essays - stuart hood
On translating 'On the Marble Cliffs' and his visit to Kirchhorst in September 1945
The headquarters of the British Army of the Rhine was in a spa called Bad Oeynhausen. The thermal baths were still functioning and we would steep ourselves in what were no doubt healing waters. A number of officers who had mostly been engaged in one way or another in operational intelligence had offices in a flat above a row of shops. The flats had been cleared at some point by the simple method of throwing everythings - furniture, carpets, ornaments, bedding - into the courtyard. Our billets were in a villa in the centre of the town - a big comfortable house that belonged (had belonged) to a doctor. There was a grand piano and some good books. I appropriated Thomas Mann's Zauberberg. My eye fell on a short novel by Ernst Jünger: Auf den Marmorklippen (On the Marble Cliffs).
Of Jünger I knew that he had been much wounded, much decorated, as a very young officer in the 1914-18 war and had written of his experiences in a book published in English as Storm of Steel. It was, I seemed to remember, a description of war as the ultimate experience, an example of the military mysticism on which Fascism had drawn. Knew too that he had written a work called Der Arbeiter (The Worker), which I believed to be an approving account of the totalitarian society and of the concept of 'total mobilization.' It was with considerable curiosity and a certain distrust that I began to read Auf den Marmorklippen. My resistance was quickly overcome by a narrative which told the story of two brothers, two intellectuals - as might be Jünger and his poet brother Friedrich Georg - and how they coped with life under a primitve ruler, the Chief Warden, who was an incarnation of the Fascist ideas on blood and soil.
One of the expectations many people had had was that when the Nazi regime collapsed literary works would emerge which had been hidden away under the dictatorship - the results of the 'inner emigration.' It was an expectation that was not fulfilled. It was all the more surprising to find in Jünger's novel what was clearly a coded but easily decipherable picture of a tyranny that had marked resemblances to the Nazi state. It had, I noticed, been published in 1939. This seemed to me to be a literary act of considerable courage. The style was at times mannered to a degree, over-ripe; at others it was admirably clear as in the description of one of the Chief Warden's entourage who was to be feared as the kind of person who thinks the world can be taken apart and put together again like a clock or the portrait of the young nobleman who hovers ineffectually on the edge of resistance to tyranny like the high-minded, upper-class conspirators involved in the attempt on Hitler's life July 1944.
In our offices we produced a monthly intelligence journal called with a certain irony Interim. It published an excellent series of articles on the war in the Pacific, about which we were almost entirely ignorant, and another on an older campaign which led to the battle of Minden (17xx) fought not many miles away and commemorated in certain regiments by Minden Day. An article I had researched on the Wends, the people who lived in the waterways near Berlin and spoke a Slav dialect, caused panic in the higher echelons because, it was thought, it might give the Russians - if it came to their attention - an excuse to make territorial claims. Now I decided to publish in it my translation of an episode in Jünger's novel.
It is the point where the hero comes across a clearing in a wood in which there stands a hut. The lintel and door frame is decorated with severed hands. In front of the door a dwarf is busy at a butcher's block working with human skin. As he works he whistles quietly. The clearing is called the Place of the Skull. I had seen film and pictures of the concentration camps by now and was unable to find terms in which to describe them. Here, it seemed to me, was a metaphor that precisely conveyed their horror. The translation was duly published. I decided to push on and translate the rest of the book.
In September I was taken to meet Jünger. The introduction was the work of a fellow-officer, a German refugee. Before the war he had had contacts with the circle round the Stefan George, whose verses, pompously celebrating the idea of an elite brotherhood, he would chant in what, he assured me, was the authentic curiously nasal way. Jünger was at this time living at Kirchhorst near Hanover, having withdrawn there after his dismissal from the Wehrmacht in the days following the July Plot. I found a thin handsome man in his fifties, very correct and polite, ready to engage in a discussion of Marmorklippen, its meaning and the difficulties of translating it. Our conversation took place partly during a walk in the moor near his house, partly in his study which bore the mark of his fastidious and unusual mind. On the wall was the beautiful skeleton of a snake. Snakes, I knew from his writing, fascinated him by their beauty, renewed each year, as they cast their skins, and their deadly venomous power. There were small objects, stones, dried flowers, carefully chosen as if each one had a special significance. His language was precise, nuanced, cultivated.
We spoke about his political past. He had, he said, at one time - long ago in the Twenties - thought that the National Socialists had something to offer Germany but he had been mistaken. He had therefore distanced himself from them. Such political honesty was rare at this time; the usual assertion was 'Ich bin nie PG gewesen' (I was never a Party member). Was Marmorklippen, I asked, to be thought of as an attack on Hitler and his dictatorship? No, he said, it was aimed at tyrants in general. But it had had a certain importance - thus when his son was in trouble with the authorities he had gone to see a high official to try to help the boy. During the interview a copy of the book lay on the desk between them. It was never referred to.
I asked how he thought he had escaped during the arrests and executions after July 1944 when General Stülpnagel, his superior officer in Paris on whose staff he was serving in Paris, had unsuccessfully attempted suicide and was later hanged. He could only imagine, he said, that someone high up held a protecting hand over him.
We discussed German literature. He expressed his intense dislike of Thomas Mann and his style. A Francophile, he admired Rivarol whom he was translating. Rivarol I knew almost nothing about. (He was a monarchist satirist from the days of the French Revolutionary who had ended his days as a refugee in Germany. His view was that Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français.) What Jünger could not stand in Mann, apart from his wooly politics, he explained, was his use of the German language. His own models, he declared, were French.
We talked about translation. I explained that in one passage I had used the Scots word 'quaich' meaning a bowl with two lugs because it seemed to me to convey the essentially archaic nature of the Chief Warden's court. The idea seemed to appeal to him.
I came away with a sense of having confronted an enigma. Here was a gifted writer who claimed to aim at the classical simplicity and clarity of the best of French writing and could yet produce passages steeped in cloudy romanticism; a man who had detailed expert scientific knowledge about insects, fish, snakes, flora, alongside a marked interest in the mystical. He found it significant, he said, that his elder son, killed in Italy, had fallen in fighting round the marble cliffs of Carrara.
When I came to read his diaries of the war years dealing with the time he spent in Paris, in a city and culture he loved, I was struck once more by his fastidiousness, his constant search for the strange, the rare, the exquisite - whether it was a print bought from a book stall by the Seine, a flower bought for a cultured Frenchwoman, an encounter among the intellectuals of Paris with fine minds and fine tastes and dubious politics. There is in his description of these times a kind of dandyism. He is in Baudelaire's sense of the word a flâneur who aestheticises horror whether they be the bombs falling on the outskirts of Paris or the description of the execution of a young German deserter. In such set pieces - the latter is an astonishing piece of writing - there is something fascinating and repulsive that can only be described as snake-like.
Yet at the same time he was engaged on the dangerous business of collecting and storing in a safe place what he called (using Goya's word) caprichos: evidence of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. His was an anti-Nazism that sprang from aristocratic fastidiousness; which is in itself paradoxical for he is no aristocrat but the son of an apothecary with a shop in Hanover who embraced the codes of honour of a military caste while asserting that he was un homme de lettres.
(see Jünger's own account in the diary entry in Strahlungen, 25 September & 28 October 1945).
© John King, 2017. Last updated Thu, 20th May 2010.