by Hans Herbert Grimm.
NYRB Classics, 2016.
Paperback, 288 pages, $16.95.
Reviewed by Michael Shindler
There are the great German books of the First World War that everyone knows: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, and perhaps even Arnold Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa. But then there are those that not quite everyone knows: Adrienne Thomas’s Katrin Becomes a Soldier, Alexander Moritz Frey’s The Stretcher-Bearers, Ludwig Renn’s War, and so on. Somewhere in the dustheap of that latter literature lies Hans Herbert Grimm’s Schlump: Tales and adventures from the life of the anonymous soldier Emil Schulz, known as “Schlump.”Narrated by himself.
Grimm’s authorship of Schlump did not become widely known until about eighty-five years after its publication. We know it was Grimm thanks in large part to German literary critic Volker Weidermann, whose Book of Burned Books (a commentary on all the books the Nazis destroyed in the infamous Berlin bonfire of 1933) featured the novel and attracted the attention of Grimm’s granddaughter. She subsequently initiated a correspondence with Weidermann that culminated in the 2016 publication by NYRB Classics of a new translation of the novel by British historian Jamie Bulloch with a sensational biographical afterward by Weidermann.
Grimm, the son of a moderately successful tailor, enlisted in the German army at the age of seventeen, fought in the First World War, and following Germany’s defeat studied philosophy, literature, and languages, receiving a doctorate with a dissertation on the dialect of the Döbratales in 1921. Thereafter, he married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth, got a job teaching languages as a schoolmaster in Altenburg, a little city south of Leipzig, took up residence in a picturesque old Thuringian house with a high pointed roof, large windows, plastered walls, towering firs, and a little cream-colored bench beside the front door, and soon enough had a son, Frank. During this period Grimm began writing in earnest, producing a torrent of ruminating letters to a close friend, Alfred, concerning their experience of the war, as well as a short story that appeared in Vivos Voco, a literary journal edited by Herman Hesse—all the while refining the manuscript that would become Schlump.
In 1927, Grimm sent his manuscript to Kurt Wolff, the publisher of Rene Schickele, Georg Trakl, and Kafka, and though Grimm conditioned the novel’s publication on the maintenance of his anonymity—a measure he hoped would allow him to insulate his peaceful little life in Altenburg from the hazards of notoriety—Wolff enthusiastically accepted the novel and published it the following year, accompanying its debut with a relatively extravagant leaflet-advertising campaign with the tagline, “Have you read Schlump yet?”
Like most works in its genre, Schlump is a thinly veiled autobiography. The protagonist (branded “Schlump” owing to an instance of childhood clumsiness) enlists in search of adventure and is posted to a cushy oversight position in the occupied French village of Loffrande, but is thereafter ordered to the front and spends a harrowing period commuting between trenches and military hospitals before eventually ending up at a postal censor’s office. In outline, the story is not particularly remarkable; its key facts are available in any decent textbook of European history and its dramatic arc is familiar if not archetypal: a young man sets off from his little town, meets challenges and trials, suffers, fails, triumphs, loves, hates, prays, curses the world, and steals kisses with varying success from every girl in sight.
What makes Schlump strange and wonderful is the way Grimm tells that story. He weaves a mélange of lives into fables and fairytales, translates trench warfare into the language of bedtime, and overall forces waking life to take on the color of a dream and dreams—of which many are recounted, some a dozen pages apiece—the color of poetry. And to that end, Grimm’s characters, such as Johanna-Joan of Arc, the lovelorn trumpeter, the ever-jolly Jolles, the brave rifleman-come-dream-specter Michel, and perhaps best of all the swarthy pseudo-Hegelian philosopher-prophet-linguist Gack, all seem at once theatrical to the point of near-absurdity and endearingly human.
As for Grimm’s prose, its tone is reminiscent of Novalis’s Henry Von Ofterdingen and Mirabeau’s best love letters, minus the former’s naivety and the latter’s self-conscious weariness. In some lines he capers and in others he gambols, usually in bright bathetic bursts:
They knew when the offensive was starting; they were told by the girls who worked for the high-ranking officers.[…] ‘Don’t you know?’ said the pretty little Walloon girl who cleaned his room. ‘Oh, moi je sais tout—I know everything.’
The day drew closer and everyone had lost interest in the dealings of the rear echelon. It was as if all ears were cocked westwards in an attempt to intercept the telegrams floating through the ether.
The day arrived, another night passed, and then the first report came through: a victory, yes, a victory—but they didn’t hear the names they’d expected. The first offensive had come to a standstill; the supply line had been poorly organized, it was said. They’d relied on the power of the masses, and ignored the might of the brilliant idea!
A few days later came the confirmation of this terrible rumor.
But every so often, Grimm lurches into the ecstatic. For instance, when a bedridden Schlump is unable to stay awake, Grimm transcribes the lecture of a mysterious man in black:
The river bore his songs into the city. Michael loiters on the confused bridges, makes friends with the colorful lights that have been swimming in the river. His fiddle murmurs the dark melodies with the heavy water that gurgles in the canals.[…] Michael whips a sound from his fiddle on the bottom string, catching the momentum of the machines, playing in time with the wheels, on the bottom string, whipping it higher, whipping it through all the limbs, all the beams and walls of misery, playing it menacingly to the rich, who blanch at their tables, playing it in exquisitely gilded halls, letting it fall, jangling, into temples, playing it before the altars of love, frightening lust from its pillows, playing, playing, day and night into hissing lamps which burn horrific wounds in the nights […] Michael plays a note, hideous and hounding, women rip apart living bodies, destruction, destruction, bloody yarns, limbs and people. Michael steps on battered limbs, plays a note, plays a note, rafters, beams come crashing down, all-consuming fire …
Elsewhere, Grimm indulges in blithe heavy-handed sarcasm. When first describing the captain in charge of the postal censor’s office, he writes:
He’d been summoned from home directly to Imperial Headquarters, where he was awarded the Iron Cross, second class. He won the Iron Cross, first class during his time in Maubeuge when two women were killed in the course of an air attack. Unable to retreat to the safety of the cellar in time, the captain had been wounded by a small splinter in the thumb, which had then bled. For this he also received the black Wound Badge.[…] He presided over the office with great skill by signing his name three times a day.
Alas, the novel did not quite pan out to be the financial and literary success its author and publisher had hoped, though its merits certainly did not go wholly unnoticed given that it was translated into English and sympathetically characterized by playwright and novelist J. B. Priestley as “the best of the war books so far (excluding Grischa).” All Quiet on the Western Front debuted contemporaneously with Schlump and briskly eclipsed it in sales and acclaim; postwar Germany had little appetite for the work of an anonymous dreamer and preferred by far Remarque’s grit and realism.
Moreover, Schlump’s irreverence for the German military and nationalism—particularly its depiction of Germany’s defeat as being something that it was not entirely inculpable for—did the novel’s prospects no favors. As the Nazis rose to power and the Dolchstoßlegende (stab-in-the-back-myth) became prevalent, Schlump was officially banned and burned. Duly, Grimm’s wife pleaded with him to emigrate like other writers of such works, but he refused. Instead, he bricked up his copy of the novel behind a household wall and joined the Nazi party to remove himself from suspicion and protect his little life as a schoolteacher in his now-beloved Altenburg. But that stratagem only worked so long. When the Second World War broke out, Grimm was pressed into service as an official interpreter on the western front. During his spare time, however, he wrote another, very different book: a red-linen-bound diary filled with carefully pressed leaves and paternal exhortations to his son. On one page, in an able translation by Weidermann, Grimm writes,
Ultimately, we are all alone, enclosed in a fixed shell with no exits. And each of us leads his life more or less inertly, more or less conscious and awake. This is a salutary realization that makes life easier and spares one failure, which is why it’s in equal measures cheerful, colorful, wonderful, and thrilling. One must never let oneself be troubled by this pleasure in colorfulness and incomprehensible beauty, which is offered up at every turn. Rather one must be grateful for it anywhere and at any time, sure in the knowledge that it is the inexhaustible outpouring of a secret harmony flowing through everything.[…] Then it flows into you, fills you, flows through you, shines from within you, finding you secret allies who will strengthen your soul with their power and make you lissome and flexible when life is tempestuous, felling and splitting mighty boughs.
After the war, Grimm returned to his beloved Altenburg. But the city had fallen to the Soviets and he was precluded from taking up his old position as a schoolteacher due to his former membership in the Nazi party. So, he worked as a dramaturg in a theater, often with great frustration given that most of the plays he wanted to stage were deemed too irreverent to garner official approval, though he did manage two dramas by Priestley. Throughout, he fervently lobbied the authorities to let him teach again, even going so far as to reveal that he was the author of Schlump and obtaining official letters verifying his claim from the head of Altenburg’s culture department as well as its head of district authority. Notably, the latter added in his letter, “I know from my daughter—a pupil of Dr. Grimm—that he made no secret of his anti-fascist stance at school. In my opinion Dr. Grimm cannot be regarded as a Nazi.”
But Grimm’s efforts were fruitless and his life only grew bleaker. In 1946, he received word that his close friend and fellow teacher, Friedrich Wilhelm Uhlig, who was in a similar situation, was arrested and interned in Buchenwald, which the Soviets continued to run as a camp. A year later, Soviet policy became more draconian and Grimm was not only barred from teaching, but also from work in theaters, forcing him to resign and take up work, in his early fifties, in a sand mine. In 1948, he received word that Uhlig died of starvation.
In the summer of 1950, when the German Democratic Republic became formalized and things seemed to be looking up, Grimm was summoned to Weimar to speak to the new authorities, ostensibly in relation to his petition that he be allowed to teach again. He told no one what was said in that meeting. But on July 5th, he returned to his little home in Altenburg in the shade of fragrant firs and two days later, while his wife was out shopping, he killed himself.
The tragedy of Grimm’s life was that he had tried to eschew the perils of literary fame to preserve the serenity of anonymity and in doing so allied himself with his rightful enemy. So, fate punished him with peril in life and rewarded him—because fate worse than being cruel is fair—with anonymity in death; since Weidermann’s revelation, essays like this one have been few, far between, and to no avail.
In that vein, there is a famous section of Plato’s Symposium, where Socrates recounts a conversation with Diotima on the nature of love and its relation to beauty. She has him consider the animal kingdom: how when its subjects become inspirited with the agony of love the weakest readily enter into civil war with the strongest and mothers readily suffer anything for their young. She explains that just as the gods have their immortal lives, the world has its immortality in this grand cycle of love, birth, and death. But she explains further that among men there are supra-biological generations—the feats of brave warriors, the cities and laws of statesmen, and so on—saying, “Who, when he thinks of Homer and Hesiod and other great poets, would not rather have their children than ordinary human ones? Who would not emulate them in the creation of children such as theirs, which have preserved their memory and given them everlasting glory?”
And so, many writers write to win an everlasting name. But others are content to write about everlasting things. For them, Ecclesiastes tempers Socrates: they know the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong—and a generation’s literary laurels seldom to its Homer. Implicit in Schlump and explicit in his exhortations to his son, Grimm’s writing is thoroughly colored by a recognition that time and chance prevails against all things under the sun, but also that the omnipresence of sunlight, time’s passage, and the tribulations of chance all have their share in that strange beauty that governs the world, making love and life possible.
Probably Schlump, along with a number of other great works—James Thomson’s The City of the Dreadful Night, Ludwig Derleth’s Frankish Koran, Eric Fenby’s early orchestral compositions, Edward Calvert’s woodcuts, et cetera—will soon join that once-celebrated epic poem of the third-century Neoplatonist Zoticus, which told of the death of Atlantis, of which every verse has sunk below the horizon of human memory.
But such works are never really lost: though they loom like low-clouds at dusk full of moldering hues soon to be haze in stellar gloom, come tomorrow they will still be wisping through the world. There will always be those souls that marry the harsh lights of daily life with those of moonlit reverie, that find beauty in the horror of war and hope in the pitch of tragedy—that can see heaven in a patch of Altenburg; somewhere, somehow, Schlump marches on.
Michael Shindler is a writer living in Washington, DC. His work has been published in outlets including Church Life, Mere Orthodoxy, Jacobite, New English Review, The American Conservative, and The American Spectator. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelShindler