I had never heard of The Way Back until relatively recently. An acquaintance mentioned that Erich Maria Remarque’s more famous wartime work, All Quiet on the Western Front, had a sequel (of sorts). It seems I’m not alone in that little ignorance, as The Way Back has been greatly overshadowed by its predecessor. While that’s a shame, since it’s an excellent novel in its own right, it’s somehow apt. War itself cannot be ignored – it carries a prurient thrill, no matter how pacifist a slant you put on it – but no such satisfaction can be gotten from its aftermath.
So it’s not surprising that this book has been ignored, just as the ex-soldiers it portrays are overlooked by the civilian world they return to. All Quiet on the Western Front begins with a dedication, to “a generation that was destroyed by the war –even those who survived the shelling”, and The Way B ack is a sequel insofar as it continues to unravel that thread. It is narrated by Ernst Birkholz, who is a kind of kindred spirit to the earlier novel’s Paul Baumer. One of the masses, yet a little too sensitive and observant to be really called an Everyman.
Yet, as I was reading The Way Back, the book that most came to mind was not Remarque’s other novel, but rather another text I had read recently: Bessel Van der Kolk’s 2014 non-fiction work The Body Keeps the Score, on the psychology of trauma. That book begun with an account of the author’s work with Vietnam War veterans in the 1970s. His descriptions of the soldiers’ struggles to adjust to civilian life – numbness pierced with fear – was uncannily similar to the lives of Ernst and his erstwhile comrades. The Way Back was published in 1931, almost 50 years before PTSD would be recognised as a diagnosis by clinicians. I can’t help being reminded of Leonard Shlain’s argument in Art and Physics, about visual artists capturing aspects of reality in their works before they are codified by science.
Ernst is one of a handful of the surviving members of Number 2 Platoon during the dregs of the war, and we see their final days in the trenches, as rumours of peace stumble in, and their return home. The narrative unfolds in a series of vignettes detailing how Ernst and his comrades return to their homes and attempt to readjust to civilian life. The initial bliss of peace sinks into confusion and emptiness. Some seek to build their new lives around family, career, money, philosophy, or love. Some seek out the trenches again, either in spirit or literally. Some succeed, or seem to. Others don’t. What is it that divides them?
In one memorable scene, Ernst visits a notorious former sniper, who is now wearing the guise of a good family man. Or is it a guise? He shows no trace of dissonance. The same skills that enabled him to kill countless men, are now merely the means for him to win prizes for his young daughter at a fairground shooting game (a prefiguring of the preoccupation with “the banality of evil” that would follow the next World War). But in another scene, Ernst and his friends visit an old school friend in an asylum, who has experienced a psychotic break brought on by his wartime trauma, and has episodes where he feels as if he is still in the trenches. The other men acknowledge that this differs from their plight by degree rather than by kind. It’s this “insane” response that in many ways seems more human than the blithe remorselessness of the ex-sniper, yet the latter is what the civilian world favours.
You get the sense, through Ernst’s narration, of two universes overlaid on each other, that only can briefly and brutally touch each other. There is the humdrum grimness of post-war Germany – and then there is the spectre of the trenches, experienced through memories and flashbacks that cut through the emptiness of mundane life. The returning lads feel a kind of culture shock in their own homes. For many of them, the war is not really over: it has merely infiltrated their minds. Ernst experiences flashbacks to the trenches. He has vivid nightmares about an English soldier he killed. Thoughts of war taint the most benign of moments. He feels detached from everyone except his former comrades, even as the social pressures of civilian life erode their old familiarity. He longs not so much for comfort, as to be able to be comforted.
The Way Back vividly evokes the twilit world of trauma, but this is not a hermetic depiction of one man’s mental suffering. Individual is mirrored by social breakdown. We see the seeds of unrest in postwar Germany. A recurring thread in The Way Back is the arbitrariness of social status and authority. Despite the military hierarchy, merit matters in the trenches, and cannot be faked. Men who were heroes on the front are now impoverished and sneered at back home. Disillusionment pervades. The wealthy are corrupt and weak, teachers are ineffectual, and parents are merely people. How could they seem otherwise, after what the soldiers have experienced? We’re shown the authoritarianism and militarism that would provide the foundation for Nazism. One particularly haunting scene occurs towards the end of novel, where Ernst and his war friends encounter a group of teenagers in uniform being trained to march in a mock drill, who jeer at the ex-solders as traitors and Bolsheviks for expressing disgust at the proceedings.
For all that, there are moments of humour, largely taking place when Ernst is reunited with his wartime friends, such as a funny scene where one of them is exposed lying to his fiancée about his alleged wartime heroics. These act as a pressure release among the darker aspects of the story. Remarque has a knack for this push and pull, evocative of the black humour and levity the soldiers wield for their survival.
The Way Back succeeds as a novel due to the execution of such techniques, and the overall quality of its prose. I’m not fluent in German, but the translation I read, by Brian Murdoch, seems well-executed – the language is fresher and more plain-spoken than the sections of A.W. Wheen’s earlier translation. It is not a novel built on overt poesy, but the writing has a plain-spoken immediacy and is structured well. Many moments that have the potential to be trite are twisted. Take, for example, this observation: “Maybe that is the reason why there are always wars, because you can never completely share the suffering of other people.” This is not a particularly original thought, but it works in context, as Ernst muses on his own ability to overlook the sounds of suffering from a nearby military hospital as he enjoys the autumn sunlight after ceasefire has been announced.
While there are moments of more overt poesy, such as a Whitmanian experience Ernst has in nature during his recovery from a mental breakdown, these gain power from the majority of the tale being conveyed with simple, direct language. It’d be fair to say that some of Ernst’s musings grow a little bit repetitive and recapitulative by the end of the novel, however, I don’t think that this detracts much from its quality, although there are sections I would trim in order to maximise their impact. (the final paragraphs, part of which I quote below, are one such section that could’ve benefited from some trimming).
Some psychologists, on the topic of psychological trauma, claim that the suffering derives not only from the brutality of the event itself, but also from the struggle to integrate the memories of it into one’s sense of self and knowledge of the world. For Ernst and his schoolfriends-turned-comrades, they never had the chance to figure out who they were as adults, before they were turned into instruments of battle. Much of the book contends with the question of how to reconcile the experiences of the trenches with the expectations of the society they return to. Outside of war, who, or what, are they now?
The novel concludes, not with any one pat answer to that, but with Ernst bolstering himself to find out. He has lost friends to suicide, has suffered a mental breakdown, but he is alive, and he has a new resolve:
There is life in the room. The furniture creaks, the table groans and the wardrobe makes a sound. Years ago the wood was felled and cut, planed and put together to make it into serviceable things, chairs and beds; but every spring, in those nights when the sap is rising, there is life in them again, they wake up and stretch, no longer mere things, chairs, just for use, but taking part again in the stream and flow of life outside.
And so we leave Ernst, ready for the world to catch up. The only way is forward.
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