Schlump: Hans Herbert Grimm

Novels about combat in WWI seem to have commonalities (trenches, lice, endless shell bombardment, and various body parts strewn across the ground). And, of course, there’s always the sense of terrible waste. Hans Herbert Grimm’s (1896-1950) novel, Schlump contains many of the usual WWI scenes we’ve come to expect, and its 17-year-old protagonist, who’s later called a ‘lamb to the slaughter’ while on his first leave back home, goes off to war, like many young men, with absolutely no idea of the horrors that await him.

He pictured the sun shining, the grey uniforms charging, one man falling, the others surging forward further with their cries and cheers, and pair after pair of red trousers vanishing beneath green hedges. In the evenings the soldiers would sit around a campfire and chat about life at home. One would sing a melancholy song. Out in the darkness the double sentries would stand at their posts, leaning on the muzzles of their rifles, dreaming of home and being reunited with loved ones. In the morning they’d break camp and march singing into battle, where some would fall and others be wounded . Eventually the war would be won and they’d return home victorious. Girls would throw flowers from windows and the celebrations would never end.

Schlump became anxious that he was missing out on all of this.

Of course, Schlump enlists and at first he gets lucky. Training camp is “great fun,” and after that, Schlump’s ability to speak French lands him office work, and so at age 17 he is “responsible for the administration of three villages.” Men march in and men march out, and all the time, Schlump is “glad not to have been with them.” But of course, Schlump’s good luck can’t last forever, and eventually he ends up at the front lines.

schlump

Schlump is an interesting fictional character, and we immediately get that sense from his name alone. No hero would have that name, and while Schlump is not an anti-hero, rather he’s an observer, a participant by default and a largely optimistic fellow in spite of all the death that surrounds him. Over time and with horrendous experiences, he “had become smarter.” Yet in spite of everything there’s still an innocence about him, and a moment comes when he decides he must “distinguish himself.

During the course of the novel, Schlump is wounded and manages to get home on leave, and each subsequent leave reveals the deteriorating situation at home. At one point his mother starves herself beforehand so that there’s bread for Schlump when he returns. There are many memorable scenes here: the collecting of unexploded shells “because raw iron was needed back in Germany. The men were promised seven pfennigs for each piece,” and although the German soldiers risk their lives to collect these shells, they are never paid for their troubles. In another scene emblematic of the dearth of military strategy, an officer comes up with the plan to “bring back a British soldier, dead or alive, from the enemy trenches,” and Schlump goes along with another  German soldier to complete this mission.

In one quote, Grimm accentuates that enemies in life are levelled by that great denominator: death

Here lay a multitude of corpses–Germans and British, all mixed together. At one point they’d collected in a heap, as if in death they were trying to warm themselves. All were lying on their stomachs, heads turned to the side, revealing their greenish faces, teeth glinting faintly between pairs of black lips. Rifles, gas mask s everything in a muddle, soaked in blood and more blood.

My NYRB edition states, in the introduction, that Grimm met with East German authorities in 1950 and two days later committed suicide. I’ve been watching The Weissensee Saga on television, a wonderful series set in East Germany, so I have my ideas about what Grimm’s meeting was about and why he opted to commit suicide. Schlump was not a literary success. It’s not first-rate literature and the novel competed against All Quiet on the Western Front which was published around the same time. All Quiet on the Western Front is a seminal WWI novel, a book that can potentially profoundly impact the reader. Schlump doesn’t have that power, and yet it’s still disturbing, still manages to get under the skin.

Jacqui’s review is here.

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

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31 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Grimm Hans Herbert

31 responses to “Schlump: Hans Herbert Grimm

  1. Many thanks for the pingback, Guy. I agree it doesn’t have the same power as All Quiet, but then again very few novels do (I can still recall the horror of the scenes in the trenches to this day). I liked Schlump as a character – as you say, there was something rather optimistic/innocent about him. A worthy addition to the NYRB list.

  2. Yes a comparison is inevitable– it happens with all WWI novels, and yet in a sense that isn’t fair either.

  3. As you say there is an inevitability about the content of books featuring WWI but I do like the sound of this not quite anti-hero as a slightly different take on the young boys who marched off to war.

  4. I’ll look out for The Weissensee Saga. Have you ever seen The Lives Of Others? A wonderful film.

  5. I find myself imagining this crestfallen author on reading All Quiet…

  6. Gert: I’ll post a photo if the (soon-to-be) new arrival survives.

  7. Great. I loved The Master too.

  8. I have not read this. I have also not read All Quiet on the Western Front, which I plan to read. It would be interesting to read the two novels back to back.

  9. Jonathan

    I read Jacqui’s review as well as yours and this book appeals to me. There is a tendency for WWI books to be pretty much the same which is understandable of course. Chevallier’s Fear was really good as well which I know you’ve read. Have you read The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek? I’d recommend if you haven’t—it’s the closest thing to a ‘Catch-22 of WWI’.

  10. I think I’ll read this too at some point.
    I’m watching Weissensee too, btw. That is, I watched the first season a few years ago and now continue watching more.

  11. I think you rather underrate this one. All Quiet is a very different kind of book…apples and oranges. The alternation of Candide-picaresque sections with those depicting unutterable horror gives this one a special, powerful impact.

    Maybe also an addition to the successors of Simplicissimus?

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