Posts Tagged ‘Battle of Jutland’

Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life

August 11, 2021

     Literature set in the Great War is fairly well-known and accessible; literature set in the aftermath, exploring attempts to come to terms with that horror rather less so. And the more I’ve gradually discovered and read, the more powerful it seems, and the more I realise the extent of the trauma of the survivors.

Wiechert wrote this novel after the Nazis released him from what was basically a warning imprisonment in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. What is the former naval captain, who commanded a ship at Jutland, to do with himself? What can his life mean now? Well-meant advice from a priest suggests meaning comes through work. He abandons wife and son and home and treks into the depths of the forests of East Prussia (Wiechert’s homeland), returning to earth and nature as manager of an estate fishery and living in a hut on a small island. He is joined by his former first mate, who saved his life during the naval mutiny at the end of the war.

His life becomes a cleansing, redemptive, un-religious though spiritual experience; withdrawal from the world leads him to an almost timeless, contemplative state, and we come to understand how devastating the war must have been for so many people. I was often reminded of the French author Jean Giono, who lived, experienced and wrote at the same time, and remembered studying his novel Regain for A-level: it’s also about forsaking the world to bury oneself deep in nature…I must track it down and re-read it.

I’m really not sure how good a novel it is; it’s flawed in some ways. The idyllic simplicity seems at times too good to be true, and the relationship with the granddaughter of the retired general on whose estate the fishery lies, feels ever so slightly creepy in our post-Lolita days, though it’s never a sexual one, and that possibility is clearly ruled out.

There is the mutual incomprehension of father and son, the perennial difference between generations, and the son and his peers imagine that they will regain the glory of the German navy through their efforts.

It’s also a novel about the end of an era, with things never the same again – echoes for me of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, certainly – the Prussian aristocracy is dying out, and for us there is the added hindsight: Hitler’s war is to come, and East Prussia ceases to exist in 1945, divided between Poland and the Soviet Union, the German population extirpated.

I’ve now read this novel four times; it’s one of my all-time favourites. How it speaks to me has changed over the quarter century since I first read it. Sadly, it’s a novel very much of its time, and consequently will probably vanish into obscurity. It’s a novel about ageing, growing older, and what that means for a thinking person (remember Socrates’ dictum, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’!) It’s about acceptance of oneself, who one is and who one has become, coming to terms with one’s lot, one’s life and one’s achievements. It’s about the hope, the wish for contentment and a sense of achievement. I think it’s marvellous. And the theme is haunting: from Psalm 90 ‘Swift as a breath our lives pass away.’

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