Remarque’s life, a kind of seedbed for the gripping nature of his novels, was a turbulent one. He was conscripted into the German army at the age of 18 and on 12 June 1917, was transferred to the Western Front where, on July 31, he was wounded by shrapnel in the left leg, right arm and neck, and was repatriated to an army hospital in Germany where he spent the rest of the war—experiences which would fuel his second novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), the one that would suddenly make him famous and wealthy (his first, The Dream Room, was published in 1920).
He bought a villa in Switzerland in 1931. In 1933, the year of Hitler’s ascendency, the German government banned his books and, in 1938, revoked his German citizenship. Shortly after that, he left for America, becoming a naturalized US citizen in 1947. He returned to Switzerland to live and write in 1948.
Bobby Deerfield—a vehicle for Al Pacino—is based loosely (very loosely indeed) on Remarque’s 1961 novel, Heaven Has No Favorites, the first Remarque novel I’ve actually read and the one I want to discuss briefly here
It’s a late book—his last but one—for Remarque (1898-1970). I began it in a sceptical mood, possibly because the book begins with the journey of a French automobile racer named Clerfayt (“clear-fate”?) up to a sanatorium on a Swiss mountain top to visit his former racing partner, now suffering from tuberculosis. It even put me off that the racing car—which Clerfayt is now driving through the snow with chains on its tires—has a name: “He [his partner, Holman] patted the chassis of the car. He had driven it with Clerfayt in half a dozen races, and had been in it when he had his first bad hemorrhage. It’s still Giuseppe, isn’t it? Not a younger brother already?”
It struck me as absurd not only to call a racing car “Guiseppe,” but also to drive it up icy mountain roads, chains or no chains, to the hospital at the top. I almost abandoned the book. It was rapidly shaping up to become a poor man’s version of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
But then Remarque—who was certainly a larger-than-life, full-bodied adventurer—had, after all, lived most of the second half his life in Switzerland, and had actually been a racing car driver (there’s a short, elegant prefatory notice in the novel stating that “the author has had to take some minor liberties with the procedures and formalities of automobile races. He hopes the race aficionados will forgive him.”). So one carries on.
While visiting Holman, his afflicted co-driver, Clerfayt meets and gradually (very reluctantly) falls in love with a terminally ill sanatorium patient named Lillian Dunkerque.
Clerfayt persuades her to leave with him and together, with her health in peril, they travel through Europe—much of their time being spent in Paris and on the French Riviera (there is a lot of good dining, sumptuously described, and a great deal of fashion stuff too, given how committed Lillian seems to be to the wearable art of Spanish couturier Cristobal Balenciaga).
So, as you might imagine (we all seem to be born novelistic imaginations), Clerfayt moves from a chic independence of the heart to a hopeless and presumably (so Remarque would imply) socially conventional, acquisitive passion for Lillian, whereas, contrariwise, she moves in the other direction (her impending demise lends her a newfound independence), from initially wanting a commitment from her lover to deciding against it. Which is to say she wants to love Clerfayt but not marry him, whereas Clerfayt, by contrast, wants…well you know. Eventually, Clerfayt dies in an incredibly well-described raceway crash, and Lillian, numb and heartbroken, returns to the Swiss sanatorium to die shortly thereafter.
That’s enough plot. Probably too much. And it’s the slickness, the promise of speedy, easily attained (and unearned) glamour for the reader that almost put me off the book. At its core, the plot offers a Danielle-Steel-ish quickness of experience (not that I’ve actually read any of Danielle Steel’s novels), enlivened with prefab atmospheres from, oh, maybe Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man.
But then the insights and the apercus started coming quickly and thickly, and I began to slow down and forgive Erich Remarque his fast-lane plot and start enjoying what a fine writer he really could be. It’s one thing to have had Marlene Dietrich, Dolores del Rio, Hedy Lamaar and apparently Greta Garbo as lovers (and to have married Paulette Goddard, Charles Chaplin’s beauteous waif in Modern Times), and quite another to be a the begettor of fine prose like this:
“The meagre rationality of human beings was there to show them that they could not live by reason alone. People lived by feelings—and being right was no help, as far as feelings went.”
“To ‘want’ is such a cast-iron word, tonight. What am I to do with it? It fractures so easily, too. Do you feel the wind? What does it want?’ ”
“They drank in silence. Lillian danced past them again. I have no future she thought. That is almost like having no gravity.”
“Moldering steps, rusted doors, tiny gardens with geraniums, rooms with radios and bare yellow light bulbs, washing hung out to dry, a rat balancing like a trapeze artist on the side of a house, the sharp voices of women, smells onions and garlic and oil, and the heavy dead smell of the water [being in Venice].”
“And what strange things one sometimes talks about after sundown.”
“She felt the small, sharp joy of decision.”
“She sat still until the dusk crept grayly into the room.”
Well, it’s all like that, the prose getting both thicker and faster as it speeds along.
Remarque isn’t Graham Greene or Eric Ambler, or Iris Murdoch, for that matter (who’s written a better novel than Murdoch’s The Sea the Sea?), but he’s a superior entertainer, providing a heady mix of adventure and rumination. I’m looking forward now to reading The Black Obelisk (1957)—we have a paperback copy of it here somewhere—and The Night in Lisbon (1964). And maybe his last novel, Shadows in Paradise (1972). Tonight, I’ll probably watch Arch of Triumph (Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Louis Calhern, Charles Laughton) for the 45th time. There’s a 1984 remake of the film starring Anthony Hopkins, which I’ve never seen and don’t want very much to see. I can’t do without Boyer and Bergman.