Storm and Steel By Ernst Jünger, trs Michael Hofmann

It's time to have your apocalypse now
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The Independent Culture

You can see why the Nazis loved Ernst Jünger. Here was a man who got an erection every time he loaded a round into the chamber, and whose comrades not only thrashed the French, but out-reparteed them, in French.

Jünger's translator Michael Hofmann, in his pithy introduction, makes the case for Storm of Steel as "one of the great books of World War I, if not the greatest". He cites Gide's diary entry: "the finest book on war that I know: utterly honest, truthful, in good faith".

Jünger was one of the first to pagify the war. The first version of Storm of Steel appeared in 1920. It is a matter-of-fact memoir of the four years Jünger spent on the Western Front and his award of "Pour le Mérite", the highest decoration for individual gallantry on the German side (and isn't it wonderfully ironic that the top Prussian gong should be in French). Storm of Steel reads very much like a journal, as Hofmann notes, an "unconstructed" account drawn from the diaries Jünger kept. Its prose is spare, yet there is more toing-and-froing in small French towns than this reader cared to read.

Jünger is very good on atmosphere, on conveying the preponderance of tedium in soldiering, the mess and arbitrary nature of the war, and, while not stinting on its horrors, he found war exciting and enjoyable. Indeed for him warfare offered a mystical experience.

For the contemporary audience, Jünger's greatest charm may well be his exquisitely unPC views on just about everything (we even get a good old-fashioned joke at the expense of hunchbacks). Jünger was a man for whom the term adrenaline-junkie is woefully inadequate. He attempted to join the French Foreign Legion, before the First World War came along to occupy his time. As a senior officer billeted in Paris, Jünger also had a very pleasant Second World War.

Storm of Steel makes a fascinating counterpart to Graves and Sassoon and is a stylish reminder that there are always individuals who are enamoured of war. I have no knowledge of German so I can't comment on Hofmann's fidelity to the original, but it's a pleasure to see him deploy the full resources of the English language (though I would quibble about the use of "grunts" for infantryman, just too Apocalypse Now for this book).

You have to give credit to a man who could make a Coriolanus-like pronouncement that he "hated democracy like the plague", but I think Gide overrated Jünger and was a little too dismissive of his compatriots. The most powerful writing about the First World War for me is in the novels of Céline and Jean Giono (whose novel Le Grand Troupeau with its descriptions of rats eating the dead is the only book that's come close to making me throw up). Or try a latecomer such as Derek Robinson whose inventive novels are grossly underappreciated.

But Ernst Jünger is unarguably an original, even if all memoirs of war have a curiously familiar air: "The whole scene - the mixture of the prisoners' laments and our jubilation - had something primordial about it. This wasn't war; it was ancient history."

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