viernes, 30 de noviembre de 2012

The Stalin Front

The Stalin Front [Die Stalinorgel] (NYRB Classics, 2004)
by Gert Ledig [translated from the German by Michael Hofmann]
Germany, 1955

This week I took some time off from War and Peace, a "war novel" that I've really been enjoying so far, to spend a couple of days with The Stalin Front, a war novel that I didn't really enjoy at all.  I don't blame that on Gert Ledig, though.  Since the army veteran's brooding, brutal work (originally titled Die Stalinorgel [The Stalin Organ] in honor of the German name for the Russian multiple rocket launcher known to the enemy troops as the Katyusha) primarily seems concerned with transmitting the message that war is hell to a postwar German audience that I'm guessing could hardly have had the time to forget about such a thing so soon, I think that any lack of enjoyment of the novel is probably proof that the writer succeeded all too well at what he'd intended.  In any event, fuck, how's one supposed to effectively evaluate the artistry of a work so unflinchingly dedicated to representing the carnage of war in such a graphic, almost pornographic fashion?  For whatever it's worth then, The Stalin Front, said to have been based on the novelist's own war experiences on the Eastern Front during World War II, takes place in a mercifully short span of time and pages as a small number of doomed German and Russian troops wait to square off against each other in a battle that doesn't seem to carry all that much strategic significance for either side.  Other than the fact that the characters' options seem to be limited to those of fighting down to the last bullet for no real purpose, fleeing, surrendering, taking their own lives, or unfairly taking a countryman's life to save their own, why do I say that the men are doomed?  Well, one of them, the Sergeant, after just having received instructions from the Captain, is introduced with the laconic aside: "He didn't realize he was simultaneously taking orders from fate" (2). Elsewhere, the Runner, who has unsuccessfully sought to escape the war after realizing how hopeless things are and wilfully disobeying orders that might see him punished by death, gasps in horror after accidentally knocking over a stack of corpses that have been used as a protective wall in a bunker.  "'Don't worry about it,' said the NCO.  'The Almighty must approve, do you think He'd allow it otherwise?'  He awkwardly lit a cigarette.  The 'Almighty' sounded unpleasantly cynical" (64).  Later in the novel, we are told that "the master of the hill was Death" (158).  I could go on, of course, but for better or for worse I've decided to spare you some of the more gruesome examples of Ledig's prose which would have made describing the work so much easier.  Suffice it to say instead that, on a surface level, the language itself is violent and choppy with short sentences that alternate between generating an aura of adrenaline and chaos and sucking all the air out of the room.  Par for the course for what was a powerful but often alienating read.

Gert Ledig (1921-1999)

I read The Stalin Front, the November selection for Caroline's Literature and War Readalong 2012, both for that event and as part of my long-overdue participation in Caroline's and Lizzy's German Literature Month 2012.  I look forward to seeing what sort of reception this bleak and uncompromising novel receives from the other readalongers, and I'll link to Caroline's round-up post as soon as it becomes available (update: done!).  In the meantime, you can take a look at what Rise of in lieu of a field guide thought about the work when he reviewed it a full two years ago here.

12 comentarios:

  1. Thanks Richard for this review and - hmmm - I must have watched too many war movies, I really liked this book. I liked the way it as written. I also love the paintings of Anselm Kiefer and they have a similar feel. Unfortunetly, war is/was forgotten far too qucikly, that's why he chose to write it like this and ultimately that's why it was not re-published for a very long time.

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    1. Thanks for selecting and thus bringing my attention to the title, Caroline. In case it's not clear, I didn't dislike The Stalin Front but I'm not sure it's a work I would choose to reread either. Also, thanks for mentioning Anselm Kiefer here and over at your post--I wasn't familiar with him, but I look forward to investing his paintings.

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  2. Btw - the fact tht it is so uncompromising is what I liked about it. I have problems with movies and books like Saving Private Ryan where the audience still thinks that heroism makes things better and that even war has its beauty.

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    1. I meant for "uncompromising" here to be intended as a compliment to Ledig and his vision, Caroline, but I'm still surprised at how in your face the work is some 50 years plus after the fact. He couldn't have expected to sell many copies of such a book, could he? Totally agree with you about the artistic integrity of this work as compared to something crappy and manipulative like Saving Private Ryan; in fact, I personally hate that film because after the famous high-voltage and jolting opening, it rapidly descends into a sentimental buddy movie only with war as a backdrop. In my recollection of it at least, the rest of that movie is a betrayal of its own opening sequences.

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    2. Richard, i did get you and despite the fact that I wrote I liked it I'm not going to read it again very soon, maybe not at all. It wasn't liking in the sense of joyful. I'm just somehwta tired with the massive WWII romance-entertainment production, not that might not enjoy it occasionally but I know very well - those were no "romantic" times.
      I agree on Saving Private Ryan.
      Kiefer is an amazing painter, I hope you'll see some of his paintings once in a gallery or a museum. They are huge. A very interesting painter.

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    3. I heard you loud and clear on the non-joyful front, Caroline! Have to say that I'm not all that familiar with the "WWII romance-entertainment" complex from close up other than having seen The English Patient movie adaptation back in the day (i.e. I've seen those sorts of books on blogs and in the bookstores without having read any that I can think of), but I can relate to you being kind of tired of them. I'm tired of them without even having tried one! Kiefer I will definitely investigate soon although I fear my remark about "investing [sic] his paintings" up above might have sent the wrong message about how profitable my blog career has been from a financial point of view. Cheers!

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  3. I sat this one out - judging by your review, I made a good choice. To be honest, I'm a bit warred out in my reading...

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    1. If you're all warred out in your reading, Tony, I'd think that this book is definitely not for you! However, it is indeed "powerful" and "well-done" from this reader's point of view. Also rather numbing...

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  4. I guess overall the writing style achieved a sense of realism of what war is, without the usual cosmetics of epic stories (like what Caroline mentioned about heroism stories).

    Thanks for the link, Richard.

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    1. I think the writing style and the themes made Ledig's work feel truer to what I imagine war must be like than many other books I've read, Rise, but I do wonder if maybe the novelist was just a little over the top on occasion. Not a major critique by any means. The link was my pleasure, by the way!

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  5. Hmm...sounds interesting at least. Reminds me a bit of "All Quiet on the Western Front", but more brutal. How would you say the two compare?

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    1. Welcome to the blog, Nisa! I haven't read All Quiet on the Western Front (or at least not since I can remember as I head into middle age), so I'm not sure how the two works compare. I believe Caroline makes a comparison of the works of sorts in a comment on her blog, though. This book is extremely pessimistic and visceral (no pun intended), though, which makes sense given the topic.

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