army

THE GLASS BEES BY ERNST JÜNGER

If you have been following my reviews you will know that I have spent a significant number of weeks in Prague this year. I have already shared many stories pertaining to my time in that city, but there is one that I have been keeping in reserve. One Saturday night I lost my friend in the classy [it isn’t classy] Lucerna nightclub. Upon exiting the building at 4am I realised that not only had my phone died, but that I also did not know my way back to the hotel, nor even, in my inebriated state, remember its name. I tried, first of all, to enlist the help of a taxi driver, but with his little English and my little Czech, we amicably agreed to drop the matter. Next, I approached the locals, and for the first time in my life I understood what it meant to be a foreigner in need, rather than simply a tourist, for they all treated me with either suspicion or disdain.

At this point, I began to pray; not to God, of course, but to my phone. I made promises, extravagant promises, to it in return for a little juice, a few moments of illumination, one bar, anything, so that I could call or text or, and this thought was almost too much to bear, use google maps to navigate a route back to the hotel. But it wasn’t to be; the phone had forsaken me; and so I set off. To where? To nowhere, to anywhere. I walked. Head up. Feet dancing to a peculiar rhythm. After a while I spotted two people, or, to be precise, I heard them. Their voices were familiar. English voices. Northern English voices. The two girls were from Wigan, a place I had staunchly avoided throughout my life, but which now seemed glorious to me, and, no, they did not mind if I walked with them, for they were lost too.

Of course, eventually I found my way to my back to the Residence Leon D’Oro, sometime around 6am, but that is not important, not relative to this review anyway. What has stayed with me in terms of this experience is the experience. Had my phone not died I would never have trawled the streets of Prague in the early hours of the morning in the company of two girls; the friendship we shared for a short period of time, which was precious to me then, and remains precious to me now, would have been denied me. Indeed, isn’t it the case that many of the forms of technological progress that have found their way into our everyday lives, while claiming to bring people together, often, and for prolonged periods of time, in reality keep us apart? Are these machines improving our lives or destroying them? Obviously, I am not alone in my concerns; the science fiction community has engaged with them on more than one occasion. Yet it was something of a surprise to find similar ideas present in the novel under review here, The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger, which was published in 1957.

“Human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible. If we strive for one, we must sacrifice the other.”

In terms of plot, of which there isn’t a great deal, the focus is on Richard, a former cavalryman who narrates the book. He is in a dire financial predicament, which has put a strain on his marriage and led to him having to sell most of his possessions; in turn, he has approached an old colleague, Twinnings, who appears to be some kind of employment broker or agent. It is this man who puts Richard in contact with Zapparoni, whose [very successful] business is in robotics. Richard is, therefore, at a low ebb; in fact, I have come across few characters who are as relentlessly disappointed, and self-critical, as he is. Indeed, he points out that a chief of staff once called him an ‘outsider with defeatist inclinations,’ an assessment he goes to great lengths to validate. He is ‘suspicious’ and ‘quickly hurt’; he is ‘a man of failure’ who is ‘not suited to deal with money or earn it’; he has ‘experienced much but accomplished little’, and so on.

However, what is fascinating about Richard is not that he is dissatisfied with the way that his life has unfolded, in terms of material gain, but rather that he is a ‘man out of time.’ Consider, first of all, his former occupation: the army. This is significant because it brings to mind values such as honour, bravery, discipline, comradeship, integrity, and so on. These values, he finds, are not compatible with civilian life, but specifically with the modern, capitalist way of life. Indeed, he states himself that he is ‘old fashioned’, that he is ‘one of those people who still wasted their time with scruples, while all the others, who pocketed whatever profit was offered, looked down on me.’ A significant proportion of The Glass Bees is devoted to Richard’s army anecdotes, to his wistful reminiscences about what life, or his life, used to be like, when he felt more at home in the world.

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In this way, The Glass Bees is something of a lament, or a requiem; it is one man looking at the world and concluding that it has, irrevocably, gone to shit. And that, moreover, technology has played a prominent role in this. Horses, for example, are, according to Richard, ‘doomed’; these ‘magnificent creatures’ have ‘disappeared from the fields and streets, from the villages and towns.’ ‘Everywhere,’ he continues ‘they have been replaced by automatons.’ Being a former cavalryman, he focusses specifically on war, of course, which is now waged with machines; it is a robot war, involving tanks and guns, not horses and swords; and these machines are levellers, they can make a titan of ‘a pimply lad from the suburbs.’ Technology has meant that war is no longer reserved for skilled, brave and noble men [although this may never have actually been the case] and, perhaps more significantly, made it so that it is no longer a fight, but murder instead. One can apply this idea to other areas of life too, for hasn’t technology made it so that some things are too easy? Skill, experience, all kinds of human qualities have been made redundant by machines.

If Richard is a man out of time, it would be tempting to say of Zapparoni that he is the new man, the man time of the times, or even of a time to come. He is said to have ‘money to burn’, having achieved a monopoly in his field; and one cannot, we’re told, open a paper or magazine or sit in front of a screen without seeing his name. All of which sounds familiar, but not necessarily prescient. His work is in robotics, as previously stated, but I’m not particularly interested in these designs, and so will not linger over them. What I do want to touch upon is the idea that ‘in his opinion, nature was inadequate, both in its beauty and logic, and should be surpassed.’ Does Zapparoni consider himself to be a God? Or is it rather that he believes that he can improve upon God’s work? Certainly this is an attitude that we do encounter much these days, not solely in the field of robotics, but also in cosmetic surgery,  genetic engineering, etc.

The Glass Bees is barely 200 pages long, and I have only scratched the surface of what it contains, but this review, I hope, goes some way to showcasing how complex, how intelligent, imaginative and challenging it is. It may also, and this is maybe more important to me personally, have given some idea of how moving it is. This is, make no mistake, a very sad book. It would be easy to dismiss it as the reactionary, curmudgeonly grumblings of a miserable old man, especially when you consider that Jünger was himself a former soldier, and a passionate advocate of that way of life; but that would be missing the point entirely. For me, the German exposes our arrogance, our irresponsibility, and our negligence towards the world and towards each other; and he gives powerful voice to his, and to my, dismay. ‘The beauty of the forests was past,’ he writes, which is to say that it exists but we no longer notice or appreciate it. Well, not until one night your phone dies.

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THE RADETZKY MARCH BY JOSEPH ROTH

There is a lot said about the gifted but unappreciated, the genius who dies without recognition, or the capable man who never fulfils his potential. Are these tragedies? Perhaps. But I’ve often thought the greater sadness, the bigger tragedy, is the simple man or, more specifically, the mediocre man, elevated, despite his lack of abilities, beyond his appropriate station. How does the unimaginative man, the middling man, who has little of worth to offer, approach a world that expects something worthwhile from him? You might argue that Thomas Mann touched on this somewhat in his great novel The Magic Mountain, but Hans Castorp doesn’t confront the world, and by extension his own lack of ability, but rather he avoids it, he hides from it in a Swiss sanatorium, and in an illusion of ill-health.

Joseph Roth’s masterpiece, The Radetzky March, deals with three generations of the ordinary, but suddenly favoured, Trotta family. The first, Captain Joseph, saves the life of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Joseph I [you’ll have some trouble keeping all the Franz’s and Joseph’s straight in your head!], at the battle of Solferino.

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[The Battle of Solferino by Carlo Bossoli]

As a reward, the Emperor awards him the medal of Maria Theresa, promotes him, and ultimately ennobles him. However, far from pleasing Trotta, these gifts appear to burden him; as does his standing as a hero. With his promotion, and new status, comes certain expectations; expectations from which he shrinks. In a key scene, Trotta one day spies a propagandistic story in his son’s school book, which exaggerates his bravery in the battle of Solferino. To everyone’s surprise, he is livid and wants the story to be removed. On the surface his behaviour may seem to be about honour and truth, but, for me, it is about hiding, about wanting to avoid the spotlight, and about not being able to accept an image that is the opposite of how you see yourself. In the same situation a brilliant man would have made the most of the opportunities afforded him – his promotion and status as a hero etc – but Trotta is an average man, the simple son of a Slovenian peasant.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how Trotta’s actions during the battle of Solferino, and his subsequent ascension, do not only profoundly alter his own situation. In a kind of butterfly effect, Roth shows how one incident can have far-reaching consequences, can influence the lives of numerous people, across generations. Even his relationship with his own father is changed by it, is, in fact, made impossible. Not long after his promotion, he goes to visit the old man, who, in turn, does not really know how to approach his now-famous son. Trotta wishes that he would speak Slovenian to him, as he used to, even though he  – the son – barely understands the language, but, alas, he does not oblige. At the end of the visit, Trotta reflects that this will be the last time he will see his father; an unbridgeable gap has opened up between them. There is a lot of this sort of thing in the book, episodes involving this emotionally-stunted family fumbling through their interactions with each other, wary of intimacy, unable or unwilling to say what ought to be said or do what ought to be done. I found it incredibly moving.

To my mind, much of The Radetzky March is about identity, about what defines you as a person. This is particularly true in relation to Carl Joseph, the hero’s grandson, who dominates the greater part of the novel. While the grandfather is, in a sense, trying to avoid an identity that is being thrust upon him, Carl Joseph is trying to find one. Joseph Trotta is the hero; Carl Joseph is merely the relative. This title, the grandson of the hero of Solferino, weighs heavily upon him [he is almost haunted by a painting of the old man], and, he feels, he can’t live up to it. As expected, he joins the military, but he isn’t suited to the army at all; he doesn’t look good on horseback, is awkward when put in positions of responsibility, and fails miserably the one time he is called to lead his men in a confrontation.

Due to his awkwardness, Carl Joseph struggles to make friends, and it is significant that the one that he does make, Dr Demant, is also an outsider. Demant is a Jew, and, like Carl Joseph, feels out of place; he has, other officers say, the most unmilitary bearing. As his story progresses young Trotta is plunged more and more into crisis, a professional crisis, a literal crisis, involving a duel and large debts, but more so a crisis of the soul. At one stage he gets himself a mistress, Frau Von Taussig, and, for a brief time, while wearing his civilian clothes, he feels like a free man, like someone. It is worth noting that one of the central principles of the army is a lack of individuality; rules, procedures, orders dominate; the self is negated; not only that but, as noted, in the army he is the grandson of the hero of Solferino; it is only in civvies that he feels comfortable, or happy. Yet this brief period of happiness does not last; Carl Joseph is a tragic figure; he will not win the day. He cannot, for he lacks the mental wherewithal to save himself. He is, unfortunately, a poor dumb schmo.

‘There were a lot of things he didn’t understand, Lieutenant Trotta.’

It ought to be pretty clear by now that The Radetzky March is not a particularly lighthearted, joyous book. Beautiful? Yes, very, but there’s very little happiness. It may, therefore, not surprise you to learn that a lot of people perish throughout the 350 or so pages. [Indeed, it is very clever that a book so concerned with death begins with a man’s life being saved.] The high body count serves, I think, two purposes. Dealing with death in a healthy way is, of course, difficult for most of us; but for the Trottas, for unimaginative men who do not know how to live themselves, and certainly do not know how to grieve, it is impossible. So you could see Roth’s use of death as simply one more thing to throw at his emotionally crippled central characters; it brings into even sharper focus their sad inability to deal with the vagaries of existence. Furthermore, the novel is set in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and so the preoccupation with death also serves to foreshadow the impending Great War, by which I mean, of course, World War One, where hundreds of thousands of people will die, when such issues as what it means to be an individual, Carl Joseph’s chief concern, will become meaningless. That is, perhaps, the most heartbreaking thing of all about The Radetzky March; that, throughout most of it, one is aware that very soon none of this will matter, all of this agonising about identity, honour, duty, family, etc, will be washed away in chaos and blood.