Two German novels, with a similar political purpose, and both of them familiar in the original to many English readers, have lately appeared in translation — JENA OR SEDAN, by Herr Beyerlein (Heinemann, 6s.), and
LIFE IN A CRACK REGIMENT, (“Erstklassige Menschen,”) by Baron v. Schlicht (Unwin, 6s.). Few literary products suffer more by translation than the political novel with a purpose. The author runs the risk that his foreign readers will pass by the passages in which he has striven to deliver faithfully the message which he believes to have entrusted to him, and will fasten on incidents which, in order to drive his lesson home, he has chosen in the hope of arousing moral repugnance. Herr Beyerlein's intention was to rouse his fellow-countrymen to a sense of the dangers confronting them from the gradual ossification of the German military system. He was not, like Lieutenant Bilse, content to compile a chronique scandaleuse out of his experiences in a small garrison town, nor, like Baron v. Schlicht, to concentrate attention on the petty exclusiveness of the aristocratic German officer. He employed the far greater literary power with which he is endowed in tracing out the effects of the system on the lives of typical members of a German artillery regiment and their womenkind, from the colonel to the gunners. None of his men or women are puppets, though each one of them is employed to show some different aspect of the system.
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“Life in a Crack Regiment” has achieved notoriety mainly perhaps through the kind offices of the Censor; but though many another author has sought that species of martyrdom by rushing to attack military scandals, there must be something that differentiates it from the ruck, and enables it to be sold in the thousands. One is inclined to believe at first that the difference lies in the deeper blacks with which Baron von Schlicht shades his picture. But further reflection shows that the “mens populi” has detected the real merit of the book — not so much its scandalous veracity, as its intensity of feeling. These “first-class persons”, officers of a peculiarly aristocratic corps, are painted as really vulgarians of the deepest dye. Forced to receive into their ranks a man of the citizen class, son of a millionaire button-manufacturer, they revenge themselves for the slight upon their unsullied aristocracy by a series of almost inconceivably petty and mean insults. Winkler, the plebeian, is in every respect but one the superior of his blue-blooded comrades. He is handsome, well set-up, an excellent officer, and a cultivated, well-read, kindly man. He has not even the mauvaise honte which generally afflicts the man of humble rank in the company of his betters. Nevertheless, he finds his position untenable. Not even the favour of the Sovereign extended both to his father and himself, nor his marriage with a penniless Baroness, the debts of whose father and brother are paid off by the button-maker, can atone for his crime of mean birth. He turns his back with disgust on the profession of soldiering, and adopts the more honourable if not more honoured calling of his father. It is a story with a moral, or rather two morals, which are preached in different forms by some of our own writers. On the one hand, it is a warning to military authorities not to waste good material; on the other hand, a warning to young men to avoid the military profession. Baron von Schlicht writes as one who knows. He “lays it on” too thickly, his literary skill is small, and he is ill at defining characters. His persons are “good” or “naughty” like the creatures in a child's tale. But the seriousness of his intention is unmistakeable, and his book is all the more noteworthy as coming from a member of the actual class whose failings he attacks.
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