A lost classic of anti-war literature is revived in a fresh, vigorous translation.
His name may sound, to the ears of English speakers, like some kin of schlemiel or even schmuck, but Emil Schulz’s nickname, given to him by a cop, means something along the lines of “shrimp, scamp, scallywag and lump—a muddled concoction of all of these.” He is all those things, and, conscripted into the WWI–era German army, he is now, at the age of 17, the administrator in charge of three occupied French villages. There, writes Grimm, Schlump dreams, daydreams, chases women, and generally tries to avoid anything involving work; he’s a sympathetic fellow but essentially lonely, “a solitary figure as he wandered through the snowy fields of France.” Things take a turn for the worse when the Americans join the war, and then Schlump is packed off to a diabolical front line, where he tastes war for real: in one nighttime scouting foray to capture some unsuspecting British soldier for information, a comrade of his fires a flare gun into a Tommy’s stomach, and all hell breaks loose: “The Tommy was yelling, the machine guns firing at full tilt, and Schlump gave a shrill, noisy laugh.” Sent behind the lines for convalescence, Schlump dreams and schemes his way into peacetime. Both comical and arch, the novel, writes German journalist Volker Weidermann in an afterword, might have made a dent, but Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front appeared at about the same time and was heralded as “the German anti-war novel par excellence,” pushing Grimm’s tale off the charts and into obscurity. The sad ending to Grimm’s own life marks a dark conclusion to his tale, which celebrates the resilience born of bucking the system, whether the military on one side or the griftier aspects of capitalism on the other.
Not quite the equal of The Good Soldier Schweick but still a welcome contribution to the literature of the Great War and its discontents.