Young Man Has Crisis While Europe Stumbles Into War

by Belle Waring on March 5, 2018

So I have a sort of reading project. I read Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, and it is really the best thing ever. You should all read it, and unlike all the other books I’m thinking of, it’s not eleventy billion pages long. Europe is getting ready for WWI, but there’s no actual WWI in the book until the last five pages or so. This is as it should be because who wants to read about WWI? Then I read The Magic Mountain again which, similarly, has fighting in the mud (perhaps oddly cheerful) in the last…two pages maybe, and that’s it after 900 pages of symbolism of Europe’s decline, and brutal caricatures of European intellectuals, and five nourishing meals a day at the International Sanatorium Berghof. I’m reading all of Kafka now but it’s a detour and I don’t know how I started exactly, especially since Amerika is making me sad. But I’m almost done and setting that aside, next I’ll read The Man Without Qualities? The war’s going on for a while at the end but everyone is just dicking around in Vienna the whole time IIRC. I think the book even makes it to the end of the war?

Unfortunately it seems like I should read Proust next but…I mean, I know a girl’s got to have goals, but there’s a lot of Proust. (There are new translations I have been curious about, but.) It’s literally the best qualified I can think of, and ‘young man having crises’ and ‘Europe stumbling into war’ are lavished with care while ‘fighting in the mud’ is minimized. I think the narrator’s realization at the beach hotel, two years after the fact, that his grandmother is actually dead in a meaningful and tragic sense definitely outweighs any mud, which may not get a look-in at all. I’m pretty sure we get all the way through the war and more without any violence to speak of. Do any of you have good suggestions for the genre I made up (and I should note that young ladies having crises would be fine; I just don’t think there will be any)? I could go sideways and read Totem and Taboo, but although there are young men having incestuous crises there’s no stumbling into WWI IIRC. And if I’m just starting to drift into publication dates/influential works I could read Lukacs’ The Theory of The Novel? But why? It’s hard. It’s fair to ask, “why any of this Belle, and why are you reading Kafka if The Castle and Amerika are bumming you out, just stop.” BELLE WARING DON’T STOP READING NO BOOKS, IS WHY. And just in case you think I’m so fancy and all I read is fancy things I also just read Stephen King’s It, which is scary. Not as scary as WWI in some important sense, but pretty darn scary. [It should go without saying that I spend multiple hours dorking around on the loserweb, too.] And this may all be put on hold so I can help John by reading science fiction, anyway.



Belle Waring 03.05.18 at 5:50 am

I finished Amerika and it didn’t end as sadly as I thought. I mean, weird, but much less distressing than the previous 50 pages. I don’t know whether its fragmentary nature at that point cheered things up somehow. What would the Great Theatre of Oklahoma have been like? I am actually at a total loss to picture Kafka’s vision of Oklahoma. Um, wrong. And…I literally don’t know.


John Holbo 03.05.18 at 6:12 am

Frankie Kafka, where the wind comes whistlin’ through his brain
And the ravin’ wheat smells like defeat,
When the wind comes right before the pain.
Frankie Kafka,
Ev’ry night my beetle-sweet and I,
Burrow deep and watch a hawk makin’ lazy circles in the sky.

Then something-something dreaming of Red Indians.


ph 03.05.18 at 7:33 am

From the introduction: “…All sorts of trustworthy and unlikely people – and trustworthy often precisely because unlikely: cosmopolites, left-wingers, non-combatants – have stepped up to express their admiration, often in suitably embarrassed or bemused fashion. Böll and Borges, Enzensberger and Brecht, Gide, and Moravia. In 1942, Gide wrote in his diary: ‘Ernst Junger’s book on the 1914 War, Storm of Steel, is without question the finest book on war that I know, utterly honest, truthful, in good faith.’
“Its contrast with most others is stark It has no pacifist design. It makes no personal appeal. It is a notably unconstructed book…It begins the moment Private Ernst Junger first detrains in France, on 27 December 1914, at the age of nineteen…It was published [privately mmediately after the war, the family gardner was listed as publisher] long before the likes of Blunden, Graves, Remarque, and Sasoon..” (Michael Hofmann translation)

I read Junger a couple of years ago – a blunt, brutal, quick-read, and possibly necessary.

Immensely more enjoyable, and also with built around war, is Martin Cruz Smith’s recent ‘The Girl From Venice.” Loved it. I read non-fiction primarily, and dip into modern fiction for pleasure. This was a delight. Might not teach you a thing!


Jim Buck 03.05.18 at 7:59 am

Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zwieg. It is the world’s longest short story. The First World War is mentioned then immediately forgotten.


TripleMused 03.05.18 at 8:31 am

I am not sure this fits exactly into the genre you are describing, but maybe an old NYT book review can sell it better. It sort of aligns with the other things you have read and are thinking of reading–THE SLEEPWALKERS by Hermann Broch.


Adam Roberts 03.05.18 at 9:36 am

There was a young writer called Kafka
Who wanted to make people laughka
He sketched out a bug
But people went “ugh!”
And that became his epitaphka.


Charles 03.05.18 at 10:18 am

I’m not quite sure where you are drawing the lines of this genre, but a young woman having an artistic crisis while the world stumbles into WWI, with no trench warfare in the text, sounds like To the Lighthouse to me.


Lee A. Arnold 03.05.18 at 11:13 am

You may find a handful of appropriate books in the NYRB Classics series. There are around 350 titles:


nastywoman 03.05.18 at 12:09 pm

”I am actually at a total loss to picture Kafka’s vision of Oklahoma.”

You mean ”Oklahama”? and as I recall that Kafka presented ”the first description of Coca-Cola in so called serious literature” and Karl Rossmann, ended up calling himself ”Negro” and when I was in Oklahoma City just last?… last tuesday -(at the 21c Museum Hotel) and I tried to see Black Panther that night and it was completely sold out – and now I saw Black Panther yesterday -(before the Oscars) at the Regent in Downtown Manhatton – why don’t you watch Black Panther a few times instead of reading the ideas of a dude about Amerika who was never in Amerika – as Europe is going to be ”fine” – as for Italians ”right wing” is just some… ”moda” until the next Ferragosta – while we really have to worry about Amerika if the Black Panther can’t save US all?


nastywoman 03.05.18 at 12:38 pm

– but for ”European academics” I suggest the Avocado Toast in the 21c in Nashville with the view of ”Stichter’s Spanish Feral Meat Goats” – they ”confront the viewer full frontal, their heads turned to the side or downward, their gaze and limbs poised in mid-movement or conversation. The living breeds for which these works are named are the descendants of livestock brought to the United States in the 16th-century; their evolution as an especially hardy species is connected to the artist’s interest in human adaptability. Old or young, spry or limp, aggressive or acquiescent, taunting or fearful, Stichter’s stoneware Menagerie explores “those uncomfortable, awkward edges between animal and human….Entangled in their own internal and external struggles, the figures are engaged with the subjects of fear, apathy, violence and powerlessness. There is something conscious and knowing captured in their gestures and expressions, both an invitation and a rebuke”.


Doug T 03.05.18 at 1:05 pm

Seems like Storm of Steel would be the exact converse of Bell’s criterion–it’s all blood and trenches with no crisis at all.

If you’re doing Musil and Kafka and Broch and Zweig, might as well add in Elias Canetti’s memoirs. I think a lot of Hesse’s early works could fit, if you squint, Steppenwolf in particular. Although historical events aren’t mentioned, of course the War looms over everything written in the period after.

There’s also the related group of books of young men having crises *after* WWI–The Sun Also Rises, Tender is the Night, etc.


John Crowley 03.05.18 at 1:12 pm

If you want boys under fire from beginning to end, try Under Fire by Henri Barbusse, or even All Quiet on the Western Front, but the sweetest in the series you are assembling is Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon. And if you want a SF (or at least futuristic-from-the-past) novel that takes up the same themes (thus compressing your reading time) try The Wanting Seed by Anthiny Burgess.


Taj 03.05.18 at 1:17 pm

Beware of Pity‘s great. Fighting in the Great War is plainly a doddle compared to the smoking wreck of the young man’s personal life.

More laterally, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels.


Taj 03.05.18 at 1:22 pm

Even more [too] laterally:


Phil 03.05.18 at 2:01 pm

young ladies having crises would be fine; I just don’t think there will be any

Europe stumbled into war when Dorothy Richardson was 37, but sadly Miriam Henderson never made it that far.


GW 03.05.18 at 2:12 pm

Some Hermann Broch next?


Stephen 03.05.18 at 2:17 pm

Re Proust and WWI

I think I have read somewhere* that young Marcel did his French military service as per statute, but was allowed to spend his nights at home rather than in barracks. Also, that at the end he was graded as 131st for military efficiency, out of 132: leaving one to speculate about the 132nd conscript.

Can someone better informed about his career please confirm or deny this?

*This is the opening of an article by WB Yeats. Should be good enough for CT.


Peter Hovde 03.05.18 at 2:45 pm

If you want a fun, yachting centered foreshadowing of WWI, there’s Childers’ “Riddle of the Sands”- Childers also a fascinating figure generally.


AnthonyB 03.05.18 at 3:02 pm

There’s also “The Last Days of Mankind” by Karl Kraus, a patchwork of observations as the Great War grinds to a start.


LFC 03.05.18 at 3:15 pm

Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, published in 1933, is a classic WW1 memoir, so powerful that I needed only to dip into it to get the flavor and message. She left Oxford to be a nurse in WW1; her brother and fiancé were both killed. She became a pacifist; opposed British/U.S. bombing of cities during WW2. Mother of the politician Shirley Williams, whose 1977 preface appears in the pb edition of the bk.


Henry Farrell 03.05.18 at 4:26 pm

As per this post, I suspect that you’ll find Proust much, much easier to get into than you might expect. The secret key is Gene Wolfe – everything you love about Wolfe’s prose style is what you will love about Proust’s prose style too, since Wolfe is Proustian writing about rocket ships and teddy bears come to life rather than dinner parties.

Though by a funny coincidence, since we seem to have John Crowley in the house (squee!), I’ve recently taken a break from listening to Proust when walking the dog on the trail because I discovered Little, Big was available as an audiobook, read by JC (but with someone else reading the titles within the chapters). It’s just a lovely experience – different to reading it yourself, but in some ways better, since it is a Tale, and a Tale should have a Teller. Also, the inflections of the voice give hints as to when e.g. Great Aunt Cloud is being slyly funny, that you’d have possibly guessed from the printed text, but not with any great assuredness.


AcademicLurker 03.05.18 at 5:39 pm

The first book of Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End takes place just before WW1. It’s been decades since I read it, but I recall that it involved a young man having some sort of crisis.


Yan 03.05.18 at 7:52 pm

If Kafka’s making you sad, you might opt for the Swiss writer Robert Walser. He’s like Kafka on prozac and he’s utterly delightful, a German writer loosely associated with and of the same era as those you’re reading, but a also a bit of an antidote to them.


Laura Tillem 03.05.18 at 7:55 pm

Read Charles Todd’s mysteries about ww1 survivor Ian Rutledge.


Aaron Lercher 03.05.18 at 8:44 pm

You are interested in the European spiritual crisis, and reading Kafka, which has you feeling down. (One would have thought that Kafka’s sublimity would lift you up, although it’s exhausting.) Then I have a writer for you: Witold Gombrowicz!

Even though all his books are crazy brilliant, his first, Ferdydurke, is the one. Talk about a young man having a crisis! The book is an attack on the concept of adulthood, and its main metaphors are body parts.

The European spiritual crisis has many books, but Gombrowicz offers a cure. It is useless to turn to so-called “realistic” novels, although some are okay.


Steve 03.05.18 at 9:39 pm

Try Knausgaard. Yes, wrong period. Yes, no war. But it achieves the same sense of forboding and place as the Roth and the Hesse. OK, maybe that sentence is a stretch, but I’m halfway through and taking every opportunity to tell everyone I meet to read it. So now I’m shamelessly stealing this opportunity to take my campaign online.


Bloix 03.05.18 at 10:05 pm

Banned commenter deleted


Bloix 03.05.18 at 10:10 pm

Banned commenter deleted


Helen 03.05.18 at 10:22 pm

Belle, I do hesitate to go all hlepy on people who are way more educated than I am, but I think the way to approach behemoths like Proust is to think of them like a long running soap opera (or sitcom.) I really enjoyed La Temps Perdu until, I think, about book 8 or so….

My own favourite is Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, which is 12 books long, but it’s a rip roaring soap opera. It may not fit your genre because the War in question is WWII not WWI, and the narrator is not so much having a crisis as observing the crises of all the people around him. But it’s a great read, and fits your bill in that there is not that much war-ing going on in the book. The chapters where he is actually soldiering contain some of the funniest passages in the book.

The Well of Loneliness / Radclyffe Hall would qualify for a woman central character in crisis plus some WWI action.


Helen 03.05.18 at 10:26 pm

This is also good, and an easier read (one of those YA series that’s also interesting to older adults):


NickS 03.05.18 at 10:36 pm

My first thought is the movie Jules and Jim (which I assume you’ve seen already but if you haven’t I would encourage you to take 2 hours away from reading and watch it) but you could read the memoir on which the movie is based.


Bill 03.05.18 at 11:17 pm

The Good Soldier Svejk is a good satirical work, sort of a WWI Catch-22.


Doug K 03.05.18 at 11:34 pm

for a different view of the Hapsburgs, the Otto Prohaska series by John Biggins: young man beholds decline and fall of the Austrian empire bemusedly, along with serial adventures in air and navy warfare.. probably not considered great literature but great fun and a vivid heartbreaking history.


Belle Waring 03.06.18 at 4:51 am

I’ve actually read Proust already; it’s the re-read factor that seems excessive. But, as I say, there are new translations that tempt me. But thanks for all the cool suggestions you guys—you have really come through!


bad Jim 03.06.18 at 7:40 am

As a teen I approached Kafka’s stories much as I did the extremely sour candies popular in the 80’s: “Arrgh! That’s horrible! Give me another.” I could not explain why I felt compelled to read him (though I put down Amerika after a couple of chapters).

Years later I ran across a mention of Kafka as a Jewish humorist and my reaction was “A humorist? Are you out of your mind? … Oh wait.”


Belle Waring 03.06.18 at 8:06 am

Listing things in not order exactly:
OMG actual John Crowley; I will read everything you suggest on general principles.
The Good Soldier Švejk is the best and so funny.
Charles’ suggestion is inspired.
Aaron, I am excited to read Gombrowicz; Kafka was not lifting me up despite sublimity in part because I read the complete works in a few days and I read the novels last. I should have done it the other way around and not rushed.
Helen: bizarrely, despite having read all of Dance to The Music of Time, I don’t remember it, which…I don’t really know what’s going on there. I did like it at the time.


Bartholomew 03.06.18 at 8:34 am

‘Young ladies having crises would be fine’

There’s the other Zweig, Arnold Zweig. Young Woman of 1914 (1931) involves a woman having a pregnancy and abortion while her man is at the front. It’s one of the earliest descriptions of abortion in a novel. I read it way back in the 1970s, when Zweig was one of those East German writers that were admired maybe more for ideological reasons than literary ones. It’s pretty clunky, but not at all unreadable. I found a short description on this site:


Belle Waring 03.06.18 at 12:15 pm

The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch is fabulous so far. The protagonist of the first section is perfectly idiotic, like dear little Hans Castorp.


Michael M 03.06.18 at 2:15 pm

If you haven’t read it already, Modris Eksteins “The Rites of Spring” is a beautiful work of history, and Frederic Morton’s “A Nervous Splendour: Vienna 1888-1889” is all about young (well, going into middle age) men and crises and Europe stumbling towards war.

“To the lighthouse” and “Mrs. Dalloway” could also work, although half of the former and all of the latter take place after the war, but “Jacob’s Room” should definitely be on the list (clearly I have a bias towards Woolf). Woolf’s novels are also beautifully short, which raises them in my estimation (but I don’t have the best attention span).


Michael M 03.06.18 at 2:37 pm

Also, Broch wrote an afterward to the NYRB’s “War and the Iliad” (which collects Weil’s “Iliad and the Poem of Force” and Rachel Bespalof’s short work on the poem), so that also may be of interest.


Doug 03.06.18 at 6:22 pm

Coup de Grace by Marguerite Yourcenar, although it features a lot of war. More Thomas Mann, of course. The Good Soldier Schweik for avoidance of the war. Then there’s the four books about Otto Prohaska, featuring inordinately long subtitles, and written much later by John Biggins, but a war very much stumbled into. You could help John and look at the war’s aftermath by reading Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling. I am sure there are some Hungarians who would fit, though no names come to mind immediately. Czeslaw Milosz remembers pre-war Lithuania, and his some of his novels are set in that as yet unstumbled Europe. Adalbert Stifter wrote plays that would fit your invented genre, but I do not know if they have been translated into English. Possibly Arthur Schnitzler. Eduard von Keyersling, The Waves. Seconding Hesse, especially Under the Wheel, which depicts an ostensibly changeless rural Germany, but the Great War is less than a decade away.

The next generation of German writers is very interesting, too, but so very different.

Oh! OH! Just remembered: Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. That is your genre to a T. Read that before anything else.

(Well, you can read my reviews at the web site linked above first, if you like.)


Jack Morava 03.08.18 at 1:43 am


phenomenal cat 03.08.18 at 5:03 am

Seconding The Sleepwalkers and Good Soldier Svejk (comedy!). If some nonfiction is wanted Wittgenstein’s Vienna is a pretty fun intellectual history. Prewar Vienna seems like it was a wistfully perfect madhouse.


clew 03.08.18 at 7:18 am

young ladies having crises would be fine; I just don’t think there will be any

Stella Benson’s Living Alone. Odd, short, so sad it isn’t sad about it any more.


Tyrone Slothrop 03.08.18 at 4:47 pm

Off the beaten path, you might enjoy Heimito von Doderer’s The Demons, which exists in an Austria eking by (Vienna) betwixt the two World Wars, and wherein its plethora of (mostly male) characters and voices are slowly but inexorably dissolving on the inside even as they attempt to shore up their exterior façades amidst (similarly dissolving) prewar Austrian Imperial structures. It’s very long, very messy, very realist, very morally-limned, and quite excellent IMO…

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