The New York Review of Books has an absolutely terrific line of books under its imprint, culled from around the world, and many of them forgotten and worth remembering.

The most recent to come across my transom is Schulmp by Hans Herbert Grimm.  Originally published anonymously  in Germany in 1928, it made it’s appearance in English translation, by Maurice Samuel in 1929.  The NYRB edition, 2016, is translated by Jamie Bulloch, an Englishman, which while quite good does sometimes put a pebble in the reading road for American readers.  e.g . “school leaver’s certificate,” “potato clamp,” “they were magicked,” and “that could have gone pear-shaped.”

The overall sensibility, and especially the early chapters, is quite unlike the best known of all WWI novels, All Quiet on the Western Front, written by another German, Erich Maria Remarque.  Schlump is not dark and grim.  He is much more like “the good soldier Švejk, in the Czech novel of that name, (There is still a tavern in Prague with his name emblazoning the front,)  an anti-war novel that has us see army life, and even war, from the eyes of a good-hearted, simpleton.  Schlump is not a simpleton, though, despite his name.  He is a eye-fetching, physically able young man who seems to always be in a golden glow of his own outlook and the fortunes that brings him.

Even as the 260 page novel moves him from the first book in the idyllic paradise of the German occupied French country side to books two and three of the war itself, and the retreat back to a starving Germany — scenes though which it is harder to keep a whimsical note– Schlump, no schlump at all, manages to come out on the bright side of things, beguiling the girls in every town and tavern he passes through, managing to avoid hunger through charming war-profiteering and make it home to mama.

Ω

Schlump is the nickname given to Emil Schulz, upon whom, as a boy, it was bestowed by a policeman with his hand on the scruff of the boy’s neck, and which, thanks to observant friends, he carried with him all his life, including in the Army – an occupation he devoutly wished for.

“As an apprentice in a weaving mill, he could think of nothing but girls and the war … He could picture himself in a field-grey uniform, the girls eyeing him up and offering him cigarettes.  Then he would go to war.  He pictured the sun shining, the grey uniforms charging, one man falling, the others surging…In the evenings the soldiers would sit around a campfire and chat about life at home….He became anxious that he was missing out on all of this and was desperate to sign up.”

He’s a cheerful, athletic good-natured lad of seventeen, with an occasional flash of temper.  Because he has graduated high school he is assigned to headquarters in a small section of the occupied zone and is sent to oversee three villages.

“So, this was France? They came across old women with black mustaches and snuff in their nostrils.  They sky hung low, heavy as lead, and it started to drizzle.”

Once he settles into his work, it is not so bad.  It turns out that France has very pretty young women, who let it be said, that in Grimm’s telling, were little opposed to German occupation.

 “Scarcely had he left than the door opened again. This time it was a wild little devil with black hair and the darkest eyes: Marie.  She skipped over to Schlump, took him by both hands, and dragged him behind his desk into a corner where they couldn’t be seen.  There she threw her arms around him and kissed him so forcefully that he couldn’t breathe.”

Into this idyll only the distant canons “beating out a fast rhythm as accompaniment to the threshing machines” intrude  a warning note.

At Christmas, thinking of his mother, he recalls a story she had told him — a chance for the author, Arabian Nights like – to insert pages of another story, diverting to all, and a device he uses several times, to our general amusement.

Book Two brings Schlump and friends into the actual war zone.  The quartermaster makes sure they know the landscape.

“Over there, beyond the last row of trenches, are eight thousand British and further on thirty thousand Germans in a mass grave…”

Even closer, and the night sky lights up.

“Something whizzed through the air high above the farmhouse – a tiny, fiery red tongue– and explodes a short, sharp plink.

Shrapnel,” the lance corporal said.  The recruits were astonished.  They’d never seen or heard anything like it before.”

On guard, at night, “The cold was torture; it bit into his knees, his feet.  He was wearing threadbare socks, his boots stuck to his feet, and the lice were eating away at his scalp.”  He begins to have hallucinations, of Tommies, slithering across the frozen ground to kill him, and of talking to a mother rat who defends her stealing his food in order to feed her children.

Even at the worst, though, there is something laconic in the telling.

“A dead infantry man lay beside the artillery. His body had been there for several days.  He’d died going to fetch food.  The shot had torn off the top of his skull.  It lay beside him like a plate, and death had neatly placed his brain on top.”

Even at the worst, men have time to fist-fight with each other, comrades gathering around to cheer one or the other on.

Even at the worst, as in many records of the war, fictionalized or not, comes the news that men, many men, enjoy this!

“The bombardment became more intense, wilder: trench mortars, aerial torpedoes.  Schlump could clearly see them glowing in the sky, the mortar bombs, big ones and small ones, then the flare!  Finally our shells whizzed right over Schlump’s head and exploded on the other side, massive explosions.  A thrilling spectacle! Schlump couldn’t help laughing; he laughed out loud amidst this hellish turmoil.  He was enjoying himself.  To his left and right, hot pieces of shrapnel buffeted the wet mud:  Once the shells had exploded, the heavy fuses hurtled on their own through the air, humming like bumble bees.  What a concert!

In Book Three, Schlump is in the hospital, and not for the first time.  The horrors continue.  A man he meets tells him of his experience:

“…they bombed the munitions depot near the hospital  It was full of mustard gas and blue cross shells. Prussic acid and poison gas.  Everyone makes a run for it.  The seriously wounded with the shots to the stomach!  Everyone save those without any legs…”

A page or two, read and put aside, has much the same intensity as kindred British and French novels, and memoirs, the same images of death and suffering which the author wants to witness for us.  And yet Grimm leavens the weight with Schlump’s continued charmed life.  Asked by a young Walloon girl to write a love letter to her sweetheart, he devotes himself to it, only to find it left by his bed, meant for him.  In another scene he is buried under a down comforter in the big chest, along with its owner as her father searches the house for her.

It is a war, however, and in the final pages, the narrator tells us “The Germans tried to changed their fortune with a variety of offenses, which all had the same outcome.  [They] had been ill thought through, and so innumerable young men had met a terrible, horrific death.  … Masses and masses of wounded men passed through.”

The retreat begins, and not well-organized.  Graffiti appears on the walls, mocking the officers.  Soldiers change their marching tunes:

Who has his fill of women and wine?
Whose bed is creaking all the time?
It’s the bastard behind the line!

Even here, Schlump’s charmed life continues, wounds and all.  He has fallen in with a friendly war-profiteer, and has his hands on ready money, and luxury items.  They find their way on to one train after another, heading east, to Germany, to first love, and mama.

Ω

As a record of the war, however fictionalized by Grimm, who was indeed in these places and trenches, I took away a few things:

  • The trenches for the Germans were quite as bad as those I’ve read of in British and French novels.  Somehow they’d conveyed the idea that upon swarming German trenches the French and British found them dry and tidy, mudless, enviable.  Not so.  For Schlump, it was the same mud, same lice, same rats, same endless trenching as the Tommies and the Frenchies were suffering.
  • Though there was the same mud and rain for Schlump as there is in the Allied accounts of the war, the cold was the killer.  Several times it almost drives him mad.
  • The French and British long range artillery was just as terrifying to the Germans as theirs was to their co-combatants.
  • I had not read in any Allies books that “In the morning they collected unexploded shells because the iron was needed back in Germany…”
  • I had not read acknowledgement of starvation going on at home, in Germany.  In fact, in England, while things were tight, there nothing like the privation in Germany and Eastern France. In Western and southern France, life on the farms seems to have gone on as normal.  Even, according to Schlump, Belgium and Flanders, occupied by the Germans, seem to have continued to produce produce and meat.

I cannot complement Jamie Bulloch’s 2014 translation as have other reviewers.  Distressingly, I found it interfering with the pleasure of reading, too often.  In many comparisons with the older version, by Samuel in 1929, it came up wanting.  A few examples will suffice:

Bullock, has “he turned as red as lobster” which barely escapes being a cliché.  While Samuel has, “he turned as red a boiled crab,” quite a visceral image.

Bullock: “They were smashing tops off the bottles and necking the contents,”   vs  Samuel: “They smashed the heads of the bottles and drank from the jagged edges.”
Bullock:   “That could have gone pear-shaped”  vs Samuel: “We nearly got it that time.””
Bullock:  “Their hearts were thumping and their youth magicked them into a paradise created by sheer ecstasy,”   vs Samuel: “Their hearts beat furiously, and the magic of their youth carried them into a paradise made of pure bliss.”

As an addition to the many books I’ve read by those who experienced the war, Schlump has a freshness, a quality of being a story being invented, and told, that most do not.  The embedded tales from some of the characters, or Schlump’s own memories, add a nice mix to the usually straight-forward narrator’s calendar progress through the war.  The whimsy in a war novel, not yet as barbed as in Catch-22,  marks it as well, though I wonder what an ordinary reader, say a young man of war age,  comes away with — recognition of war’s horrors, or the hope of girls, and comrades telling stories around a fire, as Schlump himself first imagined it?  We know that the anti-war message, growing through the last two books, was obvious enough that the Nazis collected and burned Schlump in the late 1930s.  We know that after a close friend of Grimm’s was interrogated by the Nazis he, himself, committed suicide, leaving Schlump as his only published book.

If man’s experience of war is of interest to you, and finding that the “enemy” is a fair picture of us, ourselves, Schlump is a fine addition to your library, as are several more at NYRB.

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