Education Before Verdun
A Guide to Good Books
ONE of that talented group of German writers now exiled by the Nazis, Arnold Zweig has long been at work on a series of war novels. A slow and exacting craftsman, his work on this new book was impeded in part by the destruction of the original manuscript in the Nazi raid on his residence near Berlin, and in part by the impairment of his eyesight.
It might be added that as a German soldier Zweig served for thirteen months before Verdun.
THE MAN of the MONTH
THIS fine novel precedes The Case of Sergeant Grischa in point of time, but belongs to the same series, of which the fourth volume, The Coming of a King, will form the conclusion — the whole to be called ‘A Tetralogy of the Transition.’ It is natural, therefore, that the conception and motivation should be somewhat like those of the preceding work. The special attitude of the author — which might be called his originality among writers about the Great War — is that of one who says hardly anything about the hostilities among the nations involved, but illustrates the theme that the major tragedy of war is the effect it has upon the combatants themselves. As Kroysing says in this novel: ‘Have n’t you yet discovered after two years of this sort of thing that the consciousness of power is very bad for a great many people? The average man needs an average pressure to keep him functioning normally. The infallibility of the warrior caste transports such people into too rarefied an air.’ In such an air, says Süssmann, another character, ‘nothing is true and everything is permitted’ — an observation repeated more than once. In other words, for the common soldier all human rights are suspended; for the officer all human laws are as nothing.
The central figure is the Jewish novelist, Bertin, remembered as the friend of Grischa, who has by choice remained in the infantry because he wants to see the war from the front. ‘So long as the effects of this war shake the world,’ he says, ‘what survivors need wall he veracious narratives of what took place’ — a sentiment which is no doubt the author’s. And here we have these effects portrayed by means of the case of a young poet who has dared to criticize his superiors and is therefore kept in a dangerous salient until he is killed, and the attempts of his brother to avenge his death. The obstruction of common justice by those in power is the main theme; but it is hardly more than a thread running through a minute narrative of the life of the infantry, sappers, and petty officers in the Verdun sector of the German army.
The book is very rich and exciting and often very moving, with its scenes of fighting on the tunneled hill of Douaumont and in Wild Boar Valley; of lonely sentry duty and walks from post to post; of the discussions by simple men of their life and their predicament; of the interplay of opinions, passions, and prejudices among the officers and intellectuals. There really is n’t much to be said about war that is n’t said here, and said from full knowledge anti after mature reflection. The novel is a tractate against militarism, but is not presented as a tractate. It is immensely alive. While perhaps no one in it dwells in the mind quite so vividly as Grischa, the number of men whom one remembers is remarkable. The engaging figure of Sergeant Kroysing, contrasted with his cynical and pugnacious and yet likable brother, the lieutenant; the desperately jaunty little Jew Süssmann; the noisome Captain Niggl and Sergeant-Major Feicht, always eating candy; the gentle communist Pahl and the rugged realist Lebede; Father Lochner, the puzzled priest, and Sister Kläre, the beautiful nurse (the only woman in the book) — these are all more than types. They are, intensely, individuals.
Like so many Continental novels, this one is written with a fundamental simplicity of both thought and style that makes its meaning only the more impressive. It is the lack of any prevailing bitterness and the presence of a philosophic humility in the author that produce a work so moving and so wise.
R. M. GAY