On the Via Dolorosa - Erich Maria Remarque

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.’

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