This book is #5 on my Back to the Classics list for 2014.
Today I’m deviating from my Austen-inspired posts of the past few months to try and finish the rest of the titles on my Back to the Classics list for this year. There’s less than a month to go before it finishes, so I thought I’d knuckle down and get the rest of my reading done.
I am frightened: I dare think this way no more. This way lies the abyss. It is not now the time but I will not lose these thoughts, I will keep them, shut them away until the war is ended. My heart beats fast: this is the aim, the great, the sole aim, that I have thought of in the trenches; that I have looked for as the only possibility of existence after this annihilation of all human feeling; this is a task that will make life afterward worthy of these hideous years.
This quote captures something of the tone of Erich Maria Remarque’s well-known account of a soldier’s life during the First World War. War-stories are not usually my cup of tea, but I decided that if there was ever a time to read this book, the hundredth anniversary of World War I’s outbreak was probably the time.
This book is understandably sober in tone. It follows the experiences of a young German soldier called Paul, fighting on the Western front. Only nineteen, Paul has already served in the army for a while before the story begins. He and a small circle of friends, which gradually dwindles as the novel progresses, face the horrors of trench warfare and life in the army.
In many ways, it is a plot-less book. The story begins in the trenches and never really leaves them; throughout, the reader has to wonder what the story is actually leading to: the end of the war? Paul’s death? His life after the war? On the first page of the book is a note from Remarque, which says simply:
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.
These first words tell you all you need to know about the story. The action morphs from one place to another; the trenches, Paul’s home town, an army hospital, and finally the front lines again. There’s nothing exciting or terribly funny or adventurous going on; Remarque stresses the horror of the war with little flowery language or description. His tone and style are simple, sparse, in keeping with the characters’ experiences throughout the novel.
Aside from capturing the difficulties of soldiers’ lives, the book also emphasises the meaninglessness of war. Paul’s friends frequently discuss it, offering a very different perspective to the jingoistic propaganda that was everywhere at the time. Paul describes one of his friends, Kropp:
Kropp on the other hand is a thinker. He proposes that a declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bull fight. Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins. That would be much simpler and more just than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting.
There is a touch of humour to the soldiers’ conversations that Remarque records. They illuminate the at times ridiculous lengths to which nationalism and propaganda are taken.
Tjaden reappears. He is still quite excited and again joins the conversation, wondering just how a war gets started.
“Mostly by one country badly offending another,” answers Albert with a slight air of superiority.
Then Tjaden pretends to be obtuse. “A country? I don’t follow. A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France. Or a river, or a wood, or a field of wheat.”
Although this young soldier is acting intentionally dense, his speech still highlights the ridiculous lengths to which nationalism can be taken. These kinds of meditations in the book are paired with an emphasis on the individuals that are affected by the war: Paul, his friends, his family.
As I’ve mentioned, the story never really leaves the trenches. And while the reader may speculate as to what happens to Paul, when you reach the end of the story it becomes obvious that there could never really have been any other ending to this book. It seems to me that Remarque perhaps wrote the ending he wished, in retrospect, for himself. His life after the war does not seem to have been a happy one, and Paul’s death at the end of the novel – “his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come” – seems to be the simplest and most obvious ending to such a grim story.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a moving, thoughtful, and decidedly unoptimistic book. Although fictional on the surface, it describes the struggles of real soldiers whose experiences have today passed from reality to legend. And although it happened a century ago, I doubt there’s many people who could read this book today, and still think that war is a good idea afterwards.
Rating: 4.5 Stars
*All quotes are from the A. W. Wheen translation.