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.

Literature and War Readalong 2015 – Mini Edition

Literature and War Readalong 2015

For some of you it may come as a surprise that next year’s Literature and War Readalong contains only four titles, but I felt we needed a change. That’s why I chose only four books, from four different countries, focussing on three different wars. The list should appeal to those interested in international literature, books by prize winners, novels on international conflict, modern classics, books that have been made into movies and a lot more.

The Disappeared

March, Tuesday 31 2015

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin (Canada 2009), War in Cambodia, Novel, 336 pages.

Here’s the blurb:

After more than 30 years Anne Greves feels compelled to break her silence about her first lover, and a treacherous pursuit across Cambodia’s killing fields. Once she was a motherless girl from taciturn immigrant stock. Defying fierce opposition, she falls in love with Serey, a gentle rebel and exiled musician. She’s still only 16 when he leaves her in their Montreal flat to return to Cambodia. And, after a decade without word, she abandons everything to search for him in the bars of Phnom Penh, a city traumatized by the Khmer Rouge slaughter. Against all odds the lovers are reunited, and in a political country where tranquil rice paddies harbour the bones of the massacred, Anne pieces together a new life with Serey. But there are wounds that love cannot heal, and some mysteries too dangerous to know. And when Serey disappears again, Anne discovers a story she cannot bear.

Haunting, vivid, elegiac, The Disappeared is a tour de force; at once a battle cry and a piercing lamentation, for truth, for love.

Literary fiction of the highest order, this is an unforgettable novel set against the backdrop of Cambodia’s savage killing fields.
Novel Without A Name.
May, Friday 29 2015

Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê by Huon Thu huong (Vietnam 1995), War in Vietnam, Novel, 304 pages.

Here is the blurb:

Vietnamese novelist Huong, who has been imprisoned for her political beliefs, presents the story of a disillusioned soldier in a book that was banned in her native country.

A piercing, unforgettable tale of the horror and spiritual weariness of war, Novel Without a Name will shatter every preconception Americans have about what happened in the jungles of Vietnam. With Duong Thu Huong, whose Paradise of the Blind was published to high critical acclaim in 1993, Vietnam has found a voice both lyrical and stark, powerful enough to capture the conflict that left millions dead and spiritually destroyed her generation. Banned in the author’s native country for its scathing dissection of the day-to-day realities of life for the Vietnamese during the final years of the “Vietnam War, ” Novel Without a Name invites comparison with All Quiet on the Western Front and other classic works of war fiction. The war is seen through the eyes of Quan, a North Vietnamese bo doi (soldier of the people) who joined the army at eighteen, full of idealism and love for the Communist party and its cause of national liberation. But ten years later, after leading his platoon through almost a decade of unimaginable horror and deprivation, Quan is disillusioned by his odyssey of loss and struggle. Furloughed back to his village in search of a fellow soldier, Quan undertakes a harrowing, solitary journey through the tortuous jungles of central Vietnam and his own unspeakable memories.

Fateless

September, Wednesday 30 2015

Fateless – Sorstalanság by Imre Kertész (Hungary 1975), Holocaust,  Novel, 272 pages.

Here is the blurb:

The powerful story of an adolescent’s experience of Auschwitz by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertész.

Gyuri, a fourteen-year-old Hungarian Jew, gets the day off school to witness his father signing over the family timber business to the firm’s bookkeeper – his final business transaction before being sent to a labour camp. Two months after saying goodbye to his father, Gyuri finds himself assigned to a ‘permanent workplace’, but within a fortnight he is unexpectedly pulled off a bus and detained without explanation. This is the start of his journey to Auschwitz.

On his arrival Gyuri finds that he is unable to identify with other Jews, and in turn is rejected by them. An outsider among his own people, his estrangement makes him a preternaturally acute observer, dogmatically insisting on making sense of everything he witnesses.

A Time To Love and a Time to Die

November, Friday 27

A Time to Love and a Time to DieZeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben by Erich Maria Remarque (Germany, WWII, Novel, 384 pages.

It’s interesting to note that the German title isn’t as corny as the English one. It means “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” not Love and Die.

Here is the blurb:

From the quintessential author of wartime Germany, A Time to Love and a Time to Die echoes the harrowing insights of his masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front.

After two years at the Russian front, Ernst Graeber finally receives three weeks’ leave. But since leaves have been canceled before, he decides not to write his parents, fearing he would just raise their hopes.

Then, when Graeber arrives home, he finds his house bombed to ruin and his parents nowhere in sight. Nobody knows if they are dead or alive. As his leave draws to a close, Graeber reaches out to Elisabeth, a childhood friend. Like him, she is imprisoned in a world she did not create. But in a time of war, love seems a world away. And sometimes, temporary comfort can lead to something unexpected and redeeming.

“The world has a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. He is a craftsman of unquestionably first rank, a man who can bend language to his will. Whether he writes of men or of inanimate nature, his touch is sensitive, firm, and sure.”—The New York Times Book Review

 

I will anounce each title with some additional information about six weeks before the discussion date. I hope you like the choices and will join me whenever you can.