On the Marble Cliffs

NYRB Classics. Jan. 2023. 144p. tr. from German by Tess Lewis. ISBN 9781681376257. pap. $14.95. FANTASY
First published in Germany on the eve of World War II, this haunting elegiac fable about the fragility of civilization gets a powerful and timely new translation by Tess Lewis. In a vaguely European monastic retreat, veterans of an ignominious war reverently study nature and observe ancient ways, humbly drawing “ever nearer the mysteries hidden in the dust.” From their aerie, they observe with mounting alarm the rise of the Head Forester, a charismatic figure of “reckless arrogance” and “terrifying joviality” to whom the masses flock “the way snakes are drawn to an open fire.” As time-honored traditions and taboos give way to strange new gods, “dreadful icons” devoted to a rude sense of justice and equality “centered solely on vengeance,” the anchorites’ quietism offers no recourse but flight.
VERDICT More than a mere roman à clef about Hitler or Stalin (or both), Jünger’s vivid and evocative narrative transcends its moment in capturing the ageless struggle between our individuality and creative wonder, and the darkness and terror sure to follow when people abandon themselves to belief, even if only to a belief in nothing.
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