Culture vs Barbarism


On the marble cliffs by Ernst Junger

And so on to the second of my European rereads; and this is one that is perhaps a little more controversial…. German author Ernst 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 seems like it might be a more complex work to consider, despite its novella length….


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?

Then we emptied our glasses to old and distant friends and to the lands of this world. When the winds of death are abroad there is no denying that fear lays hold on us. Then we wonder over our food and drink how much longer a place will be laid for us at table. For the earth is fair.

OTMC 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). 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, OTMW 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 read!

In search of lost European authors…


When I was in my 20s and going through my first big reading discovery binge, I could walk into any one of many book stores and be met by an array of translated works ready for me to explore. 20th century European fiction was in vogue and I could choose from a huge range, from Camus, Colette and Sartre through to Kafka, Hesse and Hamsun – and many of these were published by Penguin and considered mainstream.

There’s still a vast array of European literature available, and many might argue that the choice is even better than it used to be, with publishers such as Pushkin Press and Alma Classics (amongst many others) bringing out lovely editions of books from France, Germany, Italy et all. However, it seems to me that despite this, there are works that have slipped through the net and become less obviously available nowadays; and two particular books spring to mind.

lost europeans

The first, “The Other Side” by Alfred Kubin, was mentioned by translator Will Stone in his excellent interview on the Pushkin Press website. I hadn’t thought about the book in decades, but it still nestles on my shelves, having sat there since the 1980s. If I recall correctly, my old friend H. recommended it to me; the only novel of a visual artist, it’s what would probably now be labelled speculative fiction, but what I would have thought of loosely as fantasy, and we probably read it because we were very obsessed with Mervyn Peake at the time and thought this might be similar. It’s not a book I see mentioned often and certainly the Penguin Modern Classic seems to be no longer available.

The other is by German author Ernst Junger, best known for his WW1 memoir, “Storm of Steel”. His 1939 novel “On the Marble Cliffs”, which sits next to “The Other Side” in my collection, is an allegorical work, widely seen as a reaction to the rise of National Socialism. A tale of the destruction of a rural community, I’m not sure that this one is even still in print and old Penguin copies seem to be very highly priced.

This set me thinking about trends and fashions in books; why, I wonder, would these works, which were obviously popular and highly regarded enough to warrant mainstream Penguin editions, slip out of favour? In a culture we have now of celebrating European literature with sparkly new volumes, why would these two not be available with the rest? As I mentioned in my post on Herman Hesse earlier this month, apart from his best-known works, many of his books seem harder to track down and aimed less at the general reader than they used to be, and I can’t help thinking this is a shame.

I’m a bit partisan, but I tend to think that the 20th century produced some of the finest works of literature, and many of the European authors I read are amongst the best ever. I could pick up a Sarte or a Simone de Beauvoir, a Calvino or a Camus or a Colette, a Kafka or a Hesse and be assured of reading something different, wonderful and mind-expanding. Alas, I do find that what passes as mainstream nowadays is much, much less interesting than what used to be available.

So I suspect I will still keep returning to my older books to get the kind of bookish joy and thrill I used to, as well as discovering new authors thanks to my favourite indie publishers. And if you have any suggestions of any neglected European authors I should explore, I’d be very interested to hear them! 🙂

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