by Hans Herbert Grimm
translated by Jamie Bulloch
NYRB, 263 pages
reviewed by Kelly Doyle
When Hans Herbert Grimm’s semi-autobiographical novel Schlump was published in 1928 alongside All Quiet on the Western Front, it was advertised as a “truthful depiction” of World War I. It is no surprise that Grimm took on the the pseudonym Schlump, just as his protagonist does, to hide his identity. As explained by Volker Weidermann in the afterward, Grimm “describe[s] the German soldiers of the Great War as less than heroic,” and “the entire war as a cruel, bad joke.” While this caused the Nazis to burn his book in 1933, today it gives the text, translated by Jamie Bulloch, a feeling of authenticity.
The novel opens in Germany to a sixteen-year-old troublemaker, Emil Schulz also known as Schlump, who can “think of nothing but girls and the war.” It is 1915 and, picturing himself in a flashy military uniform, he defies his parents and volunteers to join the German army in WWI for nothing more than honor and sex. His romanticised idea of war is strikingly unrealistic; Grimm describes it like a painting, without the sounds and smells and feelings of real war. He imagines that as soldiers they will “lean on the muzzles of their rifles, dreaming of home and being reunited with loved ones. In the morning they’[ll] break camp and march singing into battle, where some [will] fall and others [will] be wounded. Eventually, the war [will] be won and they’[ll] return home victorious. Girls [will] throw flowers from windows and the celebrations [will] never end.” He does not delve into the true meaning of his commitment or the gravity of his sacrifice. The novel follows Schlump’s time in the army, but is interspersed with other stories, which take the form of long monologues by an array of characters. The stories are scattered, leaving the reader with not much to grasp onto except a flurry of people and places and ideas, with occasional moments of powerful emotion and dark humor.
Schlump is first stationed in a French town where he receives the respect and female attention he desires. It is hard not to be struck negatively by the depictions of women in the novel. Grimm sets the tone with the very first description of Schlump’s mother at the start of the novel. “When her tiny breasts began to swell beneath her blouse and she realized that she was a girl, she stayed quietly at home, dreaming of pretty clothes and beautiful shoes,” he writes. “Back then all the boys would give anything to get a good gawp at her.” In France, Schlump’s romantic hopes for women and war, modeled after this standard, come to be. Everything seems to go just as he imagined and his innocence remains precariously intact. He meets countless caregiving women who jump at the opportunity to feed him, sleep with him, and ask for nothing in return. He never considers his cause or his nationality or that he is in a position of authority over the women who give themselves to him. The sounds of cannons in the distance are adopted as part of the landscape. While Schlump does not think about death or danger, the reader can feel them looming in the distance, highlighted by his exaggerated naivete. When Schlump is finally sent to the front lines, he is entirely unprepared and his transition into adulthood occurs in a matter of moments. “It was as if he’d awoken from a deep sleep; for the first time in his life he was thinking seriously about himself and the world.”
Grimm’s narration of the story produces an odd sort of disconnect. In close third person, sometimes the reader receives great insight into Schlump’s thoughts, but other times none at all. Perhaps Schlump himself could not even narrate his own feelings amid the barbarity of the front line. His outward emotional state varies between utter boredom, long days filled with dirt, lice, and aching feet, and extreme highs of adrenaline that cause him to laugh and howl on the battlefield like a madman. He never dwells long on the suffering and death of others and describes these atrocities matter of factly, but his compassion is revealed through his dreams of fallen comrades happy and in love.
Eventually, Schlump begins to think that the only way that the war can become what he imagined, the only way that he can overcome the military hierarchy and achieve the respect that is denied footsoldiers, is by becoming a hero. He waits for an opportunity to act heroically and, after a long time, one presents itself. The narrator explains that, retreating from an attack on the other side, a “young fellow, became stuck in the barbed wire” outside of the trenches “and couldn’t go forwards or backwards.” The boy is shot and injured gruesomely. Schlump, in the hopes of becoming a hero, runs into the open, “untangle[s] the boy…and carrie[s] him in such a way as to shield him from enemy fire.” By the time Schlump returns to the trenches with his burden, the boy is dead. This signifies the beginning of Schlump’s true change. Not only is he aware of the danger of war, but he is aware of his own position within it. He realizes that there is no honor to be had for him. This is soon followed by another realization. “We’ve lost the war,” he says. There is nothing glamorous or beautiful about nitty-gritty, day to day war, only the romanticised broader story that incorporates a cause. Grimm uses this contrast to meditate on the differences between an individual’s war and a nation’s.
“Are you trying to tell me the individual counts for anything?” asks one particularly interesting character, another soldier who Schlump refers to as “the philosopher.” “The individual is nothing,” the philosopher says, “he has no intrinsic value, he is just part of a much larger totality, a nation. The individual has no soul, but a nation does. And the individual only has value when he is of use to his people […] Indeed, it would be better if we forgot the names of these men altogether.” The reader does, in fact, begin to forget Schlump’s true name, Emil. And, amid the constant cameos of one character after another, it becomes hard to remember anyone’s name. Even the author was nameless at the time of publication. The war on this micro level is confusing and chaotic, nothing like the macro level story commonly told that Schlump himself had once believed. But the characters who remain at home and out of the trenches remind the reader that these individual tragedies are significant and far-reaching.
A young woman, Johanna, makes this clear when she writes to Schlump from the homefront. “You’ll wonder who is writing you this letter, and yet you know who I am, because it’s me you kissed beneath the chestnut trees when the war broke out,” she writes. “You said you’d dance with me in the Reichsadler, but you didn’t come. But I haven’t been able to forget you.” Poor Joanna is tormented by the thought of her beloved in war. “I’ve had no peace,” she writes. “You can do what you want, just let me know you’re alive.” The words of mourning from Johanna, Schlump, and all the other soldiers he meets along the way solidify the philosopher’s theory as insane. It proves to be an unsustainable mentality. No one can truly adopt the perspective of the nation without completely losing the sense of himself.
Wars are often reported as if there is one winner and one loser. Each battle is a single event, each loss, a single loss. But when put under a microscope, as Grimm does, it becomes clear that a war produces thousands of personal tragedies on both sides. Perhaps that is why Grimm wrote the novel as a patchwork of random lives, tiny story after tiny story, beginning each portrait before abruptly moving on to the next, simply to overwhelm the reader with the sheer scale of lives interrupted. From this outlook, Schlump’s moments of humor and optimism and his uncanny ability to survive make him a hero in a way he never anticipated simply by providing the story that rarely exists, even in newspaper reports.
Kelly Doyle studies English, creative writing, and psychology at Emory University. Her fiction has appeared in Firewords Quarterly, Stories Through the Ages College Edition, and others. She is the editor-in-chief of Emory’s literary magazine, Alloy, and she works in a developmental memory lab on campus. She loves to read and travel, and she plans to pursue a career in writing.