The Glass Bees is the first and only work I have read, so far, by Ernst Jünger (1895 – 1998). Did you just skip over those dates? Yes, E.J. lived for 102 years. And no matter what else is said about this author, it must be admitted his long life was full of all sorts of adventures and interesting things. In 1916, he was awarded the Iron Cross II and I. Class. In 1959 he was given: Grand Merit Cross. In 1982, he was awarded the Goethe Prize of Frankfurt. A year before his death Jünger converted to Catholicism. He was the last living bearer of the military version of the order of the Pour le Mérite. Jünger was a friend of Martin Heidegger. He met several times with LSD inventor Albert Hofmann and they took LSD together. Like I said: Ernst is definitely not boring!
The Glass Bees is a short novel; in this edition it is only 24 chapters in 209 pages. It was published in 1957. I enjoyed reading it in the evenings and there are plenty of “good stopping points” where you can leave and pick up again the next evening. Some literary folk have dubbed this work “science fiction,” but that really would be a misnomer. The narrator is Captain Richard. He is an ex-soldier and former tank inspector. As a soldier he was trained and served as a cavalryman. This is significant throughout the novel and reminded me a lot of some of the Isaac Babel short stories that I have read.
The skeleton for this story is that Richard is an unemployed and rather impoverished ex-soldier who turns to a fellow ex-soldier with whom he trained for assistance. In many ways, the man he turns to, Twinnings, operates as a sort of fixer. He has sufficient means of his own and generally maintains a sort of “network” of former associates. In many ways, Twinnings is like the original one-man Linked In. Richard seeks Twinnings help mainly because Richard’s wife, Teresa, has become saddened about their current struggles. She sees Richard through rose-colored glasses, so to speak, and therefore blames herself for Richard’s unemployment and financial miseries. Twinnings, partly through old friendship and mainly because it is his “job,” sends Richard out to meet one of the most famous entrepreneurs in the country: Giacomo Zapparoni.
Zapparoni is exceedingly wealthy. He is also a Tony Stark-like character. He’s definitely a forward-thinker; deeply involved with innovation, technology, and industry. Even his hobbies are expensive. However, Zapparoni is also an enigma, preferring to seem cryptic and elusive. In many ways, he is seen as a technocrat and a representation of an economy driven by military technology.
However, the reader does not actually learn much about Zapparoni. In fact, every line in this book is precisely from the blatant viewpoint of the narrator. There are no impartial statements here. Each page is from the perspective of Richard and every word is colored by his opinion, viewpoint, worldview, and personality. So when Zapparoni is mentioned, we are not presented with Zapparoni qua Zapparoni, but Zapparoni filtered through the view of Richard. This novel is how Richard views things. Now, in most cases, I would find this sort of style of novel to be arrogant and tedious beyond tolerability. Jünger somehow pulls off this style, though, without annoying the reader. He is able to write this narrator so that the reader is really listening to Richard’s thoughts, as opposed to just blowing through them page after page.
Are Richard’s thoughts really fascinating? Well, not really. He uses his “job interview” with Zapparoni in order to “mentally process” the events of his life. From small events, to bigger ones. He reflects on the people who have most influenced him. He examines what events he has experienced and what lessons he has learned from them. But this is not to say that Richard is a passive receptacle for events that happen around him. He is not a puppet. Richard is probably an expert in his fields (cavalry, tank inspector). He also has strong and stubborn views regarding the military, modernism, chivalry, technology, and morality. Described in a word, Richard is “old school.” And he is unemployed partially because he cannot figure out how to meld and adapt in the rapidly-changing, technologically-advancing modern world.
The intellectual Elliot Yale Neaman suggests that this novel is not really about anything: “it has nothing to say.” I both wholeheartedly agree and disagree with this comment. This is not a novel with a standard novel-paradigm. There is no heavy-handed message that the reader is to take away from it. And, more than anything, this semi-autobiographical work is filled with memories and opinions and insights, but very little plot, suspense, or action. So is this really a novel? Of course. It just isn’t one the contemporary reader may be comfortable with.
It’s interesting that Jünger writes this as, basically, Richard’s job interview. Because this is really what is presented. Rather than a list of a job candidate’s qualities (e.g. multi-tasking, diligent, hard-working, etc.), we learn who Richard is by all of the anecdotes and memories he shares with us. Thus, we actually get a more complete understanding of the person than we would if he had simply rattled off his resume. This is an interesting and rather classy style for a novel. And while some of the memories are interesting but not impressive, every so often Jünger gives us an insightful commentary and it just makes this whole enterprise totally worth a five star rating.
Early on, we get a feel for Richard’s nostalgia and fondness for honor and chivalry, in short “the good old days.”
Today, naturally, there are still people one is afraid of; but his kind of authority no longer exists. Today one is simply afraid; in those days one had, in addition, a guilty conscience. – pg. 17, chap. 2
However, while Richard seems old-fashioned to a fault, he also seems to have very sensible and deep understandings:
A work of art wastes away and becomes lusterless in surroundings where it has a price but not a value. It radiates only when surrounded by love. It is bound to wilt in a world where the rich have no time and the cultivated no money. But it never harmonizes with borrowed greatness. pg. 50, chap. 3
I really like that quote because it carries this insight of distinction between the cultured and facade. The difference between the wealthy and the nouveau-riche. The genuine/authentic and the facsimile/fake. That Jünger applies this to art is really great and I want to immediately sit down and discuss this with him. You know he’s been reading Heidegger (all the technology stuff) and he’s been influenced by Adorno (crazy, wild, un-understandable Adorno). This is good stuff and intelligent readers should appreciate the insights throughout this novel.
Finally, in a masterful analysis:
Considered as organization, this activity could be interpreted in several ways. One could hardly assume the existence of a central control panel: such a device would not be in the Zapparoni style because for him the quality of an automaton depended on its independent action. His international success rested on the fact that he had made possible in a small area – his house, his garden – a closed economic project, he had declared war on wires, circuits, pipes, rails, connections. It was a far cry from the hideous aspects of nineteenth-century industrial style. pg. 144, chap. 14
Well, I could probably write a long thesis just on this quote and the philosophical/historical ideas contained within. Needless to say, this is good stuff and the intelligent reader will appreciate it. Thus, readers of Calvino, Nabokov, and Pushkin should appreciate this novel. Particularly if they do not mind the first-person, semi-autobiographical narrator-style. Richard (Jünger) is a thinker. He ponders history, military, technology, art, networks, etc. He has staunch opinions sometimes. At other times, he is extremely self-aware. Still, at other times, he projects his views and understanding onto other subjects. Regardless, I really enjoyed this novel and am thrilled to have read it.