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review 2014-01-30 16:39
"Storm Of Steel" by Ernst Jünger
Storm of Steel - Ernst Jünger,Michael Hofmann

Ernst Jünger's account of his years fighting as a German soldier on the Western Front during World War One is one of the most graphic I have ever read in terms of descriptions of injuries and violence. That said, much of a soldier's life is routine and boring, and Jünger covers this aspect too.

I was surprised by Jünger's matter-of-factness. Although the book is all written in the first person it all feels at one remove. Jünger is a consummate professional, accepting everything that comes his way. Even when learning that his brother lies injured nearby he acknowledges some distress but, having done what he can, returns to the fray with barely a pause.

Jünger's sense of detachment meant the narrative was less involving, despite the visceral nature of much of what Jünger describes, and as such it is a far less successful memoir than, say, "Goodbye to All That" by Robert Graves in which I felt I got to know and understand the person as well as the soldier. That said, anyone seeking to gain an insight into the experience of a front line soldier during World War One will do well to find a better account.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2013-09-26 20:06

This review contains plot spoilers.

 

Ernst Junger is best-known for his “In Stahlgewittern” (“Storm of Steel”), a literary account of the time he spent serving in World War I. Almost four decades later in 1957, he published this novel, one of the dozens he wrote during his life, and one of the better pieces of dystopian fiction I’ve read. The translation by Louise Bogan deserves special praise for its effortlessness and attention to detail. So often translating pieces like this can produce something derivative, banal, and tasteless, but the opposite is true here. Her work as a poet (she was the Poet Laureate from 1945-1946) brought its subtlety to bear on this wonderful novel. 

 

“The Glass Bees” isn’t what you’d call action-packed: its entire plot consists of a down-and-out man named Richard trying to find a job, speaking with his friend who might have an inside lead, and the job interview that results, interspersed with quite a few flashbacks to Richard’s military days. The central character, however, is neither Richard nor his friend, but the magus-like Zapparoni who runs the factory where Richard goes for his interview. Zapparoni lives in seclusion and runs his operations, including the production of anthropomorphic robots that star in the films that he produces, and the titular glass bees of the title. Everything Zapparoni makes require such skill, attention to detail, and artisanship that he stocks his factory with hundreds of workers who are utterly devoted to him. He has a charismatic ability to manipulate the people who work for him and perhaps a demonic desire to change the world through the transformative power of technology.

 

While waiting for Zapparoni to conduct his interview, he waits in a garden outside the factory, and his senses are gradually overwhelmed by Zapparoni’s meticulously constructed glass bees, replete with hundreds of infinitely complex miniscule parts. They put him in a trance that renders him unable to tell anything about his surroundings. After this bizarre experience, Richard resolves to not take a job at Zapparoni’s factory, thinking that he might use his power for something other than good, but ends up changing his mind and taking a position as a sort of ombudsman, helping the often querulous workers get over their artistic differences. In the end, though, we are left hanging. We never find out whether Richard would live to regret his decision, or whether retains his personal integrity and freedom of conscience. 

 

Junger was often accused of being a fascist, and it’s really no surprise reading this book, but not for the reasons one might think: other than his sweet, evocative remembrances of military life before Zapparoni, Junger never recommends authoritarianism, antiparliamentarianism, or the cult of the leader. But some fascists were known for their deep, agonistic mistrust of technology and innovation, so far that they idealized the pastoral, rustic idyll of life before industrialization. There are so such idylls here, but Junger does have a distinctly suspicious stance toward technology and the mesmeric power that it can exert over people. He probably would have seen the advent of people simultaneously attached to their Blackberry, iPhone, iPod, and Bluetooth as unfortunate but inevitable. For being over half a century old, Junger’s technological anxieties are brilliantly articulated. His bees and his robots are progenitors of the nanotechnology that is so inescapable today. “A happy century does not exist,” Junger write. As someone who saw World War I and almost the entire twentieth century - he died in 1998 about a month before his 103rd birthday. But, he adds with a humane caution, “But there are moments of happiness, and there is freedom in the moment.” Words to dulcify a looming Technopolis.

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review 2012-11-17 00:00
The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Stormtroop Officer on the Western Front - Ernst Jünger As the son of a Second World War combat veteran, there is something about November 11th that resonates deep within me. That day brings into sharp relief the sacrifices made by the veterans of the First World War. For that reason, while scanning my library a few days ago, I resolved to read an eyewitness account of the war --- from the German side.

For the author, Ernst Jünger (1895-1998), the war was a long one, spanning from 1915 to 1918. During those years, he saw a considerable amount of action, which is detailed in this book. From the Champagne, the Somme, Arras, Flanders, Cambrai, and back to Flanders for the great Ludendorff offensives of 1918, Jünger proved himself a resourceful officer and a soldier who did not shrink back from any assignment he was given. (For his service, he was awarded Imperial Germany's highest award for bravery, the Ordre Pour le Mérite - better known as the "Blue Max.")

Jünger's story is somewhat analogous to Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. But unlike Paul Baumer, Ernst Jünger's story is not anti-war. For him, the war is the defining event of his life. The bonds formed between him and his men in the squalor of the trenches are symbolic of the sacredness of the values of Duty, Honor, Country.

Jünger also expresses his admiration for the British soldier, whom he fought against on the Somme, at Cambrai, and in Flanders. Furthermore, the vignettes he provides of life in the areas behind the front in France where his unit was occasionally billeted are stark and perceptive. They show that, in some cases, the Germans were able to establish cordial relations with the civilian population, whom Jünger recognized as the ones who suffered the most from the effects of the war.


This year marks the second year since 1918 that there are no living veterans of the First World War to observe the day on which it was ended. "The Storm of Steel" is one of those war memoirs that helps the reader to connect vicariously with a generation whose sacrifices from 1914 to 1918 helped re-define the way in which we see ourselves and the world in which we live.
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review 2011-12-22 00:00
The Glass Bees - Ernst Jünger,Louise Bogan,Elizabeth Mayer,Bruce Sterling What a book! Nothing like what the blurbs would have led me to think…!!

When I began this book the other day, I had expected it to be a quick read (though short, it is not really quick at all… in the best sense of that fact); mildly interesting (not gripping, as I found it to be); a narrative account of some future dystopia, a sort of second-rate Brave New World (though that book is itself decidedly already third-rate, fair to speak)…. none of which was true.

This fascinating book is a prolonged mediation on the problem of modernity qua Technik …, placed like a nut, inside a brief narrative shell – much like Bernhard’s The Loser – though the narrative voice is sharper, restless, insightful, and far less neurotic then Bernhard… something of a cross at times, as I commented before, between Chandler and Céline. It is the product of an intelligent, ruthlessly honest, and restless mind.

The book was written in 1957, when Jünger was 62. He lived another 40 years, remarkably. His life was marked by tragedy, both personal and historical -- one son was killed in the War, in 1944; the other committed suicide in 1993. A very interesting figure.

At any rate, the book is flawless, not a false note in it – and gets a high recommendation.
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review 2009-02-12 00:00
Storm of Steel - Ernst Jünger,Michael Hofmann Ernst Junger's memoir of his time on the Western Front (1914-1918) is a powerful glimpse at what it's like to be a soldier, made all the more powerful because it's unadorned with philosophical introspection or politics. The reader joins Junger as he joins his unit in Champagne and leaves him during his final convalescence in a Hanover hospital. In between, we vicariously experience the daily life of a German officer and his men - and "vicarious" is about as close as any rational person would want to get to war.

Junger is not a pacifist. He did not enter the war an eager, young idealist only to have reality turn him into a burnt-out cynic or ardent pacifist as often seems to happen in other, perhaps better-known memoirs. He entered the war an ardent nationalist and patriot, and came out no less so. He is not, however, blind to the horrors and rampant stupidity and the capricious fortune that makes one man a hero and another a coward (or dead). A couple of examples: In the final months of the war, Junger's company (about 80 men) is ordered to advance againt the British lines. They enter the maze of trenches, quickly losing their way and stumble upon an equally confused group of British (New Zealand) soldiers (about 200). The surprise is so complete, the "fog of war" so dense, that, without a melee, Junger's men capture them all. In another engagement, Junger is ordered to take 14 men across the no-man's zone in a reconnaissance mission and to capture some soldiers for interrogation. Almost from the beginning, the patrol goes awry and 10 of the 14 never return. Needless to say, the mission objectives remained unfulfilled. But that appears to be par for the course - little exercises designed to keep the men occupied but with little or no tactical value.

Reading Storm of Steel, I'm reminded of Christopher Hedge's War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning Paperback, where that author argues the allure of war - the feeling of ultimate power and aliveness - is what draws (mostly) men into an army. Junger was the living example of Hedge's theoretical recruit (he died in 1998).

A few of the more affecting passages and observations follow:

The chapter titled "Guillemont" is a nice snapshot of the war. Endless days in the trenches, the filth and physical misery, interrupted by pointless forays against enemy positions. Here and all through the book, Junger's emotional distance strikes the reader (or at least this reader). Colleagues and soldiers drift in and out of the narrative, often with little or no introduction and (perhaps) the briefest of leave takings.

In that same chapter, Junger defines what makes the "good soldier": "Nothing was left in this voice but equanimity, apathy; fire had burned everything else out of it. It's men like that that you need for fighting" (p. 92).

There are flashes of sardonic wit, as when the author describes the travails he encounters trying to protect his bicycles from shellfire: "To this unpleasant bit of target-practice I lost four bicycles.... They were comprehensively remodelled and cast to the four winds" (p. 139).

In that same chapter ("In the Village of Fresnoy") we get another glimpse into Junger's idolization of war and the soldier: "There was in these men a quality that both emphasized the savagery of war and transfigured it at the same time: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle. Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood" (p. 140).

The hypocrisy and lying in war (regarding the write-up of an action): "Then we discussed the most important aspect of the affair: the report. We wrote it in such a way that we were both satisfied" (p. 155).

Evidence that even a "warrior" need to psych himself up to kill: "...I chewed my pipe and tried to talk myself into feeling brave.... Several times I murmured a phrase of Ariosto's: `A great heart feels no dreadof approaching death, whenever it may come, so long as it be honourable'" (p. 171).

And finally, a troubling sentiment that's excused all sorts of atrocities: "The state, which relieves us of our responsibility, cannot take away our remorse..." (p. 241).
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