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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

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Black Obelisk - Classic (1923)

Erich Maria Remarque
Ballantine Books (1998)
448p. / Paperback
ISBN 0449912442
Available Now 

This classic by the author of All Quiet on the Western Front follows the post-World War I life of a returning soldier, poet, and monument seller who sees his country on the edge of change. And while inflation and a country slipping into uncertainty, it is the writing of the local people, the conversations, and the disconnect of modernism that creates this often beautiful, sad, and complex novel.

When you think of modernism in literature, it comes with a sense of change and disconnection. Think of books like Kafka's The Metamorphosis, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf's stream of consciousness writing, and the social and political uncertainty that came with devastating war, an economic depression. It is from these roots that this book carries the ideas of war and loss into a life still waiting to happen.

At times, The Black Obelisk is very pertinent and funny. At times, it feels like an old song that makes you feel sad. While managing the office at the tombstone office, this twenty-something veteran soldier also makes some extra money playing the organ at the chapel in the insane asylum. There he has fallen for one of the patients, a woman that he can't define in conventional terms. This shifting and the changing relationship is often delicate and beautiful while being frustrating and desperate all at the same time. This story thread is one of the most striking modernist ideas, showing the uncertainty of the times.

This book has been criticized for not having a defined plot, but this isn't a story of what happened next, but a story of immersion. Through this sense of moving around his social circles, we see the emergence of nationalism (that would eventually draw in Hitler), we see an economic system on the brink of failure. And men who continue to game the system and try to get out ahead. 

There is no better novel that fits the ideals of modernism than The Black Obelisk, giving the reader a sense of desperation, beauty, and humor in the face of a crushing history that we all know well. Read this book and then share with someone who likes reading novels. They will also fall headlong into this town, and fall into the desperation that life is merely what we make it, even when it changes before it turns into something tangible. Remarque writes, "But probably that's the way of the world -when we finally learned something we're too old to apply it - and so it goes, wave after wave, generation after generation. No one learns anything at all from anyone else."