The majority of classic World War I novels appeared in 1929, a decade after the Treaty of Versailles officially ended the conflict. Notable fictional accounts include Robert Graves’ “Goodbye to All That” and Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” However, it was a German book, Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” that had the biggest impact on readers, conveying so graphically the sheer horror, cruelty and senselessness of the war.
Remarque’s novel overshadowed another German antiwar book that was published without any competition the previous year. “Schlump” by Hans Herbert Grimm (1896-1950) was only a modest success. Any hope of reappraisal in subsequent decades was snuffed out when the Nazis banned and burned it. Fortunately, Grimm’s original manuscript resurfaced in 2013. German readers rediscovered it on the centenary of the Great War. Now “Schlump” re-emerges in Jamie Bulloch’s superb new English translation.
The book follows the exploits of one Emil Schulz — aka Schlump. He enters the war in 1915 at age 17, but instead of fighting he is tasked with keeping the peace. Running a local administration in occupied France, he spends his days writing reports, settling feuds and frolicking with local girls. But the good times soon come to an end, and Schlump is wrenched from peaceful pastoral life and thrown into front-line trenches.
At this point Grimm alters his soft focus for a grittier perspective. Daily life is either arduous or monotonous, with Schlump up against mud, lice, rats, gas, freezing temperatures and brutal bombardment. Fellow soldiers are introduced, only to be casually and mercilessly picked off or blown up pages later. But whether under fire from “Tommies” or “Frenchies,” convalescing in hospital or stewing in solitary confinement, Schlump remains defiantly optimistic, and it is this breezy outlook and determination that make him so appealing.
In an early scene, Grimm flash-forwards and shows Schlump in conversation with an old reservist after the war. This pre-emptive strike has a tension-killing effect: Our hero survives. And yet that tension is restored on the occasions when Grimm informs us that Schlump’s friends will fall. We read on with a sense of queasiness, wondering when a character’s luck will eventually run out.
Grimm’s searing images of war (“everywhere blood and more blood”) leave lasting impressions, but just as memorable are his many humorous interludes involving unyielding chamber pots and airborne bowls of sauerkraut, together with Schlump’s penchant for storytelling, skirt chasing and hitting his superiors. Unlike Jaroslav Hasek’s imbecilic Good Soldier Svejk, Schlump is plucky, wily and resourceful. We see him at his most human, and therefore most sympathetic, when he realizes the futility of his war effort: “Even if we win, he told himself, it’s not going to be the filthy hero from the trenches who gets all the honors. No, those in sparkling uniforms will jump the queue.”
Caustic and comic, “Schlump” is a powerful and necessary addition to First World War literature.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Hans Herbert Grimm, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.
Publisher: New York Review Books, 279 pages, $16.95.