Corporal Bemelmans's War -- and Ours

War BookIf you're looking for an example of how we, the citizens of the United States, wage war on some of our greatest writers, you need look no further than Ludwig Bemelmans and his out-of-print masterpiece My War with the United States. Yes, he's the same guy who created the Madeline series of children's books (and they are nice ones). But there's more to him, much more. In the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, Bemelmans was that rare specimen, a total original, a writer of memoirs and stories so personal and so poignant, and so damn funny, they rival anything written by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Chandler, and Thurber, all wrapped into one. And what's more, these things sold. They were big time.

And no wonder. They shine. They are as hard as diamonds, but bend like summer wheat. They bring tears of joy and of rage. If anything, the closest approximation to Bemelmans's writing are the films of Jean Renoir. These are not just love notes to the human race, they are the human race, in all its comedy and tragedy, told with an honesty of language and thought that came from the fact that Bemelmans was A) an exacting visualist, a seer and artist, and B) he was not a native English speaker. Like Conrad, like Nabokov, like Ha Jin, Bemelmans is a writer who creates literary art of the highest order, IN HIS SECOND LANGUAGE! (Maybe even his third; I think he was fluent in French as well.) German by birth, Bemelmans washed up on these shores with a letter of invitation to a grand hotel, where he took on work as a waiter, experiences that would lead to his delectable memoir of working in what is now called the "hospitality" industry, Hotel Splendide. Happily, this has been reissued, of a sort, under the title Hotel Bemelmans (Overlook, 2004), with an introduction by star chef Anthony Bourdain. But all of this is just a lead-up to what I feel is his Rules of the Game, stunning masterpiece, a slim book that I hope has the fight to get back into print. My War with the United States was first published in 1938, on the eve of World War II. The book recounts Bemelmans's life serving in the army at a base in upstate New York during World War I. Not much happens. He eats, guards some prisoners, meets a girl, rides on a train, visits some relatives. Yet, so much happens. He's a live electrode plugged into the emotions of life, of seeing, of being. Not quite "kitchen sink realism" but close. And forty years ahead of its time.

A stranger in a strange land, he is, in many ways, the supreme American, because, actually, we are all interlopers here, except for the Native Americans. You don't read My War with the United States, you become it. You inhabit it. You breath its 1917 air, you drink its 1917 food, you feel for its 1917 people, and you realize they are just like us.

Here he is, in the first paragraph of the first chapter, gently tugging at your sleeve:

Oswego is on Lake Ontario; it is a small town without tall buildings. There is one hotel, the Pontiac, a streetcar, also a theater, in which the Paulist Choristers sang yesterday. The town is very friendly, the air is strong and clear. We are stationed out at Fort Ontario. The grounds of this fortress are spacious; there is an immense parade ground.

You are there. I should mention the perfect line drawings that tuck into the beginning of each chapter, by Bemelmans, of course.

The real tragedy is that this puppy is way, way out of print. As for finding a copy of it, I don't know how to help you. Libraries. Petition your congressman. But find it, read it, own it, reread it, and enlist in Bemelmans's army, help him get this thing back in the pantheon where it belongs. So someday, instead of being the kid's book author who also wrote My War with the United States, he's seen as the serious author who also happened to invent the marvelous Madeline.

'Til next time...

Ken Krimstein Ken.jpgMr. Krimstein is a writer, professor, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in Chicago. So there.

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