Sometimes classic books are a bit of a disappointment, sometimes they’re good but you can’t see why they’re considered better than others, and sometimes they play a real blinder, to use, er, sports terminology. All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque (see my hilarious post title pun?) is in the final category. Of course I had heard of it, but it took Folio sending me a beautiful review copy, and my book group choosing to read it, for me to actually get down to it. And I’m so glad I did.
I suspect it’ll come as a surprise to nobody to learn that the novel is about the life in the trenches during the First World War. It is written from the German perspective, but (for most of the novel, at any rate) it could be German, English, French, or any of the nations fighting on the front line. The same fear, bravado, camaraderie, philosophy, violence, and death happened whichever way you look at it, and Remarque beautifully, movingly depicts the everyman soldier experiencing this mad, unbelievable world. (My edition has a translation by Brian Murdoch, which seems excellent to me.) There is some justifiable resentment about the way the older generation sent his generation (the main character, Paul, is 19) out to face unfathomable horrors, and the rhetoric they used:
While they went on writing and making speeches, we saw field hospitals and men dying: while they preached the service of the state as the greatest thing, we already knew that the fear of death is even greater. This didn’t make us into rebels or deserters, or turn us into cowards – and they were more than ready to use all of those words – because we loved our country just as much as they did, and so we went bravely into every attack. But now we were able to distinguish things clearly, all at once our eyes had been opened. And we saw that there was nothing left of their world. Suddenly we found ourselves horribly alone – and we had to come to terms with it alone as well.
I’ve read very few war novels – that is, novels involving front line fighting. I tend to choose novels set back in England during the wars, perhaps because it is possible – with a stretch of the imagination – for me to comprehend what that was like. But trench warfare is so alien to anything I can imagine experiencing that it is like reading about another planet.
And yet All Quiet on the Western Front is quite matter-of-fact about the day-to-day experiences of the soldiers. The novel opens with them being given double food portions, and being joyful about it – the reason being that half their comrades have been gunned down. The comic and the tragic constantly intertwine in the narrative, and that was one of several things that reminded me of the final Blackadder TV series (although, of course, any influence would have been in the other direction). So, Remarque tells of army jokes, a ridiculous naked trip to some French women happy, ahem, to help the war effort, a fellow soldier who always seems able to procure smart clothes and exotic foods wherever they are…. but, on the flip side, murder and death are never far away. Remarque’s images are striking and effective:
There in the bed is our pal Kemmerich, who was frying horsemeat with us not long ago, and squatting with us in a shell hole – it’s still him, but it isn’t really him any more; his image has faded, become blurred, like a photographic plate that’s had too many copies made from it.
There is a curious conflict in reading the novel, of sympathy with a hero who does not feel sympathy for the enemy. Paul is intelligent and kind, and even discusses the futility of war – but Remarque shows the veil of dark violence that is second-nature to him in moments of attack. And yet, when this attack is at close-quarters, things change. There is an astonishing scene where Paul kills another man in a hole created by a shell in no-man’s-land. He stabs the Frenchman, to stop him alerting anybody to his presence – but, as the man slowly dies, Paul is filled with regret – and speaks movingly to the dead body:
“I didn’t mean to kill you, mate. If you were to jump in here again, I wouldn’t do it, not so long as you were sensible too. But earlier on you were just an idea to me, a concept in my mind that called up an automatic response – it was that concept that I stabbed. It is only now that I can see that you are a human being like me. I just thought about your hand-grenades, your bayonet and your weapons – now I can see your wife, and your face, and what we have in common. Forgive me, camarade! We always realise too late. Why don’t they keep on reminding us that you are all miserable wretches just like us, that your mothers worry themselves just as much as ours and that we’re all just as scared of death and that we die the same way and feel the same pain.”
But minutes later, Paul dismisses these words as being the emotions of the moment, and survival is once more his only consideration. The battle scenes often felt a bit like boys playing at soldiers – only, of course, it was real lives at stake, and real, horrible deaths. The introduction in the Folio edition mentions that British reviewers in the 1920s (for it was translated almost immediately, and sold over a million copies in English within a year) complained about the indecency of describing soldiers using the toilet. But slaughter and depictions of lingering death were acceptable. Go figure, as our American cousins would say. (I should add, descriptions of death and pain, though naturally upsetting, are never gratuitous in this novel – leaving them out would be a huge disservice to the soldiers who experienced them.)
Above all, All Quiet on the Western Front is a novel which shows the futility, anguish, and unfairness of war. Although never didactic, it is impossible to read about these experiences (which, I assume, reflect many of Remarque’s own) without loathing war and what it does to the everyman. Well, I say that. Ten years later, of course, much of the world was involved in another.
Towards the end of the novel, Paul thinks:
We are soldiers, and only as an afterthought and in a strange and shamefaced way are we still individual human beings.
That may have been true for the brutalities of war and ‘those who died as cattle’, but one of the greatest things about this great novel is the way in which Remarque humanises the soldiers. Paul is, essentially, every hapless WW1 soldier – German, English, wherever – and All Quiet on the Western Front should, in my opinion, be on every high school history syllabus across Europe.