June 22: Erich Maria Remarque was born on this day in 1898. Although many of Remarque’s fifteen novels were popular upon publication, none were as acclaimed or enduring as his 1929 international bestseller All Quiet on the Western Front. Remarque described his autobiographical novel as a memorial to “a generation that was destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells;” just before his death in the story’s closing moments, the young hero predicts that the public memorials will go the way of his personal memories, all “vanished in bombardment, in despair, in brothels”:
And men will not understand us — for the generation that grew up before us, though it has passed these years with us here, already had a home and a calling; now it will return to its old occupations, and the war will be forgotten — and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered; — the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin.
Among Remarque’s other hits are Heaven Has No Favorites (1961) and Three Comrades (1938). The first became the racetrack movie Bobby Deerfield, and the second, the story of three disillusioned WWI veterans, was an inspiration for The Deer Hunter. But Three Comrades was itself a hit movie in 1938, the screenplay co-written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. From his three stays in Hollywood, this was Fitzgerald’s only screen credit, and he just barely got his name onto this one. His correspondence shows how vigorously he protested the interference of his co-writer (E. E. Paramore) and his director (Joseph Mankiewiez), which turned his faithful adaptation of Remarque’s novel into a story “groggy with sentimentality.”
Most books about Remarque capitalize on his taste for fast cars and women, many of them movie stars. The subtitle of Erich Maria Remarque: The Last Romantic (2003) comes from a comment about Remarque made by Marlene Dietrich. She liked to tell the story of their first, all-night meeting in Venice, which included this interchange outside her hotel room door:
Remarque: “I have to admit something — I’m impotent.”
Dietrich: “Oh, how wonderful!”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.