The fifth published novel by Germany’s Erich Maria Remarque (1898–1970), Arch of Triumph was first published in the United States in 1945; the German edition followed in 1946. The story takes place in Paris between November 11, 1938, and the first days of September 1939. The significance of the narration’s framing dates—the 20th anniversary of the World War I armistice and the outbreak of World War II—contribute to the dark climate of the novel, which is dominated by the feeling of general instability and desperation during the interwar period. Two main plots set the dynamics and the fateful conflicts of the narration. The first is the story of the revenge of the main character, Ravic, on his sadistic Nazi persecutor, Haake, who has ruined Ravic’s life. The other is the love relationship between Ravic and Joan Madou, an actress and singer.
Ravic, whose real name is Ludwig Fresenburg, is a German doctor living illegally in Paris. He supports himself by conducting “ghost” surgical operations for his French medical colleagues, Veber and Durant. Both doctors seek Ravic’s assistance for his extraordinary skills, which had made him chief surgeon in one of the best hospitals in Germany. His promising career had been suddenly interrupted in 1933, when he helped two friends avoid Nazi persecution and was arrested by the Gestapo. Tortured by Haake, Ravic managed to escape from the concentration camp hospital. On his way abroad, the fugitive received news about the suicide of his girlfriend, who had collapsed after Haake’s interrogation.
Five years later, Ravic accidentally spots Haake in a street cafe in Paris. With help from a friend, the Russian refugee Boris Morosow, Ravic lures Haake into a trap and kills him. The protagonist does not feel remorse for the cold-blooded murder; rather, he sees the act of vengeance as necessary to regaining his dignity and obtaining relief from the traumatic memories of the past.
The story of hate and revenge interlaces in the narration with the story of love between Ravic and Joan. In the beginning of the novel, Ravic meets Joan wandering aimlessly through Paris. Sympathizing with her confusion and suicidal moods after the death of her partner, Ravic takes care of the woman and eventually falls in love with her. The relationship is troubled by Joan’s possessiveness, emotional instability, and desire to live life to the full, all manifested in her reckless behavior and love affairs with other men. In addition, Ravic’s distrust of his own feelings and his attempts to rationalize his and Joan’s actions prevent him from fulfilling Joan’s expectations and from finding his place in their complicated emotional situation.
Ravic breaks away from Joan after a brief passionate relationship that culminates during a getaway to southern France, yet he is not able to fully separate from her, even when he refuses to react to her reconciliation attempts. Joan calls him for the last time when she is shot by her jealous new lover. Ravic goes to her aid, but the wound is fatal. Joan’s death coincides with the outbreak of the war. Ravic, who has lost the woman he loves and has taken his revenge on Haake, does not see any reason to hide anymore and surrenders to the police.
The figure of Ravic is one of Remarque’s most memorable protagonists: He is self-sufficient, cynical, and distant. He carries no illusions about the ruthlessness of human nature, but still tries to protect what he understands as elementary human dignity, even when his actions put him in danger. His opinions about interpersonal relations are marked by Social Darwinism and are strongly influenced by what he, as a doctor and outsider, observes of everyday life in the metropolis. Through portraits of prostitutes and their clients, back-street abortionists, and hypocritical doctors, Remarque draws a rich image of prewar Paris, where the romantic notion of love interweaves with the booming sex market. Dark forebodings of the coming world catastrophe set free decadent tendencies: The figure constellation of the novel includes émigrés from countries struck by emerging totalitarianisms, living from day to day, seeking forgetfulness in alcohol and sex, and awaiting the unavoidable war.
The depiction of the passion between Ravic and Joan is often interpreted as Remarque’s artistic rendering of his real-life relationship with the famed actress Marlene Dietrich. Although the representation of love in Arch of Triumph does not lack moving moments and elements that have become pop culture icons (such as the lovers’ favorite drink, Calvados), it is not as convincing as similar motifs in Remarque’s other works, such as the more subtle portrayal of love in his novel Three Comrades (1937). The reader’s compassion leans not toward the ambivalent figure of Joan Madou but instead toward Kate Hegström, Ravic’s cancer-sick patient, whose friendship with the male protagonist and grace and dignity while facing her terminal disease remind one of other sympathetic female characters in Remarque’s works.
Arch of Triumph, received rather coldly in Remarque’s native Germany, became an instant market hit in the United States and was filmed for the first time in 1948. Unfortunately, the star cast and the director of the Oscar-winning adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone, were not enough to ensure the movie’s success. The novel, however, confirmed Remarque’s reputation as an author of works that skillfully catch the spirit of their time.
Gordon, Hayim. Heroism and Friendship in the Novels of Erich Maria Remarque. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
Owen, C. R. Erich Maria Remarque: A Critical Bio-Bibliography. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1984.
Tims, Hilton. Erich Maria Remarque: The Last Romantic. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003.
Wagner, Hans. Understanding Erich Maria Remarque. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991