Rowanberries from Remarque to Pasternak


In both All Quiet on the Western Front and Dr. Zhivago rowanberries bear symbolic importance. They grow in cool climates in the Northern Hemisphere and figure in myth and folklore as having magical power. Druids made magicians’ staffs from rowan wood. The plant was believed to protect one from enchantment, physical harm, and haunting by ghosts.

Remarque and Pasternak contrast these red berries with snow, juxtaposing the beauty of nature with the horror of war. And yet, the berries resemble drops of blood, evoking a hint of nature’s cruelty.

An interesting discussion of rowan in mythology can be found at Trees for Life, for example:

Greek mythology tells of how Hebe the goddess of youth, dispensed rejuvenating ambrosia to the gods from her magical chalice. When, through carelessness, she lost this cup to demons, the gods sent an eagle to recover the cup. The feathers and drops of blood which the eagle shed in the ensuing fight with the demons fell to earth, where each of them turned into a rowan tree. Hence the rowan derived the shape of its leaves from the eagle’s feathers and the appearance of its berries from the droplets of blood.

While I’m mentioning these two books, I might as well give them “book club” grades. I pushed to read All Quiet on the Western Front because it was a) a classic I’d never read and b) short (important for book club reads not to be too long). Some people objected because they don’t like too much violence in their reading. Well, there was plenty of violence in the book, so they did have a point. However, the psychological depth and universality of its depiction of what war does to a human being made it an outstanding pick. Our discussion was lively and interesting, and most people had done the reading. Grade: A.

Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago posed more problems for us as a group. Mary Ellen really wanted to read it because of the love story and some of us had seen the movie and been enchanted. The Russian faction thought it would be nice to reread. Pasternak’s prose in Russian is famously poetic. Unfortunately, as a group we found the book difficult. Several of us had trouble finishing it. I found the characterizations occasionally thin and some of the transitions abrupt. Probably my hasty reading didn’t do the book justice, and the beauty of Pasternak’s writing didn’t come through in the translation I read. The discussion was interesting because Priscilla was able to give us insight into the natural symbolism and themes, but if you don’t have someone with expertise in Russian literature in your group, I can’t recommend it as a book club choice. Still it’s a book I’d like to go back to on my own and reread carefully, because there is so much depth and so many levels, and the underlying critique of the Soviet regime is rich and thought-provoking. So, grade: B-.


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