Back in 2016, I revisited a translated work that I’d first read back in my 20s; the book was “On the Marble Cliffs” by Ernst Junger, and it was a fascinating, if potentially controversial, book. German author Junger fought in both First and Second World Wars; he was a member of an elite, yet held himself apart from the Nazi regime. His work survived without being burnt, he was not particularly punished after the war and “Cliffs” is described by some as being critical of Nazism in particular and tyranny in general. So this is a complex work to consider, despite its novella length, and as it’s now been reissued by NYRB Classics more will have the chance to explore it.

The book is set amongst the Marble Cliffs next to the Marina. Here live the narrator and Brother Otho (his actual brother, but also colleague in work), in chambers carved out of and into the cliff face. The two men, together with their slightly witchy servant, Lampusa, as well as the narrator’s son Esio (product of a liaison with Lampusa’s daughter) live a fairly peaceful life; the men study the local plant life, following in the steps of the great Linnaeus, gathering and cataloging specimens. Esio lives a charmed existence, befriending the local snake population while Lampusa cares for their needs. A couple of times a year they are involved in wine-making festivities but for the rest of the time they maintain their scholarly detachment.

All of this, however, is to come under threat, as the forces of the Forest Ranger and his opponents are clashing below the cliffs. There are several different factions living locally, and the normally controlled and measured behaviour of the populace is disintegrating. It transpires that the narrator and Otho are veterans of a previous conflict who have chosen to turn their backs on this kind of life and lead a peaceful existence of scholarship and meditation. However the emerging conflict may lead to the necessity of taking action or taking sides – for how long can the brothers ignore events outside their haven of study?

So we raised a glass to old and distant friends and to the countries of this world. Trepidation comes over us all when the winds of death blow. Then we eat and drink, wondering how much longer we will have a place at the table. For ours is a beautiful world.

“Marble Cliffs” is a fascinating read; the landscape and setting of the Great Marina is wonderfully and vividly conjured up, and Junger seamlessly blends elements of what sound like real geography and races with his fantasy location to create a very believable world. His attention to detail is particularly striking when it comes to his descriptions of nature; the plants and trees come to life and it’s clear that Junger is writing as a man with knowledge of his subject.

As for the allegorical elements, well they’re certainly present. The book was published in 1939, at the end of a decade when Junger had rejected numerous overtures from the Nazi party, and it’s difficult not to see them reflected in the portrayal of the violent and thuggish Rangers (although I’ve seen the Chief Ranger equated with Stalin); their behaviour is brutal and visceral in places. However, the book has more to it than just an unsubtle take on National Socialism; there are many other factions involved and I would say that there is more of a debate on the position of intellectuals in society and how much they should involve themselves in such conflicts.

There’s also a slightly worrying detachment in Junger’s narration, as if he’s almost implying that a certain caste should be beyond such things; and despite the fact that Otho and the narrator have fought wars in the past, they choose to escape from the Grand Marina by ship at the end of book, calling in a favour from a past contact. So, is Junger saying that the only choice is for men of intellect to flee tyranny and look for safe haven? What happens if there is no safe haven any more? And is it better to stand and fight tyranny, put yourself above it or simply try to ignore it out of existence?

In the end, “Marble Cliffs” asks more questions than it answers and to see it as swipe at Hitler is too simplistic. Instead I think it should be read as Junger’s statement of the superiority of the intellect, as a cry out for the civilised human and his/her plight when faced with the baser elements of the race. Whether you think that’s a valid stance to take or whether you think sitting In a glass house while the apocalypse rages round you is morally right or even sensible is another matter. Nevertheless, it certainly makes for a fascinating and very relevant read in our modern world which is still filled with conflict; so often these battles are between culture and barbarism…

This lovely new NYRB edition is a fresh new translation by Tess Lewis, and if I had been able to find my original copy (translated by Stuart Hood) I would have made some comparisons! Alas, it has disappeared somewhere in the stacks so I can’t. What I will say, thought, is that this version reads beautifully; the language is lyrical and poetic, the landscape as alive as if you were in it, and the characters wonderfully conjured. The book comes with an introduction by Jessi Jesewska Stevens, and an afterword by Gaston Bachelard from 1943, both of which enhanced my reading of it; Stevens explores Junger’s politics beliefs and contradictions, offering us the choice of exploring the book as an argument for culture or a justification for a retreat from engagement.

“On the Marble Cliffs” is a fascinating read, and a very unjustly neglected work. Whatever your thoughts on Junger and his views, the story is a powerful, often beautiful and engrossing one, and definitely worth exploring. A timely reissue by NYRB, and one that I thoroughly recommend.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks – “On the Marble Cliffs” is available on 31st January)