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12 February 2015

The Promised Land: Erich Maria Remarque’s unfinished final book has a humane power

The fragmented last work from the author of All Quiet on the Western Front.

By Adam Kirsch

The Promised Land
Erich Maria Remarque
Vintage Classics, 423pp, £16.99

A dedicated reader of Erich Maria Remarque – if such a person still exists in the English-speaking world – will not get far into The Promised Land without experiencing a sense of déjà vu. In 1971, the year after Remarque died, his widow, the Hollywood actress Paulette Goddard, arranged for the publication of the novel he was working on until the end, Shadows in Paradise. This was the story of Robert Ross, a German refugee in New York City, and the various fellow exiles with whom he waits out the Second World War. In fact, as Remarque’s biographer Hilton Tims has written, “there is evidence . . . that in Remarque’s estimate the novel was nowhere near ready for publication”. He had not informed his publisher about his work-in-progress, nor had he even given it a settled title – Shadows in Paradise was the invention of the book’s American editor – and the manuscript existed in six distinct versions. So it is hardly surprising that when the book appeared, it was widely dismissed as a botch, and a taint on the reputation of the revered author of All Quiet on the Western Front.

Three decades later, in 1998, Remarque’s estate authorised a new German edition of the novel, based on a different version of the manuscript, which appeared under one of Remarque’s working titles, Das gelobte Land. It is this text that has now been published in English as The Promised Land, in a new translation by Michael Hofmann. And though the publisher has taken care to downplay the book’s backstory – nowhere on the jacket is it described as an unfinished novel, and Hofmann’s brief afterword only glancingly mentions its earlier incarnation – it is clearly the same story as Shadows in Paradise. The characters mostly have different names – the narrator, Ross, is now named Ludwig Sommer – and the episodes are in a somewhat different order, but for the most part everything that happens in the earlier book can be found in the later one, sometimes in nearly identical form.

And yet, The Promised Land manages to be unmistakably a better book than its predecessor. Shadows in Paradise, as edited and translated by Remarque’s German and English publishers, tried to come across as a slick, fast-paced romance. Passages of description were stripped away, many pages were boiled down to bare dialogue, and the love story at the book’s centre, between Ross and the Russian model Natasha Petrovna, was made more conventionally Holly­woodish. The effect was to foreground the weaknesses of the novel, which in fact is very light on plot, and much more interested in atmosphere. By restoring the fullness of Remarque’s narrative voice, and by acknowledging the book’s incompleteness – instead of tacking on an unconvincing ending, as in the earlier version – Hofmann has turned The Promised Land into a more literary novel. It is still far from a masterpiece, but it now serves as a potent evocation of a fascinating historical moment.

That moment is the summer of 1944 (not, as the book’s jacket has it, 1942), in a New York City apparently untouched by the war that has ravaged Europe. Sommer – that is the name on his passport; we never learn his original name – has made his way to Ellis Island after years on the run from the Nazis. The details remain sketchy, but he has served time on what Remarque calls the Via Dolorosa: the odyssey through hideouts, jails and concentration camps that Germans fleeing from Hitler were forced to undergo. He is even familiar with the scent of crematoriums – an odd detail, as he is supposed to have been on the run in Belgium and France, whereas the killing centres of the Holocaust were in Poland.

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Here is a sign that Remarque was constructing Sommer’s experiences from the accounts of other refugees, as well as books published long after the fact. For though he, too, fled Hitler in 1933 and spent the Nazi years in Switzerland, France and America, his own exile was considerably plusher than his character’s. Ironically, both the need to escape Germany and the resources that allowed him to do so in comfort came from the same source: All Quiet on the Western Front, which became a worldwide bestseller after it appeared in January 1929.

Remarque had spent only six weeks on the German front lines during the First World War before he was seriously wounded in the Battle of Passchendaele and sent to hospital for the remainder of the war. But that was enough time for him to glean the impressions and anecdotes that fill his novel, which has introduced generations of readers to the realities of trench warfare: the gas attacks and night-time bombardments, the raids into no-man’s-land, the surreally severed heads and limbs and torsos. In its matter-of-fact, reportorial approach to the war and its resentment on behalf of the generation that fought it, All Quiet captured the imagination of millions of readers, not just in defeated Germany but in victorious France and England as well.

For the same reasons, it earned the undying enmity of the Nazis, who despised Remarque’s pacifism and lack of nationalist zeal. When the film adaptation premiered in Berlin in 1930, Joseph Goebbels arranged for it to be disrupted by Brownshirts; the book was among the first titles that Nazi students consigned to the flames. On the night of 30 January 1933, the day Hitler took power, Remarque was warned by a friend to leave the country immediately and he slipped over the border into Switzerland. He did not return to Germany for another 20 years. Unlike most émigré writers, however, he never had to deal with the ordeals of poverty and obscurity. He never again had a success on the scale of All Quiet but his subsequent novels sold well in many countries. Books such as Three Comrades (1936), set in strife-torn Weimar Berlin, and Arch of Triumph (1945), which follows a German doctor in exile in Paris, served as chronicles of the age while also telling appealing romantic stories, and were often purchased for princely sums by movie producers.

Moving between his Swiss villa and Paris, Remarque assembled one of the world’s leading private art collections (he specialised in French impressionists) and engaged in a stormy love affair with Marlene Diet­rich. When war broke out in 1939 he departed for America, where, in Hollywood and New York, he added Greta Garbo, Lupe Vélez and many others to his list of conquests. Handsome and sensitive, he was exactly a movie star’s idea of what a novelist should be. It was left to more intellectual émigré writers, such as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, to sniff at his blockbuster novels and glitzy lifestyle.

It’s all a long way from Ludwig Sommer, who arrives in America with a few dollars in his pocket, a false passport and tormenting memories. Yet Remarque shows in The Promised Land that he knows something of the despair and aimlessness of the refugee. In the opening pages, Sommer manages to get off Ellis Island with the help of an old acquaintance from the Via Dolorosa, Robert Hirsch, who spent years conducting a one-man campaign against the Gestapo, freeing prisoners and forging papers. Now, however, Hirsch is leading the quiet life of a Manhattan shopkeeper, selling vacuum cleaners to housewives; and this incongruity points to the thematic heart of the novel. As Sommer begins to put down roots in America, getting lodgings at a run-down hotel and a job working off the books for an antique dealer, he is repeatedly struck by the disjunction between wartime in Europe and wartime in America. Walking through the streets of Manhattan, he undergoes a kind of unwilling resurrection:

Did such things really exist? I wondered, as I stared into a huge open hall full of shiny chrome slot machines, jingling and flashing coloured lights – could it be? Wasn’t everything desiccated and dead, could survival morph into living on and then become just – life? Was it possible: to begin again, from the beginning, to be interpreted like the language before me, unknown and full of possibilities? Was it possible, without being treason and a kind of twofold murder of the dead, who wanted not to be forgotten?

Yet for the émigrés who make up most of the novel’s cast, beginning again proves an impossible ambition. Sommer stays in the seedy Hotel Rausch, an exiles’ asylum where no one is able to let go of their past life. One of its denizens, an elderly Romanov princess who fled Russia after the revolution, survives by selling off pieces from her jewellery collection. The manager, Moikov, another Russian exile, brews vodka in an attempt to recapture the taste of home. Other acquaintances include Jessie Stein, a benefactress of the residents who is dying of cancer, and Tannenbaum, a wealthy German Jewish exile who tries to draw a line under his past by changing his name to Smith. Yet none of them can really become American, with an American’s freedom from history, as Robert Hirsch wryly warns the narrator: “We’re not persecuted here. We’re tolerated. That’s progress. But don’t get light-headed. And don’t forget we’re second-class citizens here.”

These exiles live in a haunted zone where memories of the past are constantly intruding into the shiny American present. Lachmann, a comic grotesque, was once a great womaniser, until the SS tried to castrate him with scissors; they didn’t finish the job but left him with a limp, so that now he pursues only women with physical flaws to match his own (his current inamorata is a hunchback). Jessie Stein has a gallery of photos of her acquaintances, one wall for the living, one for the dead. Whenever someone dies – as happens often through illness, suicide, or despair – his portrait is draped in black and transferred to the appropriate wall. Rosenthal, a casual acquaintance of Sommer’s, is haunted by his last vision of his wife, as she was hustled into a Black Maria by the Gestapo: “She had no lips, but she smiled. That was the last I saw of her.”

The best parts of this loosely episodic novel are the many parties and conversations that bring these lost souls together, allowing Remarque to conjure up the peculiar quality of their common life – hectic, guilt-ridden, clinging to an existence they are uncertain they deserve. Compared to these scenes, the subplot concerning Sommer’s attempts to make a living as an art and antiques dealer seem perfunctory. Drawing on his considerable experience as a collector, Remarque paints acidulous portraits of greedy connoisseurs and manipulative dealers. But such observations, though effective enough, are familiar, and they could easily have fit into a different novel.

Nor is the romantic plot concerning Sommer’s half-hearted affair with a fashion model (named Maria Fiola in this version) particularly involving. Partly this is because the text that we have, unfinished and unrevised, is repetitious and slackly plotted; not only does it not have a conclusion, it doesn’t even seem to be building towards one. Still, in an odd way, this aimlessness seems to suit The Promised Land, which is, after all, a story of people whose lives have been interrupted, who are living in parentheses.

“No one wants us,” one character muses. “We are an inconvenient reproach, best avoided.” Remarque’s sympathy for these superfluous men and women is what gives the book its humane power. 

Adam Kirsch’s latest book is “Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas” (W W Norton)

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