Friday, July 08, 2011

When Did Remarque Find Time to Write?

All Quiet on the Western Front has long been regarded as one of the most powerful anti-war books written in the twentieth century. Its author, German-born Erich Paul Remark, who changed his name to Erich Maria Remarque, is the subject of Hilton Tims' Erich Maria Remarque: The Last Romantic which I came across recently and am glad I read. It is quite a story.

The writing in the book is straightforward and the research seems to be meticulous. The story, however, is astonishing. Remarque grew up in Osnabruk, Germany in a working class family before the first World War. At 18 he was conscripted into the Army and his war experiences left him so devastated and horrified by war that he wrote his brilliant novel as a protest against the necessity of any war ever. His rise as a young novelist coincided with the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and, as his success grew, so did unwanted attention from the Nazis. In 1931 Remarque bought a house and moved most of his assets to Switzerland and two years later left Germany with barely hours to spare as Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels banned and publicly burned Remarque's works and produced propaganda claiming that he was a descendant of French Jews. Remarque was, in fact, Catholic.

Remarque's life in Europe, like that of many artists during the period seems to have been a long series of tempestuous and tumultuous exploits with women, and drink interspersed with genuine danger as the Nazi presence spread throughout the continent. Remarque, like many of his contemporaries, decided going to America was his only option and he was aboard the last peace-time voyage of the Queen Mary headed for New York. Once he arrived in Hollywood a dizzying array of romantic/sexual exploits followed. It's sort of breath-taking. There was a brief affair with the young Hedy Lamarr (Remarque was married but his wife Ilsa was still in Europe, their marriage was open – wide, wide open). Then he met Marlene Dietrich, whom he called “The Puma”, and began a relationship that went back and forth between affair and friendship for the rest of his life.

As I was reading the book, which, quite frankly is packed with delicious gossip, I couldn't help but think “when did these people have time for all this carrying on?” Remarque kept diaries, discrete enough to be gentlemanly but detailed enough to leave no doubt, and these diaries are quoted in Tims' book along with quotes from the memoirs of other players in the field. For her part Dietrich never met a man she didn't have designs on. Her affair with Remarque suffered its first break (many more were to come) when she seduced a young Jimmy Stewart. He responded by entering a dalliance with Greta Garbo. Dietrich tried to seduce John Wayne, who was, apparently, one of the few men who ever rejected her. Playwright Clifford Odettes (husband of Luise Rainier whom Remarque would later seduce) referred to the Dietrich Alumni Association in his letters. Remarque managed during this time to impregnate Maureen O'Sullivan. The list is sort of dazzling.

I had recently re-read Hemingway's story Hills Like White Elephants that I have long thought to be one of the saddest stories I have ever read and, in many ways, the haphazard dalliances of Remarque and his contemporaries made me think of that story. In Hills Like White Elephants both the un-named man and girl are being tremendously polite and reserved as they discuss whether or not she should have an abortion. The girl is politely telling him that she just wants the two of them to go on being happy together and she will do whatever he wants even though it is painfully obvious that she doesn't want the abortion. The man is equally polite in telling her he will abide by whatever decision she makes, that he doesn't want her to do anything she doesn't want to do, all the while assuring her how easy, painless and simple an abortion will be. It is also obvious that he wants her to have it. Of course neither of them uses the word abortion and, at the end of the story, we don't know what is going to happen.

The nuanced dialog and the restrained politeness in that story has always haunted me and, I found so much of it in the story Tims tells in his book. Remarque is polite, sexually indifferent at times, and ever the romantic, considerate gentleman. His lovers are beautiful, tempestuous, wild and yet can't let go of him. He eventually marries Paulette Goddard (who went through an impressive list of lovers) and managed to produce twenty novels throughout his life.

You have to give the man credit – he was a brilliant writer – among other things...

Thanks for reading.

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