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Author Topic: [116] All Quiet on the Western Front--Erich Maria Remarque  (Read 11345 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: June 28, 2012, 12:34:20 PM »

A Remarque-able Story
June 28, 2012

It's been a long time—too long.  Having taken an unpardonably lengthy break from the Decade Project, I now find it very hard to put my thoughts and feelings down in writing.  So, I'll be brief this time and try to do better next.  I made a rare visit to the San Marcos public library last week.  There I found an easy read to get me back into the swing of things: All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque—not the most cheerful story in the world, but short, famous, and in big print.  Coincidentally, the third movie version of this book should come out later this year.  Remarque wrote it in German and published it in 1928, and within a year, Little, Brown had put out an English translation.  The first movie followed in 1930, starring Lew Ayres, and the second, a made-for-TV movie, appeared in 1979. 

People often compare All Quiet, with Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, since both novels aim to disillusion the reader about war by portraying it in an unglamorous, realistic light, baring the ghastly face of combat.  It seems to me, however, that Remarque takes a much firmer stand against war than Crane.  In Badge, the war changed Henry Fleming for the better, forced him to look honestly at himself, and taught him the true meaning of courage.  In All Quiet, the war destroyed Paul, forced him to hide from himself, and taught him that romantic notions like “courage” have no place in the trenches.  In Badge, the war turns Henry into a man; in All Quiet, the war strips Paul of his humanity. 

In All Quiet on the Western Front we follow Paul Bäumer, a German soldier, through three years of trench warfare during the first World War, from 1915 to October, 1918.  We pick up the story as he and his squad recover from their first taste of the front lines.  In a few months, he has had all the idealism knocked out of him, and at the age of seventeen he has become as cynical as an old man.  Thus, before the story even begins, he has already done all the growing up he will ever do.  The whole book details, not his coming of age, but his lingering psychological and spiritual death.  By the end, he has only reached the age of twenty. 

To describe this novel, I feel I can hardly do better than shake my head back and forth and mutter, “the horror, the horror,” but I'll try to say something more informative.  The story alternates between Paul's trying to stay both alive and sane on the front lines and trying to pull himself together in relative safety.  Sprinkled throughout for quasi-comic relief we find the sorts of anecdotes typical of war stories: pranks, squabbles, minor thefts, run-ins with pompous superior officers, and so forth.  One by one, all his comrades die off until only he survives, physically.  But even Paul doesn't make it to the armistice. 

Paul narrates his story in first person, present tense.  The past tense only appears on the last page, in the voice of an unnamed other.  While Paul often lapses into near poetry, he reserves such language for nature, for his inner torment, for his memories.  While he may use occasional metaphors for death and mayhem, he sees no beauty in it.  To describe horror, in its myriad guises, he deploys blunt prose. 
Our trench is almost gone.  At many places it is only eighteen inches high, it is broken by holes, and craters, and mountains of earth.  A shell lands square in front of our post.  At once it is dark.  We are buried and must dig ourselves out.  After an hour the entrance is clear again, and we are calmer because we have had something to do.  (p. 94)

Later in the same scene,

… The recruit starts to rave again and two others follow suit.  One jumps up and rushes out, we have trouble with the other two.  I start after the one who escapes and wonder whether to shoot him in the leg—then [a mortar shell] shrieks again, I fling myself down and when I stand up the wall of the trench is plastered with smoking splinters, lumps of flesh, and bits of uniform.  I scramble back.   (p. 98)

The chapters alternate between times at the front and times recovering.  Oddly, throughout the entire conflict, he only has one face-to-face encounter.  A French soldier stumbles into Paul's shell hole and Paul stabs him three times.  But the man doesn't die.  Paul could see that he would soon die, but not right away.  Paul can't bring himself to finish him off.  Instead, he does his best to bandage the wounded man and let him rest.  When the end finally comes, Paul looks through the soldier's wallet and gets a sense of the fellow human he has just murdered: his name, his occupation, photos of his wife and children. 

Despite much discussion about how to use bayonets (in the stomach, since the blade would sometimes get stuck in the ribs), almost all the killing takes place from afar, thanks to rifles, machine guns, mortars, grenades, and gas.  This depersonalized warfare, this anonymous killing at a distance, makes it easier for the soldiers to repress their perceptual awareness of the enemy's humanity.  But even if Paul can't see the people he kills, he knows that he kills other men or boys just like himself.  So he can do only one thing to stay sane and keep killing: bury his thoughts and feelings so deep he can never recover them again. 

After 9/11, many Americans began to resurrect nineteenth-century romantic notions about the glory of war.  A new militarism emerged, untempered by the lessons of recent history.  Everyone eligible to vote should read this book, and I'll give you the best recommendation I can think of: The Nazi's condemned it in 1933 as unpatriotic, and held a public burning of it and its sequel, The Road Back, along with works by Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein, Maxim Gorki, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann. 
« Last Edit: June 29, 2012, 07:34:17 AM by Robert Skipper » Logged
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