German exile who returns to the Nazi bastion in order to find the German wife whom he had never really loved or understood.

This love affair, which Remarque describes so well and which becomes an absorbing human relationship in the novel, subsumes elements of all love affairs and all marriages. It also points the way to an understanding of the refugee heart, and this is the novel's central and brilliant achievement. The odd hero is "Mr. Schwarz," who is not really Mr. Schwarz at all, but who has taken the identification papers of a dead Mr. Schwarz (who was also not the real Mr. Schwarz)….

The story employs a difficult technique: that of a night-long monologue by the present Mr. Schwarz. He is telling his life story to another refugee to whom he has given his passport to America and to freedom. This is the "Night in Lisbon," and during this night we follow the whole course of refugee history and existence—the underground railway of the doomed souls of Western culture—from Germany and Austria and France to Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Portugal, the last gateway to life.

The novel's heroine, Helen, escapes from Germany along with Schwarz because she has not yet realized, as Remarque says wryly, that "bourgeois stagnation is a moral, not a geographical condition." And how brilliantly German culture, both before and during the Nazi period, is described here, with unfathomable depths of moral indignation, anger, hatred—and yet with a lingering, ironical belief in that God of justice and decency who, Schwarz believes, must still be searched for, even if never found.

Against the nihilism of this chilling, terrifying and desolate "modern World," which Remarque renders so intimately, so deeply, so personally, he still pits the vestigial, if now almost vanished, faith of a late 19th-century novelist of the human condition. This novel is in many sections an almost unbearable ordeal of human degradation, suffering and death, during an epoch whose true nature is still largely unknown to American readers. But that Remarque and his Mr. Schwarz can, despite all, retain even that bitter, hopeless vestige of love, faith, affection and humor, is what makes "The Night in Lisbon" such a memorable novel.

Maxwell Geismar, "Terror Marched with a Goose Step," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 22, 1964, p. 1.

Melvin Maddocks

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On its lacquered surface, Shadows in Paradise shows all the familiar Remarque gloss. There is the typically commercial title, second only to Heaven Has No Favorites. There is the often wordy dialogue—pretentiously sophisticated, as if spoken by an impostor duke. There is the slightly too chic setting: in this case, places like El Morocco, the fashion-and-art salons of New York and the swimming pools of Hollywood in 1944.

A young German wearing the new name of Robert Ross has just arrived in America, the victim of both French and German concentration camps. He is, as Remarque must put it, "an Orestes pursued by the distant cries of the Furies." How will this creature of survival be restored to the human race? Remarque knows but one way. He produces his interchangeable Remarque woman, in this instance an exotic model named Natasha, half Anna Karenina, half Playmate of the Month….

As usual, love à la Remarque almost but not quite works, trailing away into a gentle melancholy, a secondary sort of exile and loss. And those subplots—amusing, a bit cynical, dotted with European jokes about America—constitute the best parts. By their very gaucherie they suggest appealingly the embarrassment of an author trying to bridge modern experience, from the sheer horror of war to the sheer banality of peace.

Remarque's curious polarization between holocaust and Hollywood may reflect less calculation than nasty skeptics have supposed. In retrospect, his tales seem the defense mechanisms of a romantic trapped in a bad time. Remarque needed illusions as large, as desperate, as his master disillusion with World War I. But he was not alone. So, for better and for worse, did his readers.

Melvin Maddocks, "Between Holocaust and Hollywood," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1972), Vol. 99, No. 6, February 7, 1972, p. 84.

Robert W. Haney

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Except for a few scenes set in Hollywood, Robert Ross, the principal character in ["Shadows in Paradise"], explores and uses the sights, sounds and people of Manhattan, as Remarque himself knew them in the closing years of the Second World War.

For readers of our own time, all-too-conscious of what has become of Gotham or, if you will, Mayor Lindsay's inadvertently ironic "Fun City," Remarque's title smacks of poignancy, if not sarcasm….

But we soon discover that what the title suggests to us is not at all what the author intends. For Ross and his friends, New York is indeed a paradise; so, too, are whatever other portions of America that they know. They themselves are the shadows….

[Ross's] affair with Natasha and his experiences as an assistant to an art dealer fill stage center of the novel. In the background we glimpse the lives and destinies of his immigrant friends….

While studying two paintings by El Greco in the Metropolitan, Ross realizes that everything is "at once connected and unconnected" and that a conception of coherence is "nothing but a human crutch, half lie and half imponderable truth." This insight, which seems to be familiar to Remarque, provides a clue to understanding why this, the last of his novels before his death, is so annoyingly unsatisfying….

Remarque has something to say that is worth pondering; what happens to his characters in 1944–45 is not so remote from what many people know at first hand today—albeit for somewhat different reasons. But the novel's central insight is never developed in any consistent way. Remarque's angle of vision seems blurred. Instead of pursuing his intention, he suddenly introduces, for no useful purpose, the language and preoccupations of the washroom. He gives more attention to the consumption of vodka than to the exploration of his theme.

The central relationship between Ross and Natasha lacks focus—no small fault in a novel written from the retrospective viewpoint of a first-person narrator. This very lack of focus arouses a suspicion about the book's true character. What we have here may be a book-for-a-script-for-a-Hollywood-film, the fate of so many of his other novels. This is a waste; Remarque's people deserve a better fate.

Robert W. Haney, "Unremarkable Remarque," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1972 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), March 9, 1972, p. 13.

Michael O'Malley

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The way [Andrew] Wyeth paints: no thunder in his picture, just a modulation of blues to make you see the sky's a bit strange and, like a letter shoved under the door, the dog's white muzzle lifted to the far-off sound. Truth got at sideways to ease the pain in it. Quick storms of terror flash past in [Shadows in Paradise] and suddenly are gone, like eerie tableaux set into the wall of the subway….

I think that Remarque, in this last of his novels …, was trying—with a noble disdain for pathos—to face what it was to be a thinking German in the time of his life. He comes through as a tough, brilliant, sophisticated realist: another of those who teach us that even though indictments do no good, they must be drawn and presented. Shame for his German people clings to him. Innocent himself, he and his protagonist wear their nationality as Philoctetes his rotting foot: the unearned badge of God's resentment….

What I mean by "truth got at sideways" is that this quiet novel—with its meticulous description of refugee life in Manhattan during the final year of the Second World War, with its fierce refusal to encourage or even allow your pity—manages somehow to slip into your permanent consciousness the way Wyeth's dog does, and through its deceptive insouciance to make the banal sufferings and suicides of its homesick Jews and bewildered Viennese more terrible than any detailed catalog of horrors.

I think we are not used to this in America. We do not really love the men who paint with fine brushes in tempera, who are precise about shadings and textures, who do not agonize. We prefer the slashing, smashing scarlet trumpet flatulence that characterizes so much contemporary art. I think this book may be too finely drawn for most Americans. (p. 80)

The affair between Ross and Natasha—from the initial furious storming of her body so often required in taking sex from the speculative to the physical, to what Natasha says as she dresses and leaves Ross for the last time: "Don't look at me. I don't want you to look at me anymore,"—is in every word and detail one of the best descriptions you will ever read of what might be termed cool city sex: sex between equals; without vows, without loyalties, but also without deceptions on either side.

We have testaments in abundance about the 57 other varieties of love, but not a great deal has been written by good novelists about the rational, cynical, slightly sordid, and often tired affairs that are so much a part of city life. Remarque has it down, and at first we are disappointed. We tend to passion: we want empires to fall for love, drunks reformed, whores made holy, and all for love. When nothing much happens to the lovers, when their unhappiness and loneliness and uncertainty are not cured, not even lessened, but only relieved for moments at a time—small lights lit in their bodies, put out when bodies part—we shrug and complain that nothing much is happening. That, of course, is the point. Passion, in passion (as in art, science, insurance) is extremely rare. Ross knows this. When the novel, and Ross' affair with Natasha, are finished, we know it too. (pp. 81-2)

This novel is more about a life, and a way of life, in New York City than about the city itself. It is about eating and drinking and cursing fate: "coffee and sadness" with the shadowy refugees who cannot enjoy paradise because their souls are in Berlin and Vienna. It is about loneliness and suicide—by hanging, by shooting, by pills; Gräfenheim, who does it with sleeping pills, believes that "the possibility of suicide was one of God's greatest gifts to man, because it could put an end to hell, as Christians call the torment of the mind." It is about the consolations of art, even though (as Remarque puts it so well) "works of art are not nurses." And it is very much about the consolations of the flesh.

Most of the people in it are drawn with a master's skill and economy; only Natasha—with her barbaric, childish selfishness—never comes fully to life….

I would say Remarque went out in style on this one. Shadows in Paradise is a fine novel. At the essence it's about frustration: about living. (p. 82)

Michael O'Malley, "Books: 'Shadows in Paradise'," in The Critic (© The Critic 1972; reprinted with the permission of the Thomas More Association, Chicago, Illinois), Vol. XXX. No. 5, May-June, 1972, pp. 80-2.

Brian A. Rowley

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All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues) is one of the most surprising phenomena in the history of literature. Its commercial success was unparalleled….

But the novel was not simply a best-seller. It also became a focus of intellectual and, indeed, of political life. Immediately upon its appearance, it provided a casus belli for the battle, in the Germany of 1929, between militarists and pacifists, right wing and left. (p. 101)

[The] reasons for the success of All Quiet are likely to be somewhat more complex than is commonly supposed.

On the one hand, timing is obviously of significance. The interval of ten years since the war was short enough for the memories of participants not to have faded, but long enough for the ex-servicemen to have recovered from their immediate post-war desire to forget. At the same time, the developing political situation at the end of the 1920s made modern war into a live issue…. By beginning the serial publication of the novel on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Armistice—10 November 1928—the house of Ullstein was deliberately tying the novel in to this political controversy. In this sense, All Quiet is one of a group of novels whose reputations fed on their times: Ludwig Renn's Krieg (War, 1928) in Germany; Manning's Her Privates We (1929) in England; Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929) in America.

But not all these were best-sellers; so Remarque's success was due also to the book's intrinsic qualities. Some of these, we may feel, are journalistic rather than strictly literary. The particular blend of suffering, sensuality and sentiment suggests that Remarque had gauged public taste. The horror and degradation of war is represented, but it is shown with irony, wit, and even humour. To a large extent, this is made possible by the choice of a group of characters who are close to the reader. And this again depends upon Remarque's command of a clear but lively, indeed pungent style. All these features owe something to journalism. Yet this is not to deny the book's very real literary merits. (pp. 102-03)

The fact that All Quiet was read for its indecencies was recognised from the start…. This was certainly a reason for the novel's success. Yet Remarque never lets indecency become obscene, still less pornographic. More important, he is able to show, because of the point of view of his narrative, that an emphasis on creature comforts is part of the soldier's psychology; less trivially realistic, that it is part of his defence against the otherwise unbearable brutality of war. This is illustrated, in the farcical mode, by the goose-roasting sequence in Chapter V after the horrors of the wire-laying fatigue in IV; and in the lyrical mode, by the love-scene in Chapter VII after the battle-scene of VI. And finally—as Paul's love-scene with his brunette suggests—it is a mode of experience through which the soldier's contact with the deepest springs of life, threatened as it is by war, can be renewed. (p. 104)

Nature, too,… restores the lost contact with life. The intimate connections between war and nature are reinforced by Remarque's use, from time to time, of a grammatical device—a kind of zeugma which links, without overt comment, experiences from the two spheres…. On the success of Remarque's rendering of the brutal reality of war there has been, from the beginning, more agreement than on most other issues. Some details, certainly, were challenged: notably the screaming of the wounded horses, in Chapter IV…. It was also, more widely, argued that war is not always so brutal and so ignominious as this novel depicts it; but that is to miss the point that trench warfare in Flanders in 1914–18 is not war in general, but a particularisation of the brutalising tendencies inherent in all warfare to a point of no return. And this sort of warfare is captured by Remarque's sober realism, more successfully than ever before…. (pp. 105-06)

[His] descriptions do not give the impression of deriving from literary models. It is rather that his experience as a journalist has taught him how to select facts and convey them in a style that heightens, rather than blurs, their impact; and that this journalistic skill is here put to literary use.

To say this, however, is to remind ourselves that truth is a matter of style as much as of content. The style of All Quiet has been more praised than analysed. A striking feature of the syntax is the prevalence of simple—one-verb—sentences, and of compound ones without coordinating conjunctions, or at most with 'and'. (p. 107)

The style of the book is not Remarque's style, and the opinions are not Remarque's opinions; at least, not in the first instance. From the beginning of Chapter I until two paragraphs from the end of Chapter XII, the novel is narrated by the central figure, Paul Bäumer. This narrative stance provides Remarque with a realistic context for a naive and simple style, which is part of the novel's popular appeal; but also for a fragmented, uncoordinated syntax, and for the use of the present tense with its immediacy; these features thus become part of the famous 'frog's eye view' of the war. He is able to give the shortsighted comments on events of Paul Bäumer himself, and through him of the other characters, without the need to provide an omniscient narrative perspective—indeed, with a requirement not to do so. In short, style and point of view are matched, and both reflect the incomprehensibility of war.

The choice of a first-person narrator does however create one possible problem. The two concluding paragraphs have to stem from a new, apparently omniscient third-person narrator, whose intervention is needed after the first-person narrator's death. Strangely, however, the novel does not suffer from this change of viewpoint; nor from the absence of any explanation of the mechanics by which it came to be set down…. (p. 108)

Narrative viewpoint and the focus on the central character are also closely linked with structure. At one level, the work is divided into many small sections, separated by asterisks…. This again is a feature that makes for easy reading; but, combined with the predominance of the present tense, it also makes for a realistic effect—that of a journal entry or a brief conversation. A journalistic approach has been adopted for aesthetic effect….

The novel operates structurally, in fact, on an alternation between the cruelty and despair of the battle-scenes, and a gradual return to life during periods in reserve. Chapters VI and VII are the major instance of this alternation; but, ironically, the fact that Paul and his friends escape from this battle is not a guarantee that they will escape from the war; the second half of the novel moves inexorably to their destruction. (p. 109)

The progression of the novel is thus one of increasing alienation from any world but that of war. This alienation is implicit, and indeed explicit, at the beginning, but the characters still behave as if they can escape, whatever they may say. Paul himself hopes for a miracle in the love-scene in Chapter VII, but it is hard to believe that he finds one, except for the existential moment. And the sterility of his leave: coming, as it does, after the big battle, it should celebrate his safety, but instead it confirms his despair. So the structure of the novel articulates its themes.

The most basic of these is the monstrous unacceptability of modern trench warfare—manifest especially in Chapter VI. A second theme is the moral bankruptcy of leaders who have encouraged young men to volunteer for this holocaust—expressed already in the discussion of their form-master Kantorek in Chapter I. Yet a third theme is the suggestion that, when the war is over, something must be done to change the world we live in—intimated, for example, in the Duval scene in Chapter IX. More important is the 'lost generation' theme, already sounded in the book's epigraph:

This book is meant neither as an indictment nor as a confession. It is meant only to try to report on a generation that was destroyed by the War—even when it escaped the shells…. (p. 110)

The sense of comradeship which awareness of belonging to a 'lost generation' engenders is yet another theme. And finally, there is the existential theme of the assertion of self, in the face of the nothingness of war, through sensual experience and through contact with nature—a theme which gradually fades from the novel as alienation becomes more pervasive.

The narrative standpoint of All Quiet does not allow these themes to be fully reconciled with one another, or even to be fully articulated. It is also true, as many critics have observed, that Paul Bäumer and his friends are not, as he claims and the novel implies, representative of the effect on all soldiers of trench warfare and its horrors. And yet, it is wrong to demand, either, as Remarque's Nationalist critics did, that these victims should have been more heroic, or, as Marxist critics do, that they should have been more consciously revolutionary. What Remarque achieves is more true to life than either of these: a depiction of mean sensual man, crushed by circumstances and yet preserving his humanity in unexpected ways. It is this that, ultimately, captured his readers; and it is this, and the unobtrusive formal mastery with which he achieves it, that is at the heart of his literary value. Like all major writers, he shows us what is wrong with our world, not how to put it right. (pp. 110-11)

Brian A. Rowley, "Journalism into Fiction: 'Im Westen nichts Neues'," in The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Holger Klein (copyright © 1976 by The Macmillan Press Ltd.; by permission of Barnes & Noble Books, a Division of Littlefield, Adams & Co., Inc.), Barnes & Noble, 1977, pp. 101-12.

Modris Eksteins

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Between 1928 and 1930 Germany and Great Britain especially, and France and America to a lesser extent, experienced a sudden and remarkable 'boom' in war books, plays, and films. For a decade after the end of the war, publishers, theatre directors, and film makers had treated war material gingerly, viewing it as a poor commercial proposition, on the assumption that the public wished, contrary to annual remembrance day exhortations, to forget the war…. What some felt to have been a 'conspiracy of silence' was shattered with a vengeance. (p. 345)

Interestingly, no one has … investigated the war boom. This article will do so, but from a particular vantage point; that of a novel which stood at the centre of the war boom, in popularity, in spirit, and as a source of controversy—Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues)….

While a number of war books had appeared immediately before it, All Quiet clearly triggered the explosion of war material in 1929 and unleashed a bitter and acrimonious debate on the essence of the war experience.

Why had relatively little war material, apart from official histories and the odd memoir and novel, appeared in the previous decade? Was this the doing solely of commercial interests? Explanations usually revolve around the state of nervous exhaustion from which nations suffered after the war…. In general, the memory of the war was too painful; moreover, the task after the war, it was felt, was not to wallow in the tragedy but to build a better future. (p. 346)

Yet, underlying this natural desire to forget and to look to the future was also a sense of confusion, confusion as to the meaning of the war. Already during the war this confusion had become increasingly noticeable. The war had been presented on one side as a struggle for civilized values against tyranny and aggression; and on the other side it had been seen as a war for Kultur against enslavement by materialism. But the total dehumanization of the conflict, as it became a gruesome war of attrition, cast a pall of irony over all ideals and all values…. A decade after the armistice, however, Remarque helped to unearth the whole question and sparked off an intense debate.

Prior to the publication of All Quiet Remarque had led a moderately successful, though unsettled, life as a dilettante intellectual and aspiring author. (p. 347)

Two of his novels were published, Die Traumbude in 1920 and Station am Horizont in 1928, but he appears to have derived little satisfaction from them. Trite sentimentality relegated the first work to the rank of pulp fiction. Remarque was to say of Die Traumbude later:

A truly terrible book. Two years after I had published it, I should have liked to have bought it up. Unfortunately I didn't have enough money for that. The Ullsteins did that for me later. If I had not written anything better later on, the book would have been reason for suicide.

In 1921 he sent a number of poems to Stefan Zweig for comment and attached a letter of near despair: 'remember that this is a matter of life and death for me!' An attempt to write a play left him in deep depression.

The leitmotiv of suicide here is, of course, striking. Together with the derivative romanticism and the itinerant existence it points to a deeply disconsolate man, searching for an explanation for his dissatisfaction. In this search Remarque eventually hit upon the Kriegserleben! The idea that the war experience was the source of all ills struck him, he admitted, suddenly. (pp. 348-49)

Remarque was … more interested in explaining away the emotional imbalance of a generation than in any kind of comprehensive or even accurate account of the experience and feelings of men in the trenches. (p. 349)

Having fixed upon the Kriegserleben, Remarque sat down in mid-1928 to write…. The suddenness of the inspiration, the speed of composition, and the simplicity of the theme, all indicate that Remarque's book was not the product of years of reflection and digestion but of impulse born of personal exasperation. (p. 350)

The simplicity and power of the theme—war as a demeaning and wholly destructive force—are reinforced effectively by a style which is basic and even brutal. Brief scenes and short crisp sentences, in the first person and in the present tense, evoke an inescapable and gripping immediacy. There is no delicacy. The language is frequently rough, the images often gruesome. The novel has a consistency of style and purpose which Remarque's earlier work had lacked and which little of his subsequent work would achieve again.

Very few contemporary reviewers noted, and even later critics have generally ignored, that All Quiet was not a book about the events of the war—it was not a memoir—but an angry postwar statement about the effects of the war on the young generation that lived through it. Scenes, incidents, and images were chosen with a purpose to illustrate how the war had destroyed the ties, psychological, moral, and real, between the front generation and society at home…. The war, said Remarque in 1928, had shattered the possibility of pursuing what society would consider a normal existence.

Hence, All Quiet is more a comment on the postwar mind, on the postwar view of the war, than an attempt to reconstruct the reality of the trench experience. (pp. 350-51)

All Quiet is in fact then a symptom, rather than an explanation, of the confusion and disorientation of the postwar world, particularly of the generation which reached maturity during the war. The novel was an emotive condemnation, an assertion of instinct, a cri d' angoisse from a malcontent, a man who could not find his niche in society or the professions. That the war contributed enormously to the shiftlessness of much of the postwar generation is undeniable; that the war was the root cause of this social derangement is debatable, but Remarque never took part in the debate directly. There are, moreover, sufficient indications … that his own agonie ennuyeuse had roots predating the war.

Despite the opening declaration by Remarque of impartiality—that his book was 'neither an accusation nor a confession'—it was in fact both. It was a confession of personal despair, but it was also an indignant denunciation of an insensate social and political order, inevitably of that order which had produced the horror and destruction of the war but particularly of the one which could not liquidate the war and deal with the aspirations of veterans. Through characters identifiable with the state—the schoolmaster with his unalterable fantasies about patriotism and valour, the former postman who functions in his new role as drill sergeant like an unfeeling robot, the hospital orderlies and doctors who do not deal with human suffering only bodies—Remarque accused. He accused a mechanistic civilization of destroying humane values, of negating charity, love, humour, beauty, and individuality. Yet Remarque offered no alternatives. The characters of his generazione bruciata do not act, they are merely victims. Of all the war books of the late twenties … Remarque's made its point, that his was a truly 'lost generation', most directly and emotionally, indeed even stridently, and this directness and passion lay at the heart of its popular appeal. (pp. 351-52)

Remarque's success came at what we now see to be a crossroads in the interwar era: the intersection of two moods, one of vague imploring hope and the other of coagulating fear; the Locarno 'honeymoon' and a fling with apparent prosperity intersecting with incipient economic crisis and mounting national introspection. (p. 357)

Remarque's book, written in the first person singular, personalized for everyone the fate of the 'unknown soldier'. Paul Bäumer became the individual everyman. In the tormented and degraded Frontsoldat—and he could just as easily be a tommy, poilu, or doughboy—the public saw its own shadow and sensed an evocation of its own anonymity and yearning for security…. All Quiet seemed to encapsulate, in popular form, the whole modern impulse: the amalgamation of prayer and desperation, dream and chaos, wish and desolation. (p. 358)

Remarque blamed the war for his personal disorientation; the German public, too, assumed that its suffering was a direct legacy of the war. Indeed, All Quiet actually raised the consciousness of Germans on the question of the war as the source of their difficulties. (p. 359)

The great discovery that foreign readers said they made through All Quiet was that the German soldier's experience of the war had been, in its essentials, no different from that of soldiers of other nations. The German soldier, it seemed, had not wanted to fight either, once the emotional decoration put on the war by the home front had been shattered. Remarque's novel did a great deal to undermine the view that Germans were 'peculiar' and not to be trusted. Furthermore, All Quiet promoted at a popular level what historical revisionism was achieving at an academic and political level: the erosion of the idea of a collective German war guilt. (p. 361)

Remarque's novel exuded a mood of dissatisfaction, confusion, and yearning. The events and the international temper of 1929 displayed a similar disorientation. The novel became enormously successful not because it was an accurate expression of the front-line soldier's war experience, but because it was a passionate evocation of current public feeling, not so much even about the war as about existence in general in 1929. It was a poignant cry of 'help' on behalf of a distraught generation. (p. 362)

Modris Eksteins, "'All Quiet on the Western Front' and the Fate of a War," in The Journal of Contemporary History (copyright © 1980 The Institute of Contemporary History), Vol. 15, No. 2, April, 1980, pp. 345-65.


Erich Maria Remarque World Literature Analysis