Read The Road Back

The Road Back, also translated as The Way Back,[1] (German: Der Weg zurück) is a novel by German author Erich Maria Remarque, commonly regarded as a sequel to his 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front.[1][2] It was first serialized in the German newspaper Vossische Zeitung between December 1930 and January 1931, and published in book form in April 1931.

Erich Maria Remarque’s The Road Back details the experience of a group of young German men, including Ernst Birkholz, returning from the trenches at the end of World War I. It unpacks the many challenges they face in integrating back into everyday life and the way in which so many are left both physically and mentally broken.

Beginning with the hope of peace, the novel begins with death even as things seem to be coming to an end. It then details the journey of the soldiers back to their towns. This includes a meeting with some Americans who are willing to barter for any relic that they can barter for.

Eventually, once home, Remarque unpacks various facets of life, including seeing families again, reconnecting with past relationships, trying to concentrate enough to read a book, continuing the habit of foraging for food, going back to school, attending dances, and getting a job.

There are always challenges with fitting in with other people’s reality of the experience of the front:

“Green grasses!—green grasses!” he stutters, “long sleep? In the mud of shell-holes they are lying, knocked rotten, ripped in pieces, gone down into the bog Green grasses! This is not a singing lesson!” His arms are whirling like a windmill in a gale. “Hero’s death! And what sort of a thing do you suppose that was, I wonder?——Would you like to know how young Hoyer died? All day long he lay out in the wire screaming, and his guts hanging out of his belly like macaroni. Then a bit of shell took off his fingers and a couple of hours later another chunk off his leg; and still he lived; and with his other hand he would keep trying to pack back his intestines, and when night fell at last he was done. And when it was dark we went out to get him and he was full of holes as a nutmeg grater—Now, yoti go and tell his mother how he died—if you have so much courage.”

Or everyday life:

Here I stand and must now be your teacher and guide. What should I teach you? Should I tell you that in twenty years you will be dried-up and crippled, maimed in your freest impulses, all pressed mercilessly into the selfsame mould? Should I tell you that all learning, all culture, all science is nothing but hideous mockery, so long as mankind makes war in the name of God and humanity with gas, iron, explosive and fire? What should I teach you then, you little creatures who alone have remained unspotted by the terrible years?

What am I able to teach you then? Should I tell you how to pull the string of a hand-grenade, how best to throw it at a human being? Should I show you how to stab a man with a bayonet, how to fell him with a club, how to slaughter him with a spade? Should I demonstrate how best to aim a rifle at such an incomprehensible miracle as a breathing breast, a living heart? Should I explain to you what tetanus is, what a broken spine is, and what a shattered skull? Should I describe to you how brains look when they spatter about, what crushed bones are like, and intestines when they pour out? Should I mimic how a man with a stomach-wound will groan, how one with a lung-wound gurgles and one with a head-wound whistles? More I do not know. More I have not learned.

Should I take you to the green-and-grey map there, move my finger across it and tell you that here love was murdered? Should I explain to you that the books you hold in your hands are but nets with which men design to snare your simple souls, to entangle you in the undergrowth of fine phrases, and in the barbed wire of falsified ideas?

I stand here before you, a polluted, a guilty man and can only implore you ever to remain as you are, never to suffer the bright light of your childhood to be misused as a blow-flame of hate. About your brows still blows the breath of innocence. How then should I presume to teach you? Behind me, still pursuing, are the bloody years. How then can I venture among you? Must I not first become a man again myself?

I feel a cramp begin to spread through me, as if I were turning to stone, as if I were crumbling away. I lower myself slowly into the chair, and realise that I cannot stay here any longer. I try to take hold of something but cannot. Then after a time that has seemed to me endless, the catalepsy relaxes. I stand up. “Children,” I say with difficulty, “you may go now. There will be no school today.”

Thoughts of war are always rising to the surface.

We are like those abandoned fields full of shell-holes in France, no less peaceful than the other ploughed lands about them, but in them are lying still the buried explosives—and until these shall have been dug out and cleared away, to plough will be a danger both to plougher and ploughed.

It is interesting to consider Remarque’s approach alongside other novels, such as Mrs Dalloway and Wise Blood, which touch on the difficulties of life after fighting in war.

Replied to

Thanks Ben for sharing this explanation about the difference between QUERY and CHOOSECOL. It was the first thing I though when reading your newsletter.
Read The Idea of Perfection

The Idea of Perfection (1999) is about two people who seem the least likely in the world to fall in love. Douglas Cheeseman is an awkward engineer, the sort of divorced man you’d never look at twice. Harley Savage is a big, plain, abrasive woman who’s been through three husbands and doesn’t want another. Both of them bring all kinds of unhappy baggage to their meeting in the little town of Karakarook, New South Wales, population 1,374.

Being in Karakarook is something of a voyage of discovery for both of them. Unlike Felicity Porcelline, a woman dangerously haunted by the idea of perfection, they come to understand that what looks like weakness can be the best kind of strength.

The Idea of Perfection was a surprise winner of the Orange Prize, Britain’s richest literary prize, in 2001.

Although I read The Secret River a few years ago, I had never read anything else from Kate Grenville. While doing my usual trawling the Audible Plus Catalogue, I came upon The Idea of Perfection.

The novel is set in Karakarook, a fictional town in New South Wales no longer on the main road. It focuses on two visitors with contrary intentions. Harley Savage, a part-time museum curator come to help the town maintain their heritage, and Douglas Cheeseman, an engineer involved in rebuilding an old bridge that has seen better days.

The novel seems to always battle with a desire for a perfection that is never really present. On the one hand, this plays out as something of a comedy.  Kate Grenville has described the book as ‘a heart-warming old-fashioned love story’. Although this might be the case, I think what makes this novel is that there is also always something beneath the surface.

After enough years, the look you put on your face to hide behind became the shape of the person you were

For me, this is epitomised by the discussion of failed relationships, to the point of Harley Savage’s last husband committing suicide.

I think that this contrast between the comedic and the serious is what allows for these investigations.

She never thought about being Asian when he took his clothes off.

I like how Ron Charles captures it:

Readers who are particularly successful and good-looking, please skip to the next page. Kate Grenville has written a book for the rest of us. Everyone who’s ever returned from a great date to discover toilet paper trailing from their shoes will cling to “The Idea of Perfection” like an old friend.

“The Idea of Perfection” is perfectly conceived, an irresistible comedy of manners that catches the agony of chronic awkwardness with great tenderness.

Source: The awkward bridge from loneliness to romance by Ron Charles

Read The Violent Bear It Away

The Violent Bear It Away is a 1960 novel by American author Flannery O’Connor. It is the second and final novel that she published. The first chapter was originally published as the story “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead” in the journal New World Writing.[1] The novel tells the story of Francis Marion Tarwater, a fourteen-year-old boy who is trying to escape the destiny his uncle has prescribed for him: the life of a prophet. Like most of O’Connor’s stories, the novel is filled with Catholic themes and dark images, making it a classic example of Southern Gothic literature.

There was something haunting about The Violent Bears It Away. Whether it be the characters or their fractured experiences, things always feel incomplete, both sad and unresolved.

What exactly does it mean to say that human beings are made “in the image and likeness of God”? Three answers have dominated Western theological ethics—imago Dei as reason, as will, and as love—and Flannery O’Connor’s second novel explores each of these from the inside, as it were, through its portrayal of the distinctive lifeworlds inhabited by three of the novel’s major characters: George Rayber, Francis Marion Tarwater, and the boy Bishop.

Source: Only Love Overcomes Violence: “The Violent Bear It Away” as Case Studies in Theological Ethics by Scott Huelin

In some respect, I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Yes, both novels end in some sort of resolution, but it never quite satisfies all that is wrong in the world.

I feel that this is probably one of those books that I could come back to as something of a meditation. I did try diving into some of the commentary, but realised there was a whole different layer that would be a study in itself. It does make me want to read more from Thomas Aquinas.

Read Wise Blood

Wise Blood is the first novel by American author Flannery O’Connor, published in 1952. The novel was assembled from disparate stories first published in Mademoiselle, Sewanee Review and Partisan Review. The first chapter is an expanded version of her Master’s thesis, “The Train”, and other chapters are reworked versions of “The Peeler,” “The Heart of the Park” and “Enoch and the Gorilla”. The novel concerns a returning World War II veteran who, haunted by a life-long crisis of faith, resolves to form an anti-religious ministry in an eccentric, fictionalized Southern city after finding his family homestead abandoned without a trace.

Nick Cave mentioned Flannery O’Connor in Faith, Hope and Carnage:

I did go back and re-read Flannery O’Connor recently to remember why we must value her, but that was only because her books had been taken out of a college library in America, due to some skewed and overly harsh charges of racism.

I had never read anything by Flannery O’Connor before, so I was intrigued.

Wise Blood is a story about Hazel Motes, a returning World War II veteran who, haunted by a life-long crisis of faith, resolves to form an anti-religious ministry. It is an example of “low comedy and high seriousness”.

O’Connor states that the book is about freedom, free will, life and death, and the inevitability of belief.[5] Themes of redemption, racism, sexism, and isolation also run through the novel.

Source: Wise Blood by Wikipedia

Some have made associations with other post-war texts, such as Waiting for Godot, and the existential response:

In the process of waiting for a sign that Jesus exists and that people can be saved, he digs himself deeper into the existential hole, which can only end with tragedy. He fails to be saved, because in an existential world, there is no one to do the saving. In existentialism, it is always a matter of waiting, of “walking and of meeting—the hope that drives all of O’Connor’s seekers through all the mazes of their existence” (Kennelly 40).

Source: Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood as an Unintentional Existential Novel When Compared to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot by Samantha F Gebel

The connection with the ‘God is Dead’ movement of the 60’s:

The historical “death-of-God” theological movement may help to better understand Hazel Motes as a Christian malgré lui. Nevertheless, Hazel’s Church Without Christ is far from a success, and the historical “death-of-God” movement likewise never attracts many followers. These two similar radical theological movement and institution share the same problems. Thomas Merton indicates, one crucial problem in the “death-of-God” theology is that “it implies a marriage of quietism and revolt which is a little hard to understand. It accepts everything ‘with passivity’ yet waits for some inexplicable breakthrough” (247). Hazel’s preaching shares this same problem; he preaches the truth without Jesus in anticipation for Jesus’s revelation. It is radical in a way, yet it is peculiarly passive at the same time. It achieves nothing. Merton further argues that “[t]he trouble is that isolated insights like those, taken out of their context, transferred from the realm of subjective experience into that of dogma or theodicy, easily form misleading systems of thought” (271). In Wise Blood, Hazel’s preaching similarly misfires and sends the wrong message to his followers. The Church Without Christ has very few members: aside from Hoover Shoats who soon starts his own preaching career and Enoch Emery who follows Hazel in secret, there is only one other follower, “a boy about sixteen years old who had wanted someone to go to a whorehouse with him” (WB 146). Of course, this follower is only a mistake and confesses to be a “Lapsed Catholic” himself (WB 147). In this regard, instead of attracting believers in his “truth,” Hazel only succeeds in alluring the half-believers whose faith has already gone awry.

Source: “The Church Without Christ”: Radical Theology, Secularism, and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood by Yen-Chi Wu

The postmodern mismatch between signifier and signified:

O’Connor derived this notion of alienation from a panoply of modernists including Hemingway, Steinbeck, Joyce, Kafka, Gide, and Camus, but the high modernists she engaged most studiously in writing Wise Blood were Faulkner and T. S. Eliot. Her early short story “The Train,” which introduces the prototype of Hazel Motes, is redolent in style and theme of As I Lay Dying (1930) (Asals 18). Wise Blood is also a Southern rendition of The Waste Land (1922), its museum mummy, “once as tall as you or me” (O’Connor Wise 98), standing in for Eliot’s drowned Phoenician sailor, “once handsome and tall as you” (1161).4 However, O’Connor revises these modernist sources: Wise Blood shifts the focus of “The Train” from consciousness to visual images (Asals 19), and it uses the mummy image to mock Haze’s “Church Without Christ”–declining the mythic pattern of death and rebirth linked to Eliot’s sailor and exacting a redemption that is more spectacular, grotesque, and personally demanding. She achieves this end by exposing modernist ideology to postmodern surroundings, that is, to a community of “common tastes and interests” (“Catholic” 856).

Source: Learning from Atlanta: Prophecy and Postmodernism in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood) by Joseph C. Murphy

The use of gothic characterists to elicit introspection.

Whereas traditional Gothic literature emphasizes the exterior, either structural or behavioral, to reveal a wicked secret within, O’Connor uses violence and sin as a filter from which God’s grace may be revealed anywhere, and at any time. Supernatural mysteries, in the form of divine influences, are revealed not only inside the individual or edifice, but outside the Gothic “container,” within the natural world. When violent intervention finally occurs, signs of God’s grace are exposed ubiquitously. The dual purpose of the Gothic mode, as an exemplifier of both internal and external supernatural elements, makes O’Connor’s works truly unique. Her stories do more than entertain, they edify through elicitation of introspection.

Source: To Be or Not to Be Gothic: Focus and Form of Literary Devices in Flannery O’Connor’s Stories by Andrew Schenck

Personally, the thing that stuck with me was the mismatch between signs and situations, and the act of misreading. Whether it be the advertising signs, Asa Hawks’ blindness or Hoover Shoats’ Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. In the end, Motes’ death is misread. In some ways I was reminded as much of Don DeLillo as I was of William Faulkner, but then again, maybe that is my own misreading.

Read Bartleby, the Scrivener by Contributors to Wikimedia projects

“Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is a short story by the American writer Herman Melville, first serialized anonymously in two parts in the November and December 1853 issues of Putnam’s Magazine and reprinted with minor textual alterations in his The Piazza Tales in 1856. In the story, a Wall Street lawyer hires a new clerk who, after an initial bout of hard work, refuses to make copies or do any other task required of him, refusing with the words “I would prefer not to.”

Bartleby, the Scrivener one of the first text I read at university. There is something strange and frustrating about Bartleby. I think ironically about the way in which he lingers long after the novel finishes, especially the phrase, “I would prefer not to.”

One of the interesting things in re-reading such texts is how memory holds up. I remember the refusal to work, even though there was no practical reason not to. This is summed up in the quote from the story:

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.

However, what I had forgotten was that there was more to Bartleby than we can ever quite know.

He never spoke, but to answer

In particular, the death due to starvation, highlighting that there might have been more going on.

Read Moby Dick

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is an 1851 novel by American writer Herman Melville. The book is the sailor Ishmael’s narrative of the maniacal quest of Ahab, captain of the whaling ship Pequod, for vengeance against Moby Dick, the giant white sperm whale that bit off his leg on the ship’s previous voyage. A contribution to the literature of the American Renaissance, Moby-Dick was published to mixed reviews, was a commercial failure, and was out of print at the time of the author’s death in 1891. Its reputation as a Great American Novel was established only in the 20th century, after the 1919 centennial of its author’s birth. William Faulkner said he wished he had written the book himself,[1] and D. H. Lawrence called it “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world” and “the greatest book of the sea ever written”.[2] Its opening sentence, “Call me Ishmael”, is among world literature’s most famous.[3]

I remember reading Michael Gerard Bauer’s Don’t Call Me Ishmael when I was still in the classroom. I therefore thought it might be interesting to dive into the novel where the title came from, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Other than being about a whale, Moby Dick, and including a same-sex marriage, I did not really have much of an idea of what the book was about.

One of the things that was really interesting was the way in which Melville ties together so many differing styles and literary devices ranging from songs, poetry, and catalogs to Shakespearean stage directions, soliloquies, and asides. I can imagine some readers may skip some of the dalliances into all things whaling to instead focus on the chase for the white whale. However, these lengthy descriptions both add context and also add a real fever to the text. I would be intrigued to see Melville’s notebooks collecting together all this research.

Captain Ahab and his manic obsession had me thinking of both The Judge in Blood Meridian and Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. I watched a video where Harold Bloom argued that he liked Captain Ahab, because without him, we would never have had Moby Dick. This is an interesting way of looking at it.

The reference to different countries (Australia, Peru) and the way in which whaling traverses everything had me thinking about how the novel exists outside of society. Interestingly, it predicts its own interpretations throughout. I was left thinking about Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of desire without bodies.

Moby Dick is definitely a writerly text that I can imagine easily rereading.