erichA few nights back my mother asked me who my most favorite authors were. Among the names I listed was of course Erich Maria Remarque. She had read most of his novels as a student but she found him way to depressing and she suggested it was about time I stopped being so suicidal and read something more cheerful.

When I went to bed I started thinking about what she said. Having read 7 novels from Erich Maria Remarque, I agree he always creates a gloomy atmosphere of despair and hopelessness. His characters are exemplary sufferers – scarred by one of the two World Wars, missing family members and friends, fighting a terminal illness, suffering from depression and all of the above. His characters are extremely philosophical – they further their suffering by thinking over and over again about the meaning of life and death, the existence of happiness, the relationship between people, the past and the future, the nature of love. His characters drink and eat. I know, this sounds stupid, but one of the aspects about Remarque I have noticed is that he pays special attention to the food and drinks accompanying his characters. Alcohol has that special function in his works (and in life in general) – it alleviates the pain and it prompts the characters to even more philosophical endeavors across the human mind. They drink when they celebrate, they drink when they suffer and they drink when they love. And yet in this suicidal atmosphere Erich Maria Remarque always includes a spark of hope. No matter the circumstances, his characters manage to fall in love – completely, utterly, hopelessly.

Heaven Has no Favorites is for sure my most beloved Erich Maria Remarque novel. Lilian is dying from tuberculosis in the prison of the Switzerland mountains. For her the world is this magical place, which she dreams of seeing and experiencing again and every other minute of life is precious. She can’t understand and she openly criticizes people, who take life for granted – with their simple problems, with their irresponsible risks, with their complete ignorance of beauty.

Clerfayt is her antipod. Living as an automobile racer, he constantly tempts fate. He is irresponsible and unwilling to commit to anything and just like all healthy people, he doesn’t think about life. Lillian and Clerfayt form an unusual pair – the one who is desperate to experience everything there is right here and right now, valuing each and every second and the one who throws his life on the run every day.

Heaven has no favorites and life is a gift with an expiration date. All of us, the healthy and the sick, we will die but the problem is the sick know when – and think about it. Realizing her illness is terminal, Lilian refuses to spend her last days in the sanatorium. When fate meets her with Clerfayt, a man who expects nothing and who doesn’t plan for the day ahead, she decides to take a risk – and leave the security of dying slowly to the adventure of living. The two fall in love – Clerfayt admires the innocence with which Lilian looks at life, her vitality despite the sickness, her desire to dress, and eat, and drink, and make love. And Lilian has found a man, who doesn’t care about her illness and who doesn’t treat her as a sick person. Seeking neither commitment nor security Clerfayt is what Lilian needs to escape – and attempt to live the life she has left with no responsibility, no expectations and no security. And yet love obeys one simple law – the more you love, the more you want to own the person next to you, afraid he/she might slip away while you are looking in the other direction. Clerfayt’s passion about Lillian causes him to take all the wrong steps – and offer to her exactly what a woman with a terminal illness doesn’t need, a plan. At some point, their desires inevitably start to drift apart – and while Clerfayt finally found a reason to live forever, Lillian is desperately clinging to the little life that has been left to her.

What Lilian seems to realize is that many people mistakenly believe they have a right to live – they have no such thing. Life was borrowed and as quickly as it was given, as quickly it would be taken away. It seems a crime, then, to waste it – and yet that is what we do, daily and constantly. Trapped in our jobs, engaged in our little intrigues, tormented by our non-existent problems, we foolishly risk what we have borrowed just for a while. We come up with endless ways to destroy our body with acts that give only momentary pleasure. We surround ourselves with people we don’t really like just out of fear from being alone. We risk and risk and risk our life, as if tormented by that original desire to fall. And heaven indeed doesn’t have favorites – the loan will be taken back, unexpectedly and with interest. 

Beautifully written, intimate and sensitive, Heaven Has No Favorites is among the best Erich Maria Remarque has been. It somewhat reminds of The Black Obelisk, in which the World War I veteran Ludwig, who is living in the insane times between the two World Wars, falls in love with an insane woman. Then, I sad this was my second most favorite love story (after Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera). I change that notion – Lillian and Clerfayt’s love affair has won over me – with its sudden and complete determination to flourish in the most absurd times and places. Both condemned by circumstances, Lillian and Clerfayt, like all of Remarque’s characters, will experience love with an expiration date. Better that, than senseless life without an expiration date.

More from Erich Maria Remarque:

A Time to Love and a Time to Die

The Black Obelisk

The Night in Lisbon

Three Comrades

Shadows in Paradise

Arc of Triumph