A review of “On the Marble Cliffs” by Ernst Jünger

Ernst Jünger in later life.
Although the above  photo shows Jünger looking every the inch the aesthete or scholarly type (which, in large part, he was) it’s important to know that this German man of letters was also a decorated soldier, and fought in the German army in both World Wars.
In Great Britain Jünger is known I think mostly in academic circles, and even then his most commonly cited book is Storm of Steel. For many years this has recognised as one of the most notable prose works concerning the First World War.
On the Marble Cliffs is a different kind of book, however. It concerns two brothers, living in a peaceful forest setting, who spend their lives studying botany, enraptured by the flora around them, and enjoying the tranquility and solitude of their surroundings. But their homeland and whole way of life are threatened by a marauding band of infiltrators under the command of the Chief Ranger. Things head for a bloody climax when those who live in the forest in the shadow of the marble cliffs realise they need to make a stand and fight, or else be overwhelmed by the Ranger and his men.
Like that book, Storm of Steel,  On the Marble Cliffs has passages that describe battle with evident skill, knowledge and even relish. However, this is a different kind of novel. Written in the late 30’s, it’s clearly a sideways take on Nazism. From a 21st century vewpoint, I also think it stands up as a general fable on the rise of all the regimes that use terror and coercion as their main weapons. Indeed, Junger goes out of his way to give this a ‘timeless’ quality, in the sense that a reader could imagine it taking place in virtually any epoch one cares to imagine. As a political fable, it’s a very good book of its type.However, Junger definitely had the Nazis in his sights when writing this, which makes it all the more noteworthy how it managed to get past the Nazi censors at all in the late ’30’s. It was a bestseller at the time and was only belatedly withdrawn from sale. (Apparently Goebbels is depicted as a character in the novel, and the Propaganda Minister was rather flattered by the portrait, which may have induced him to turn a blind eye…for a while. ) While its escape into the public domain remains something of a cause celebre for the book, it does stand up on its own terms, and is therefore much more than a historical curio or literary document forever tied to its era.

Try to get hold of a copy of this if you enjoy writers like Hermann Hesse. Junger writes in a similar style (i.e. a fable) in this novel, and deals with similar grand themes. Chief among these is the perennial European tension between those who want to dedicate themselves to great, peaceable works, and those who would rather go round tearing things up and imposing their own will and vision on people. I didn’t come away from the book feeling like Junger had provided many answers, but he depicts the tension vividly nonetheless.

Such a shame, then, that this book appears to be out of print and hard to find. I’m sure its time will come again, however. It remains a key work by Ernst Junger and an important work in the European canon.


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