Erich Maria Remarque: Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben – A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1954) Literature and War Readalong November 2015

A Time To Love and a Time to Die

A few years ago, I went through a Erich Maria Remarque phase, reading several of his novels, one after the other. I don’t think there are many writers who manage not only to capture the horrors of war but its complexity. Nothing is really black and white during a war and so Remarque’s characters are never black and white. He’s also one of the rare writers who depict the soldiers in the field and the people at home. Usually however, the books either focus on the home front or on the front. A Time to Love and a Time to Die – Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben is the first I’ve read in which both settings are equally important.

The book starts in Russia, at the Eastern Front, toward the end of the war. The Germans are pushed back; their losses are heavy. Nobody thinks they will win the war but to say so would be an act of treason.

We are introduced to a group of soldiers – one of them the main character Ernst Gräber – who bury an officer and get ready to shoot a group of Russian partisans. Fighting is heavy, the winter’s still raging and morale is at an all time low. The soldiers are a mixed group. Some are Nazis, some just enjoy cruelty, others are fed up with it all.

Ernst Gräber hopes that he will still be granted three weeks of vacation. He hasn’t heard from his parents in a while, hasn’t been home in two years. Because the fighting is so intense, he’s convinced, he won’t be allowed to travel home, but at the last minute, he’s informed that he can go after all.

Those at the front, are not allowed to tell those at home how bad it is, but when Ernst arrives in his hometown, he realizes that those at home are equally not allowed to tell those at the front, how awful it is in Germany. The city landscape resembles the Eastern front. Fires, bombings, ruins, and homeless and hungry people.

Ernst had been looking forward to some creature comforts— warm water, fresh clothes, a bed, and his mother’s cooking. He won’t get none of that. He won’t even find his parents. All he finds is their bombed out house and some information that lets him hope, his parents are still alive and have been transported to the country.

In the following weeks Ernst meets old school friends: Elisabeth, a young woman, he falls in love with and Oscar Binding who is a district leader. He also meets an old teacher who has been fired and lives in constant fear of being brought to a camp. Unlike most of the people around him, with the exception of Elisabeth, Ernst doesn’t think the bombing is unjustified. Even before, still at the front, he began to question the war. Was killing in the name of a war and especially in the name of a misguided leader not plain murder? His conscience tortures him constantly. People are hungry but because he knows a district leader who has hoarded food, he and Elisabeth are able to eat and drink as much as they want. Is that OK? He’s also shocked to see how many people readily denounce their neighbours.

This question about when killing becomes murder is the central question of this novel. And it is was because of this question that the book was censored in Germany. Until recently the English and the German book were very different. Remarque published his novel in 1954, but in order to publish it in Germany, the message had to be toned down, in places even altered completely. And the graphic elements were deleted. In the 50s, nobody in Germany wanted to think about guilt or that the soldiers might not have been heroes but in many instances just killers. Remarque wasn’t happy about the alterations but he accepted them because he wanted to see his book published. There was still a profound anti-war message in the book, but it didn’t point fingers. And the end carried a very different, anti-Russian message. However, the translations that came out at the same time, were all based on the original text.

I really liked this book. It had graphic moments but it had also moments of incredible, almost surreal beauty like when Ernst discovers a tiny restaurant with a vast garden. It’s a small oasis in the middle of the destruction. Remarque uses descriptions of ruins and nature to show that horror and despair, and hope and joy coexist. At least – to some extent. Reading about destruction of the cities is quite awful. There’s one description of a house after a bombing, of body parts and dead people that was almost unbearable.

Remarque is very good at characterizing minor characters and there are many memorable characters here. As for the love story—it is touching, but never sentimental.

I’m glad I liked Remarque just as much as I did years ago and I know, I will read more of him in the future.

Other reviews

Delia (Postcards from Asia)


A Time to Love and a Time to Die is the last book in the Literature and War Readalong 2015. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Ursula Poznanski: Erebos (2011)

Erebos Poznanski

Are you playing the game – or is the game playing you? A highly addictive thriller about power, manipulation and revenge.

‘Enter. Or turn back. This is Erebos.’

Nick is given a sinister but brilliant computer game called Erebos. The game is highly addictive but asks its players to carry out actions in the real world in order to keep playing online, actions which become more and more terrifyingly manipulative. As Nick loses friends and all sense of right and wrong in the real world, he gains power and advances further towards his online goal – to become one of the Inner Circle of Erebos. But what is virtual and what is reality? How far will Nick go to achieve his goal? And what does Erebos really want?

Enter Erebos at your own risk. Exciting, suspenseful and totally unputdownable.

I must honestly say, when Lizzy suggested Erebos as her readalong title, I wasn’t thrilled. I couldn’t tell you why. Certainly not because it’s a YA novel. Maybe because I wasn’t sure whether it was some sort of fantasy or a realistic thriller? And because I was worried about the writing. Some recent German thrillers that have made it into translation were anything but well written. Imagine my surprise when I detected that Erebos wasn’t only well-written but so gripping and believable, I couldn’t put it down. It might be the thriller of the year for me. Unfortunately for this review, part of the appeal is that we don’t really know what’s going on. Is it realistic? Is it fantasy? Science-fiction? I don’t want to say too much. Only that I think it would appeal to anyone, whether you like more fantastic stories, or only read realistic novels.

So what’s it about? At a school in London, students exchange a computer game. Those who play it are not allowed to talk about it. Those who don’t, either want to be part of what feels almost like a secret society, or they openly hate the game.

Nick is at first one of those who don’t play the game. He watches his friends and is worried. What happens to them? Why are they sucked into this game like this? Finally someone passes the game on to him and he tries it out. Initially, he’s skeptical but that passes quickly and he, like all the others, is sucked into the world of Erebos.

Being addicted to a game might be bad enough, but this one seems to have an agenda of its own. It seems to know the players and their secrets and uses this against them. Part of the game are assignments in real life, and soon the virtual danger become very real.

I deliberately kept this summary very short because, as I wrote earlier, part of the appeal is discovering what’s going on.

Nick is a great protagonist and we root for him. He’s likable but flawed and undergoes important changes.

I really loved how Ursula Poznanski described the world of the game and the addictive part was shown in a very believable way. Once the assignments in the real word start, an entertaining read turns into an eerie thriller. I couldn’t stop reading, wanted to find out what was behind it all. So often thrillers have disappointing endings. Here again, Erebos is an exception. It’s pitch perfect from beginning to end. A must read for those who love YA novels and for fans of original, futuristic thrillers. I’m not surprised that Erebos has won the Deutscher Jugendbuchpreis, the German prize for Children’s Literature. It’s captivating and topical.

I finished this book before the attacks in Paris but meanwhile, I’ve heard that the terrorists also communicate via computer online games. A communication that’s particularly hard to decipher. All of a sudden, Erebos his even more topical. It certainly has a lot to say about addiction, manipulation, and retribution. Don’t miss it.

My Case for “The Artificial Silk Girl” – A Guest Post by John Lugo-Trebble

The Artificial Silk Girl

When you are part of a writers’ group, it’s only natural to discuss books. And so, a while ago, I mentioned German Literature Month on my writer’s forum and found out that one of the members. John Lugo-Trebble, had studied German literature and did research on Irmgard Keun (and other authors). While discussing, he said that he found she deserved to be more widely known, especially her masterpiece The Artificial Silk Girl Das kunstseidene Mädchen. I certainly agree with him, and so I asked him whether he felt like writing a guest post for German Literature Month. I’m very glad he said yes. John Lugo-Trebble is an American writer, living in the UK. Some of his short fiction is forthcoming on Jonathan the literary journal of Sibling Rivalry Press.

My Case for “The Artificial Silk Girl” – by: John Lugo-Trebble

Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” was the inspiration for “Cabaret” which for an English speaking audience is often the image conjured up of Weimar Berlin. His Berlin is a decadent melting pot on the brink of implosion through the eyes of fun seeking expats. I don’t think you can argue that his observations are not important but for me, reading is like travelling and when I travel I always like to experience what locals would. This is why for me, one of the most important German texts capturing the era that should be read by English speakers is “Das kunstseidene Mädchen” (“The Artificial Silk Girl”) by Irmgard Keun.

Georg Grosz - Die Stadt

Irmgard Keun gives us not just a German insight but a female German insight to Weimar through the eyes of her protagonist Doris. Working in a theatre in Köln, young Doris craves the spotlight, like the women in the glossy magazines that are like her Bible. She wants glamour, she wants wealth. She doesn’t want to be like her parents, on the breadline. She especially fears becoming her mother and having to support a man, in a loveless marriage. Doris becomes enamoured with a fur coat at the theatre and decides to steal it. In her fur coat, she can dream of the life she so covets. She can pretend to be that wealthy young girl who deserves the finery in life. She can epitomise glamour when wrapped in the soft fur. Now a fugitive because of this coat, she runs to Berlin wherein her vain attempt in pursuing glamour she weaves through the city’s underworld of prostitutes, pimps, communists and even becoming a mistress herself. Her dreams quickly spiral out of control as she chases money, stability and ultimately love amidst the backdrop of Berlin’s economic and political turmoil; putting us in mind of one of Grosz’s paintings come alive.

On the one hand, Doris is a mirror of the limitations of the New Woman, a woman who was to be liberated from the shackles of Imperial Germany by the promise of the Social Democratic Weimar Constitution. The reality is the limitations of that liberation that came with the economic upheaval left by the Treaty of Versailles. There is though something in Doris’ tale that resonates still today and that is the pursuit of glamour, a desire for celebrity.

I was reminded only recently of “The Artificial Silk Girl” when I was watching “The Bling Ring.” For those of you who haven’t seen it, the film is loosely based on a crime spree in Los Angeles perpetrated by a group of celebrity admiring, glamour seeking teenagers who literally break into the houses of their style icons to steal their possessions. They are driven by this desire and need to be famous, to lead an untouchable existence of celebrity. I couldn’t help but think of Doris. The difference though is that Doris has a moral centre which comes forward as she sits on a bench at Bahnhof Zoo, no longer the girl start struck in pursuit of wealth, she is a woman aware of the world around her, her own limitations, and indeed her own desires. Will she head out of Berlin or stay? We don’t know, but what we do know is that the fur coat is long gone now.

Irmgard Keun is one of the few German women writers of her day who have been translated into English and I truly believe one of the finest writers of the Twentieth Century, full stop. She presents us with a protagonist who has the naiveté of youth and the observational skills of a woman of her day. You will fall in love with her vulnerability, laugh at her silliness and want to shake her till she grows up but also respect her path because she tries, even when there is no hope presenting itself. With Keun, there is a voice beyond Alfred Döblin and Hans Fallada’s portrayals of women which leave much open to debate. There is more than Sally Bowles.


Thanks so much, John, for this interesting post. I hope those who haven’t done so yet, will soon pick up The Artificial Silk Girl, or one of Keun’s other great novels.

Christa Wolf: Nachdenken über Christa T. – The Quest for Christa T. (1968)

The Quest For Christa T.

I’m fond of paper weights. Especially those with a delicate glass ornament inside. Now imagine such a paper weight. Maybe there’s a fragile, colourful butterfly trapped in its centre. Take that paperweight and smash it against a wall. What you’ll be left with are shards of glass, splinters, some larger fragments, and maybe half of the butterfly will still be intact. That’s exactly what Christa Wolf seems to have done when she wrote the The Quest for Christa T. – Nachdenken über Christa T. What the narrator displays, is the fragmented story of her friend, who died too young, leaving behind a pack of notes and letters, and people who remember her, or think they remember her. The narrator sets out to capture her friend, an elusive woman, and piece together the story of her life and their friendship.

Remembering is complicated. We add, we subtract. Our memory plays tricks on us. The narrator goes back and forth between what Christa T. wrote down and what she thinks she remembers. The notes are not exhaustive. A lot has been left out. In order to capture her friend, the narrator deliberately adds, exaggerates, or embellishes.

Like the smashed paper weight, the story we read has beautiful broken parts; some are pieced together easily, others stay fragments.

The story has one chronological line, from the girls childhood, to the death of Christa T., but each chapter jumps back and forth on smaller timelines.

I really liked reading some of the passages of this book, but most of the time, I found it tiresome. And I wasn’t really interested in Christa T. I didn’t get what was so special about her. The narrator mentions rebellion and nonconformism, but on the outside her life didn’t seem rebellious or nonconformist. Are we meant to believe that having doubts, questioning the regime of the GDR was a rebellion in itself? I suppose so.

The most interesting aspect of the novel is how it shows the elusiveness of memory and of understanding another person. That’s quite well captured in the title which also evokes a central image that we encounter again and again. Sadly, the complex meaning of the title is lost in translation. “Quest” is much more active than the German “Nachdenken” – which means to think about something. A quest is a search, thinking however, can be done without moving. And then there’s the element of “nach” – which means “after” . In the image I mentioned before, we see Christa T.’s back, moving away. Very often we have the impression, all the narrator sees with clarity, is Christa T. walking away, disappearing. This is alluded to in the word Nachdenken – which sounds a bit like following someone in your thoughts.

As a whole, this book was frustrating but the different shards and pieces were beautiful. A lot is well said, subtly and brilliantly described. Many fragments are moving, especially those that deal with the loss of Christa T. The end is so sad. Not only because she is ill and dies but because they all lie to her. Doctors and friends alike. It doesn’t really allow them to say goodbye.

Another reason why I found the book frustrating is because it is muted, toned down. It seems to contain a lot of deliberate confusion. Maybe because Christa Wolf couldn’t write an unambiguous novel about a rebellious woman, without getting into trouble. Probably this might have been one reason for choosing such a fragmented, modernist approach.

I will return to Christa Wolf again but not very soon. I saw some reviews of this book. Three were more enthusiastic: HeavenAli here and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here Tony’s Reading List here. Booker Talk shares my frustration.

Christa Wolf Week 8 – 14 November 2015

Christa Wolf Week

Today begins Christa Wolf Week and I’ve already spotted a few posts here and there. Christa Wolf was one of the most important writers from East Germany. Huge crowds came to her readings. She was considered controversial after the unification because she never openly criticized the values of the regime. She was also accused of having been a Stasi informant. It seems however that she wasn’t collaborating the way the authorities wanted and that she was closely watched herself. Given the complexity of the subject, I’m grossly simplifying here.

I was hoping to review at least two of her books but I won’t manage much more than The Quest for Christa T., which I find beautiful, fascinating, and annoying in equal measures. It doesn’t have a lot in common with the other books I read by her and which I liked, or even loved. The first book by Wolf I read was Cassandra and I still think it’s one of her greatest books and one of the greatest retellings of a myth. I also liked They Divided the Sky because it allows us the see the former German Democratic Republic through someone’s eyes who really stood behind its ideals. The one I truly loved was No Place on Earth that tells a fictitious meeting of the writers Karoline von Günderrode and Heinrich von Kleist, who both committed suicide a few years after the imagined meeting took place.

Other books by her that are important are Medea, A Day a Year and A Model Childhood.

What are you reading this week? Do you have a favourite Christa Wolf book?

Jakob Arjouni: More Beer – Mehr Bier (1987) Kayankaya 2

More Beer

More BeerMehr Bier is the second novel in Jakob Arjouni’s Kayankaya series. It’s set in Frankfurt, Germany. PI Kayankaya is of Turkish origin. While Arjouni was still alive, he was called Germany’s answer to Raymond Chandler. I always found this comparison problematic. Arjouni writes extremely well. I’d say he’s definitely at the literary end of the crime spectrum. His books are hardboiled noir. Kayankaya is a cynical loner who gets beaten up more than once, still, I don’t think he has a lot in common with Marlowe. The differences are quite subtle but they are important. I remeber hating how Kayankaya killed a fly in the first novel. In this one, he beats a rat. Marlowe would never do something like that. I remember noticing after I’ve read three or four books by Chandler that Marlowe has a great fondness for animals. Kayankaya is much more jaded.

More Beer sees Kayankaya investigate the murder of a chemical plant owner. Four eco-terrorists have been charged with the murder, but it seems highly unlikely that they did go that far. Unfortunately,they don’t want to talk. Early on, it becomes obvious that there was a fifth man involved. But who and where is he? The defendants’ lawyer hires Kayankaya to find him. He investigates with his usual stubbornness, even pursuing after he gets beaten up a couple of times.

Kayankaya is a loner, a heavy drinker, a disillusioned man with an acerbic wit. And constantly mistreated because of his origins. I forgot how old these books are. This one was written in the 80s and to read about the way Kayankaya is treated was quite shocking. I think the status of people of Turkish origin has changed meanwhile. At least I hope so. Creating a character like this in the 80s must have been pretty provocative.

I’m not too sure what to think about this book. I found the first in the series, Happy Birthday, TürkeHappy Birthday, Turk, so much better. But while I didn’t care for the story of More Beer, I loved the writing. I’d forgotten just how well Arjouni writes. The novel is full of memorable metaphors like when the narrator compares rain drops on a windshield to a herd of animals running.  For that alone, I might reread it and will certainly not wait another ten years before I read the third one.

Arjouni, Jakob
Most of Arjouni’s novels have been translated and published by Melvillehouse.
Sadly the author died of pancreatic cancer in 2013. He was 48 years old.

Mehr Bier