I love old books. I don’t love them for their fine bindings, their rarity, or their attribution. I love old books for their content, and I also like to think about their previous owners.
The one that sits before me now is a sage green, cloth-covered hardback. The flypage says it was published in 1941 by Little, Brown, and Company of Boston. The bookplate says “Paine College Library.” Inside the back cover there’s still a little pocket with a library card in it. This book was checked out during “Vacation” in 1942; again on February 26, 1955; on December 18, 1959; and on January 4, 1960. The notations end there.
Flotsam is probably one of the least known of Remarque’s novels. I’ve read Arch of Triumph and A Time to Love and A Time to Die, but, rather oddly, not All Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque's most famous work. I only know about Flotsam because I first encountered it in my father’s library.
Webster’s defines “flotsam” as (1), floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo; broadly, floating debris; (2) a floating population (of emigrants or castaways) (human); and (3) miscellaneous or unimportant material (a notebook filled with flotsam and jetsam).
The second definition applies to the characters in this book. Set in the Europe of the late 1930s, the book describes the wanderings of a young man named Ludwig Kern, who—along with others--has been deprived of his German citizenship. Kern’s mother, being Hungarian by birth, was allowed to repatriate to her native land. Kern’s father, being Jewish, was arrested and departed after his perfume factory was taken over by Germans.
The book begins with a raid by the police on a boarding house in Vienna. Kern, aged 21, is arrested along with an older man named Josef Steiner. Their crime consists of having no passports.
The novel traces the progressive assaults to human dignity on the spirits of the “flotsam.” At first, being arrested and thrown into jail feels like the deepest shame: to wake up one day an honest, law-abiding citizen, gainfully employed or attending university and the next day hunted like a criminal, scars the psyche irretrievably. How galling to at first fear arrest and imprisonment and then to actually seek both because winter is coming on and throwing a brick through a shop window guarantees a sentence of three months upon conviction. Three months of shelter, a clean bed, three meals a day. Three months avoided of hiding in dingy boarding houses until nightfall, then slipping out to make one’s way through the forest near a border; of waiting until the customs officers fall asleep, then wading through the Rhine, clothes bundled on top of the head, and emerging into another country. Such a life is bad enough for the young and healthy; for the elderly, it is almost fatal.
Kern’s despair is mitigated by the other “flotsam” he meets. Steiner, a middle-aged man whose wife remains in Germany, addresses Kern as “Baby,” and looks out for him, perhaps regarding Kern as the son he knows he’ll never have. In a boarding house in Prague, Kern meets Ruth, a former medical student, also displaced. They and the others move back and forth from Prague to Vienna, constantly on the run, but helping each other when they can: “the comradeship of those who have lost their way,” Steiner calls it.
After Kern, released from jail again, signs his second deportation order from Austria he crosses the border and then comes back to Vienna—to the amusement park called the Prater, on the city’s outskirts. He rejoins Steiner there. “Learned anything, Baby, while you were away?” Steiner asks.
“Yes,” Kern says. “That you’ve got to be tough if you don’t want to be rubbed out. And that they are not going to get me down! Besides how to sew bags and speak French. And that giving orders often gets you farther than begging.”
After a few days at the Prater Kern narrowly escapes being arrested. He flees to Zurich to find Ruth, who is staying with a friend. When they meet again at the friend’s apartment, Ruth tells him that her friends are away on vacation.
“God in heaven!” Kern said. “We have this whole apartment to ourselves until then?”
“And we can live here as though it belonged to us? With this living room and bedroom, a dining room of our own, and a lily-white tablecloth, and china, and probably silver knives and forks, and fruit knives for apples, and coffee in demitasses, and a radio?”
The happiness in Zurich does not last, of course. They have to leave when the time is up. After many misadventures, including two weeks’ imprisonment for Kern and two weeks in the hospital for Ruth, they wind up in Paris.
Despite the hopelessness of the émigrés’ plight, Flotsam does end on a hopeful note for Kern and Ruth; certain other characters do not fare so well.
It was years before I realized how much this book had changed my life. That recognition came with subsequent readings. Mindful of the adage “A book is a present you can open again and again,” from time to time I’ve reread it. Reading this book taught me the importance of little things, the everyday things we take for granted: flowers on the dining room table, scented bubble baths, clean towels, well-cooked food, the peace of a house when evening falls, the desirability of having proof of citizenship. As well, it taught me that no matter how bad a given situation may be, someone will be sympathetic enough to lend a helping hand.
Surely we can aspire to, and strive toward, a world in which no one suffers from statelessness.