Monday, January 12, 2015

Erich Maria Remarque--All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)

One would think that there must have been many efforts made at writing books taking up the same general theme as this one in the years following the first world war. But out of all of those efforts, this is one of the handful that made the greatest impact on the popular imagination of the Western nations in its time, and has come down to our own day, as far as I can make out, as the novel most closely associated with the 'experience', as it were, of that watershed catastrophe of modern history, particularly with regard to the trench warfare of the western front. I had never read it until now, though I had always been interested in doing so, and I was not disappointed. While there is some nitpicking on literary grounds that could be made, it is a good book, moving, it has a soul to it. It is to my mind short (299 pages of standard print--under 180 or so I barely consider to be a novel), and is written in the to me agreeable modern style that arose between the wars, which was unexpected, even though the IWE introduction itself noted that it had 'the clipped sentences, brief paragraphs, and unadorned descriptive language that have proved so effective in the novels of James M. Cain(!).' This makes the book a rather quick read; I actually would not have minded a little more incident and character development, though I appreciate that it is really difficult to produce a book that is successful and resonant to any degree, and that the tone and briefly recounted characters and incidents--which does give them, probably intentionally, a rather ghostly effect in the reader's imagination--are what makes this particular story work.   

I did not read this in high school, but I think in the past it was often read in high school, and it does seem like it would still be a good book for the earlier high school years, 9th or 10th grade, for particular kinds of students anyway, who, however, make up an ever-dwindling percentage of the school-age population and whom the education authorities are ever obsessed about not being perceived to favor in the organization of school curriculums (curricula?). But I think in certain instances it could be a valuable part of a literary education.

Fifteen or twenty years ago when I was recently out of school and more of a closer reader than I am now, I don't know that I would have thought as much of this book, or been as moved by it as I am again now (I probably would have felt a fondness for it in high school). This even though its literary flaws, with which one would think I of all people would have been sympathetic, are primarily the result of a young man (Remarque was 32 when the book was published) who has lived through an apocalypse and is unloading his memories of that experience with at times a mild excess of emotion and rage that is not focused with perfect precision. It is probably not full of deep intellectual insights--I doubt the Straussians would have much interest in it--but the emotional despair of this shattered generation has always resonated with me, and this was as affecting as anything else I have read about this war in that regard.

I will only include one quote, which I think conveys the spirit of the book pretty well. It is during the part when the narrator, Baumer, is home on leave and has to pay a visit to the mother of one of his old schoolmates and fellow soldiers who has died. Predictably, the mother carries on hysterically, to the irritation of Baumer:

"I console her, but she strikes me as rather stupid all the same. Why doesn't she stop worrying? Kemmerich will stay dead whether she knows about it or not. When a man has seen so many dead he cannot understand any longer why there should be so much anguish over a single individual."

The descriptions of death, and especially of corpses, in this are more than usually striking. Shell blasts and shrapnel blew bodies (and frequently the clothes on them) apart, so that the naked lower half of a man could be seen dangling from a tree while his dismembered arms and torso were strewn elsewhere on the battlefield. Even this did not seem as horrible to me as the picture given of the victims of gassing, who sat upright in their holes, their faces turned blue. The poison gas used in World War I seems to be the one development in modern warfare that even military people found to be so universally horrifying that concerted efforts have been made to curtail its use in ensuing conflicts, my impression is successfully. Even reading about it one is instinctively repulsed by the idea of it more than all the other awful things going on, none of which I am going to pretend I would have been equal to standing up to at any age, let alone as an eighteen or nineteen year old. The only reasons I can come with for this repulsion are absurd, but I think part of it is the sense that poison is not really fair, that it is not even a test of military prowess. Also it seems to eviscerate the body from the inside out, especially the lungs, the pain of which seems to be more disturbing to contemplate than suffering even fatal battle-wounds.

The edition of the book I have. I got it for free in an incredible haul a few years ago when one of the local high school libraries had a massive book purge of books high school students have no interest in anymore, presumably to make more room for more multimedia/computer space.

The other reading list that I have been working through for the last twenty years, taken from the GRE literature test prep book, is overwhelmingly concentrated, to a surprising extent to my mind, on English language works, with continental European works very sparsely represented. This is one of the main reasons I came back to the IWE list, as it does have more of a presence of the non-English European literatures, especially novels, though this has not shown up in my reports thus far, the "As" being more heavily weighted towards English and American books than most of the rest of the letters. I have hardly read anything from the German countries especially since I was in school, and I wanted to correct that. I don't know that All Quiet on the Western Front is considered to be a great example of German literature, but some of the scenes at least, especially those that are away from the front or even reminiscences on the world away from the front, give one something of an atmosphere that is different from the standard scenes of the English and American literary worlds, that gives a flavor of the landscape and tone of life in Germany and old Europe generally that makes for some enjoyment in the reading, even though these are not described for the most part with a nostalgic aspect, and of course the abomination of the war is exposing the emptiness of much of the rituals of society and traditional life and rendering them obsolete. Still, for those of us who live such mental life as we have through the templates given us by the classic literature and art of the past, what else do we have?

In a strange coincidence, this is the second author in a row in this record with a personal connection to one of Charlie Chaplin's wives. Remarque was married to the at one time extremely gorgeous movie actress Paulette Goddard, who had previously been married to Chaplin (and Burgess Meredith as well) from 1958 until his death in 1970. Remarque, all of whose books sold well, though other than All Quiet none of them seem to be well remembered today, had evidently amassed quite a lot of wealth, as well as a serious art collection, by the time of this marriage, much of which his widow (who was his second wife) inherited upon his death, in addition to her own evidently already substantial wealth.

The Challenge

1. Jon Krakauer--Into Thin Air..........................................................2,266
2. Dennis McNally--A Long, Strange Trip..............................................65
3. New Webster's American Handy College Dictionary (4th Edition)...52
4. Vittorio Arrigoni--Gaza Stay Human....................................................8
5. Paul Dowswell--Eleven Eleven.............................................................1
    Michael Marshall--Gallant Creoles.......................................................1

The extensive Zero list for this challenge includes War Classics: The Remarkable Life of Scottish Scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front, R.E. Foster, Wellington & Waterloo, Mike Brooke, Follow Me Through, Schmoop Literature's Guide to All Quiet on the Western Front, and Gaston Maspero's History of Egypt, Volume I. Maspero, a Frenchman, was actually an Egypt scholar of some renown. There are twelve volumes in the History all told, but like the Cambridge History of English Literature, the different volumes are often sold separately and it seems can be profitably read as stand alone books. I was considering taking it up if I could have procured a copy easily. I have actually read the Krakauer book before. It had some interest for me in a journalistic, zeitgeisty kind of way, but it is not something anyone needs to read twice.


The movie challenge produced a pair of old classics, including the most famous one based on this post's book. I have seen both of these landmark films recently enough that I will probably pass on them for now:

1. On the Waterfront...................................315
2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)...229

I am curious to see All Quiet again and see how it compares with the book, though the film, and maybe the book too, are unusual in that they are more about the war as a whole than in the specific incidents and characters that it is made up of.

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