On the Via Dolorosa

Neal Ascherson

Remarque apparently knew that The Promised Land would be his last novel, and meant it to be one of his finest, perhaps his masterwork – even in comparison to All Quiet on the Western Front. But he died in 1970, leaving it unfinished: a massive stub. Michael Hofmann, his translator, recalls some other unfinished fictions. But this is not The Mystery of Edwin Drood or The Man without Qualities. Those two books lack their ends, but what remains doesn’t feel raw or rough; they simply break off. The Promised Land in contrast feels unpruned. Most of it, perhaps as much as three-quarters of its intended length, seems to be there. But the telling is sometimes baggy, repetitive, irrelevant or all three, and any reader will begin to notice passages that Remarque might have cut out or cut down if he had been allowed more time.

The book’s history, as far as we are told about it, remains rather unclear. There were several successive versions – one account says there were six – and this is alleged to be the last, Remarque having junked the others. This makes it all the more peculiar that his widow, the Hollywood superstar Paulette Goddard, went to Munich a year after his death and launched an earlier and much inferior draft entitled Schatten im Paradies, translated as Shadows in Paradise (Remarque had left Germany in 1931, hounded by the Nazis even before they came to power, but continued to write in German). That text was pretty universally panned. Remarque, the critics said, had clearly been suffering from a senile decay of talent.

Why Goddard decided that Schatten should be published and not this later and far superior text, which must have been lying somewhere around his desk, is a puzzle. Possibly because Schatten does have an ending, whereas The Promised Land stops as its main character approaches a moment of enormous, existential decision without giving any clear sign of which choice he will make. Such a break-off would normally be infuriating, but instead the very uncertainty is intensely memorable. Incomplete and often overweight as it is, The Promised Land (Das gelobte Land) is fitfully powerful and moving. The haunted restlessness and Hamletish indecision of the narrator, a German exile in wartime New York, builds up a terrible tension. Slowly, through gathering hints, his contending compulsion and reluctance to act become clearer. When the book stops telling, the reader’s imagination keeps moving.

Most of Remarque’s fiction falls into three baskets. There are three novels about the First World War and its aftermath as experienced by young soldiers: All Quiet on the Western Front, The Road Back and Three Comrades. The last of these had to be finished in exile. Then there is a set of fictions about the flights and fates of German and Austrian refugees before and during the Second World War: Flotsam, Arch of Triumph and The Night in Lisbon. Next, though not exactly last chronologically, come his two shattering novels about the Third Reich: Spark of Life (as appalling and detailed as any fiction about a concentration camp) and A Time to Love and a Time to Die (a young German soldier’s experiences on the Eastern Front).

The Promised Land was evidently planned as a sequel to the novels about flight and emigration. Flotsam begins with German anti-Nazi and Jewish refugees arriving in Vienna to a hostile reception. Arch of Triumph is set among refugees in Paris, between the Nazi assumption of power in 1933 and the outbreak of war. The Night in Lisbon starts after the German invasion of France, as the emigrants – now fugitives – frantically seek visas and boat tickets to escape from Europe. In The Promised Land, Remarque – sometimes tenderly, sometimes with brutal satire – anatomises the refugees who have managed to reach safety in the United States. Its action takes place in New York, in the final year of the war in Europe.

On the first page, the narrator is still on Ellis Island, waiting for a temporary visa in a tearful mob of refugee families. His passport says he is Ludwig Sommer, but he is not. The identity was given to him by another exile, a dying Jewish friend, in France just before the war. We never learn his real name. It gradually emerges that he spent time in Gestapo torture chambers and then in a concentration camp. He is not a Jew, though he allows everyone to assume that he is, but was in some undisclosed opposition group. Nearly 12 years on the run have left him wary, distrustful, plagued by horrific dreams and flashbacks.

Once ashore in Manhattan, he is dazzled by the lights after blacked-out Europe, by the hurrying crowds and the plenty: ‘I walked terribly slowly through the fizzing city.’ He finds welcome in the German refugee community. Many of them, like him, are living with false papers and are in constant fear of American arrest and internment; several are old comrades whom he had believed dead. He is reunited with his friend Robert Hirsch, a legendary fighter who tore about Occupied France in SS uniform rescuing Ludwig and other refugees from internment camps and the pursuing Gestapo. Now Robert is managing a small electrical goods shop. He slowly coaxes Ludwig into relaxing, laughing at him when he flinches at the sight of two cops in a restaurant. ‘No need to run any more, Ludwig … But a lawful existence demands courage as well. Sometimes more courage than running away.’ They sit in Robert’s shop and drink and exchange news about other refugees – some murdered in the gas chambers or by SS interrogators, some miraculously safe in the States or Mexico, some vanished without trace somewhere along the perilous escape route across Europe that Robert and Ludwig call the Via Dolorosa. ‘I didn’t ask Robert how he had managed to get out of France. That was a habit from before; if you didn’t know something, you wouldn’t be able to betray it.’ They remember the ‘Laon Breviary’, the set of rules for novice fugitives that they drew up while hiding together in a French chicken coop. Paragraph 12 read: ‘Emotion clouds judgment; anxiety too. It may never happen.’

Ludwig is directed to a shabby hotel, already crowded with European refugees in many stages of crazy optimism, suicidal gloom or alcoholic resignation. Remarque readers will have been here before. The Hotel Rausch in New York is the Hotel International in Paris, full of German emigrants, in Arch of Triumph, and the hotel, also in Paris, to which Schwarz brings the wife he has smuggled out of Nazi Germany in The Night in Lisbon. Here, as in several of the other emigration novels, there is a huge old Russian behind the desk, one of the White refugees who headed for France and America after the Bolshevik victory. Cynical but kindly, he hands out vodka, Seconal and worldly advice to his tormented guests and plays chess with them. Some still wrestle with thoughts of returning to Germany when the war is won. But the Russian – Moikov in this novel – has long ago disentangled himself from hope that he will see his own country again.

Other characters and motifs recur. Dr Ravic, the heroic but stateless surgeon practising illegally in Paris, was the central character in Arch of Triumph and now reappears in New York. So does booze, a topic to which Remarque fondly returns to the brink of self-parody; his characters, men and women, are always holding out a glass for more or exclaiming over the quality of the next bottle. In The Promised Land it’s vodka or cognac. During the doomed love affair in Arch of Triumph, Ravic and Joan drank Calvados in such quantities that the novel – a bestseller – touched off an American sales boom so wild that Normandy ran out of apples (the producer who filmed the book is supposed to have ordered 54 cases of the stuff on set).

Remarque was a famously autobiographical novelist. Friends, enemies and places surface again and again, very occasionally under their true names. Ravic contains elements of Remarque himself, or at least of a person he would have liked to have been. As for The Promised Land’s cast of New York emigrants from Central Europe – actors, writers, art collectors – experts on that German diaspora can unlock the roman à clef and identify well-known individuals. A more important recurrence, though, is the psychological context: almost all Remarque’s fictional characters have been forced to live in ways which disqualify them for ‘normal’ human existence.

In All Quiet on the Western Front, the young soldier Bäumer reflects: ‘We are not youth any longer … We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life … The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer; we believe in the war.’ When that war is over, the survivors returning from the front found it almost impossible to fit into civilian life. And this was not because postwar Germany was lurching into a chaos of revolution, hunger and hyperinflation. It was rather that the only skills their experience in the trenches had left to these young men were how to kill, how to harden the heart against atrocious sights, how to steal and dodge orders, how to live without imagining a future. But these skills were useless, inappropriate to the needs of a society at peace.

So it was, a decade later, with the victims of the Third Reich. They too were fleeing – for their lives but also from their lives. Some of the characters in the emigration novels continue to use their professional skills – Ravic can still do a hysterectomy, although he will be arrested in France or the States if he is caught doing it without a licence – whereas others, like the famous writer Georg Kamp, are reduced to manual labour. But the survival skills they have learned along the Via Dolorosa (and some of them, like Ludwig, have been in flight for more than ten years) are as pointless in comfortable America and as hard to drop as those of trench warfare. They have internalised the habits of fear, of trusting nobody, of making no plans beyond the next day, of suppressing memories, of avoiding the pain of hope.

The narrative thread in The Promised Land is Ludwig’s slow and agonising crawl out of that mental bunker and towards something approaching acceptance of the world around him. It’s a jagged progress. He meets a tough, wise girl in the Hotel Rausch, an Italian-Russian refugee who works as a model, and with Maria Fiola – by the time the novel breaks off – he is beginning to find hope for the future and to trust his own feelings. But horrible dreams still torment him, and suppressed memories rise closer to the surface. Some are guilt-ridden: flies crowding the dead eyes of a lover who killed herself rather than face the Gestapo alone. Some are about terror as well as guilt: a room in which his father is being tortured to death in front of him.

How would this novel have ended? That last dream connects to the mystery. Maybe, given Maria Fiola’s growing radiance, Ludwig was going to be saved and redeemed. There are passages which suggest that. But if so, Remarque would have suddenly broken with a plot repeated in most of his fictions, especially the novels concerned with the Third Reich. Two patterns recur. The first is that the woman at the core of the story dies, still loving the protagonist and seeking to spare him grief (Remarque’s heroines all seem to be the same woman: sun-tanned, intelligent, hard-drinking and all-forgiving). The second pattern, even more relevant to The Promised Land, is revenge. In Arch of Triumph and The Night in Lisbon, a fugitive turns on his Nazi persecutor and murders him. In Spark of Life, as the living skeletons in the concentration camp rebel, the prisoner at the tale’s centre kills the most brutal SS guard and dies at the same time. In A Time to Love and a Time to Die, Private Graeber shoots a fanatical Nazi comrade as he prepares to execute a group of Russian villagers – who, as soon as they are free, kill Graeber himself.

The only future Ludwig in The Promised Land can imagine is one in which he returns to Germany and kills the Gestapo man who murdered his father. The memory of this becomes clearer with each nightmare and each flashback: a room flooded with the red light of sunset, blood on the floor, a prone body, a mocking voice with a Bavarian accent. Ludwig says to himself: ‘There were the murders that had broken my life apart. I couldn’t even think of them without feeling wound-up for days. Nothing could happen before they were repaid. Repaid, mind, not avenged. Expunged by the life of the murderer.’ Later, watching Maria in her sleep, he talks to her in his head: ‘You take me for a restless gypsy; but I’m only a misguided bourgeois with a set of terrible experiences, in the shadow of an Orestean vow to vengeance.’

All this suggests that Remarque would have eventually sent Ludwig home to kill and die. In the version of the story in Schatten, the émigré Ross (the prototype of Ludwig) does indeed return to Germany to seek vengeance. But could it be that Remarque, knowing that this was his last work, wanted to end on a note of reconciliation, to show that his haunted refugees could turn their backs on their past after all and find peace in a new life? Was he going to let Ludwig forget about being German, settle down with his cognac and his Maria Fiola and – perhaps – manage a prosperous art gallery in New York?

*

I have my doubts. Remarque wasn’t a man for happy endings. But Michael Hofmann, who has translated The Promised Land with his usual imagination and brilliance, takes the other view. In an afterword, he dismisses the revenge and melodrama of Schatten (‘Plausibility and form and sympathy hiss out of the book like air from an inner tube’), and suggests that Ludwig will never get out of the New York to which, in so many ways, this novel is a hymn. ‘The longer the book goes on, the more unthinkable that he leave. You can’t go back.’ There’s certainly a passage in the book that supports Hofmann’s optimism. After hearing that Paris has been liberated unharmed, Ludwig reflects on his ‘Orestean entanglement’ and realises that ‘almost unnoticed, something else came along that didn’t belong in that complex, something I couldn’t shake, something to do with Paris, peace and hope.’

But Ludwig’s story, his crab-walk towards love and trust, is only a slender string trying to connect a book of more than four hundred pages. The bulk of it is made up of set-piece anecdotes and sketches, heard and witnessed by Ludwig as he moves around the emigrant community. The anecdotes – unbearable personal tragedies, miraculous escapes, tricks played on stupid manhunters, lives sacrificed to save a husband or hide a stranger – are probably true. All those things happened and more. Remarque, whose own experience of flight and exile was pretty painless, picked these tales up from many sources and framed them with all the skill of a master storyteller.

The sketches are portraits of the German emigration in New York. Some are dialogues, some describe parties and their guests, some are ferociously funny caricatures of individuals and families. Most of the characters here are Jewish, and, read in the 21st century, Remarque’s unsparing satire can seem ‘incorrect’. Put it like this: Remarque was a pre-Holocaust writer. Not in the timeline sense: his emigration and Third Reich novels were published during or after the war. But he composed them before a changing historiography separated the fate of Europe’s Jews from other Nazi crimes, defining the Holocaust as a unique event sited beyond comparative context and protected with its own conventions of discussion.

Remarque didn’t make that distinction. Like most people in the immediate aftermath of the war, he regarded the fate of the Jews as only the worst aspect of the Third Reich’s barbarity towards all those it considered its enemies. The atrocious Nazi cruelties described in these anecdotes are usually suffered by non-Jewish Germans: ‘politicals’ like Ludwig and his father. And one of the Jewish characters in The Promised Land, Robert Hirsch, is made to be ‘beside himself at the way the Jews had let themselves be rounded up by the Germans like so many rabbits … beside himself about the two-thousand-year-old tradition of meekness, ever since the time of the Maccabees. He hated his own people for it and understood it with a painful love.’

Alexander Silver is flamboyantly at war with his brother Arnold for marrying a ‘shiksa’, or as he puts it, ‘a bottle-blonde hyena’. It’s Alexander who gives Ludwig a half-job in his antique shop, and Remarque makes the bargaining and feuding of the siblings a satirical, schmaltzy portrait of New York Jews. Tannenbaum, a generous financier who managed to get his wealth out of Germany in time, throws a magnificent party for the émigrés to celebrate his name-change to Smith. The crazy Koller draws up fantasy lists of Germans to be executed after the war. Blumenthal, now a powerful businessman, swindles the helpless Dr Bosse out of the stamp collection that was all he could smuggle out of Germany (Ludwig and Hirsch go round and terrorise Blumenthal into paying up). Jessie, a mother figure to Berlin’s Jewish intellectuals before, during and after their flight, tirelessly looks after these fallen stars, comforting and feeding them in her New York salon. There are many more sketches, most – not all – done with compassion for those who will never quite cease to be fugitives. As Hirsch says: ‘Haven’t you understood yet that we are living in the age of anxiety? The age of real and imaginary fear? … And that as emigrants we’re never going to be able to shake this fear, whatever happens?’

The novel can bulge with what feels like sheer overmatter. Pages and pages are given over to stories of bargaining – haggles over Chinese vases, Impressionist paintings, antique rugs – which are entertaining but pointless. Remarque knew a lot about paintings and antiques, so possibly he meant some of these objects to represent eternal values gleaming above a sordid world. Or perhaps he was suggesting that the deceit and alertness picked up along the Via Dolorosa had at least qualified his refugees as market traders. But, as this book demonstrates, he had a weakness for purple passages, windy aphorisms and wisecrack dialogue he didn’t always manage to control.

His numerous enemies in Germany, before and after the war, sneered that he ‘hadn’t been there’. He had served only briefly in the trenches, he hadn’t lived in Nazi Germany, he had never been in a concentration camp. His own escape, as a famous writer with money and foreign friends, was more of an easy displacement into exile than a flight. But Remarque’s formidable imaginative power and the depth of his research sweep those complaints off the table. (I suspect that a camp survivor would never have written Spark of Life, with its irresistible combination of fictional suspense and persuasive detail.)

And Remarque knew as much about bad dreams and guilt as the other exiles. In 1943 the Nazis beheaded his youngest sister, Elfriede, for ‘defeatist’ talk, and at her trial the abominable prosecutor Roland Freisler made it clear that her brother was also a target. Remarque had to live with that, just as he had to live with the destruction of his beloved home town of Osnabrück, and with the murder or suicide of many of his friends.

He knew what he was writing about, in other words. Reading this strong, truncated book about loss, fear and exile, I wished that he or his equal were alive today. For reasons that do not bear inspection, we don’t think of the tens of thousands fleeing from Syria or Eritrea, Libya or Afghanistan as interesting individuals with bad dreams, survivors’ guilt and disabling mistrust. They are just asylum seekers. But they have travelled down the same Via Dolorosa as Ludwig and Robert Hirsch. They too live in an age of anxiety from which some of them will never emerge.