Thursday, November 12, 2009

Favorite Passages: The Road Back, by Erich Maria Remarque

If you were to ask me who I thought the single most underrated writer of all time was, my answer would be Erich Maria Remarque. Sure, his novel All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the most famous anti-war books of all time. But as a writer, he is extremely overlooked. He wrote at least ten other novels besides All Quiet, and they are nearly all out of print in America. In Germany, his home country, it's still possible to find a Remarque novel floating around, but over here, it's as if he was never more than a one-hit wonder.

Well, I won't stand for it. Remarque is one of my favorite novelists, and although all his work starts to look the same after awhile (all of it centers around the effects of the world wars for Germans), all his books are startlingly beautiful. They have the thinnest of plots, but the characters are all lovingly created. Most importantly, Remarque fully understands and sympathizes with the inability of the human mind to deal with tragedy. Nearly all his characters are dealing with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, struggling to maintain connections with other people after losing so much. His books are extremely well-built, both emotionally and physically, with life building up to a character's breaking point. He's a master of internal turmoil.

My favorite Remarque novel is The Road Back. Written only a year after All Quiet, it is often called a "sequel" to that book (and it's true that most of All Quiet's characters get name-checked in the novel). The Road Back takes place as World War I comes to a close, as the narrator, Ernst, and his friends struggle to re-adjust to society. They feel alienated from their government, their families, and their hometowns. Unable to find work and feeling as though their country betyrayed them, they cannot cope with the new world order in Germany. The book is extremely haunting. I first read it in high school, and I still remember sitting on my living room couch, crying fiercely through the last 50 pages or so. And even though it's a sad book, it completely explains what happened to Germany between the world wars, leading to the rise of Hitler. In fact, Remarque's early novels were so disillusioned with Germany and the rise of fringe nationalist political parties, that the Nazis made sure all his books were destroyed when they came to power.

This passage from the book comes towards the very beginning, before Ernst truly learns the meaning of the word "jaded." Ernst and his fellow soldiers are headed on the long path home as the war comes to a close. Remarque often uses the beauty of nature to counteract the horror of uprooted humanity, and this passage displays how Ernst finds peace in his surroundings even as the dead and dying are all around him.

From The Road Back, by Erich Maria Remarque
Translated by A.W. Wheen:

As I marched on with pack and lowered head, by the side of the road I see an image of bright, silken trees reflected in the pools of rain. In these occasional mirrors they are displayed clearer than in reality. They get another light and in another way. Embedded there in the brown earth lies a span of sky, trees, depths and clearness. Suddenly I shiver. For the first time in many years I feel again that something is still beautiful, that this in all its simplicity is beautiful and pure, this image in the water pool before me - and in this thrill my heart leaps up. For a moment all that other falls away, and now, for the first time, I feel it; I see it; I comprehend it fully: Peace. The weight that nothing eased before, now lifts at last. Something strange, something new flies up, a dove, a white dove. --Trembling horizon, tremulous expectancy, first glimpse, presentiment, hope, exaltation, imminence: Peace.

Sudden panic, and I look around. There behind me on the stretchers my comrades are now lying and still they call. It is peace, yet they must die. But I, I am trembling with joy and am not ashamed. --And that is odd.

Because none can ever wholly feel what another suffers - is that the reason why wars perpetually occur?

That last line is probably one of my favorite in all of literature. I hope you might all feel brave enough to check out Remarque sometime. He never disappoints. What he wrote about really mattered, and not a lot of writers can say that.

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