ONE factor alone could justify describing A Time to Love and a Time to Die as a life changing book, not to mention as a universally monumental classic romance novel. It ends the way it started. And significance does not lie in the simple fact that such a literary method is generally indicative of a good story, and by association a masterful author in Erich Maria Remarque. It is because its beginning and end are at once so staggeringly different than and so like its body. Think of it like this: face two mirrors – the beginning and end of the story – toward each other and place an object – the story’s body – between them. The object will multiply and eventually blur within them. Remarque takes the two most powerful and, yes, much more often in any art form than only here, intertwined aspects of the human condition, love and war; and weaves them together in such a way as to make them tragically inseparable for us or his two young protagonists. Effortlessly, and amid a turmoil of countless other lessons, the author asks the reader when, if not during war, is love more vital. And more doomed.
Though one factor is sufficient, it is not nearly self-indulgent enough either for me to write about or you to read. I assure you. Another would have to be that despite the fact I’ve read many books on war, love, and both, Remarque’s opened up another world to me (he also wrote the probably more famous All Quiet on the Western Front). The apocalyptic quagmire of the shrinking eastern front during the closing stages of World War Two was at the time and since quite unfamiliar to me, at least in works of fiction. And it is immediately revealed almost nightmarishly by the book, from the perspective of German soldier, Ernst Graeber. Fortunately, once some Russian civilians are executed, the book takes us west during Ernst’s long-awaited leave from the front. He arrives at his home town: a place rendered almost as dead as the battlefront through its bombed out houses, largely evacuated populace and shell-shocked remaining inhabitants; and yet much more alive through heroine and old family friend Elizabeth Kruze. Circumstances conspire to ensure the pair’s romance is certainly no ordinary one, but eventually love blooms from the apparently infertile wasteland of war, nonetheless.
Which leads us to a third and, here at least, final factor. The novel is also both great and life changing because at no point is it explicit. And I’m talking about the conflict too, and not just the romance. Oh, sure, as you’d expect: things happen. Bombs fall, women scream, men are shot. Eyes lock, tortured hearts intertwine, caresses are shared. But it is such a near-perfect example of the literary principle that you should show, rather than tell the reader of events, that it almost plays out on the page like a film. Albeit one without a hint of clumsy dialogue. This allows you to step in to the characters’ shoes like only great stories do. But beware. If you know anything about love and war, whether they’re intermingled or not, it ends in its own way as all such stories do. In order to give credence to this final point I’ll quickly share with you a quite personal story of my own. After learning through conversation with a girl I fancied that she enjoyed such books, I gave her my first copy of A Time to Love and a Time to Die. But let’s just say we’re not exactly married with two-and-a-half kids and a Labrador now. The book, and other similar experiences, did help prepare me for the feelings that resulted. Comforted me too, even. And that, regardless of all else, is certainly the mark of a life changing feature of my bookshelf. I know it will have a similar impact on you.