The April book in my ‘Trying not to be too challenging’ Reading Challenge for this year was All Quiet on the Western Front, the best-known novel by Erich Maria Remarque which draws on his experience as a German soldier in the First World War. First published in 1929, only ten years after the end of that war, it has become one of the most iconic novels about war, all the more poignant because it is written from the perspective of an ‘enemy’ fighter. The book was banned in Germany, where the National Socialists were capitalising on the villification of their country in defeat and felt the book made Germany appear weak.
My copy is a well-thumbed 1977 reprint that came from my husband’s collection when we got together. I did try reading once before years ago, but as a mother of young children at the time it was just too much for me to bear. I suppose the horrors of yet another senseless and destructive war in Europe appearing in the daily news bulletins, plus the release of a film adaptation that did very well at the Oscars recently, meant the book caught my eye as I was browsing the TBR shelves this time.
The central character and narrator of All Quiet on the Western Front is Paul Baumer, a young soldier at the Front, serving with other young men who, only weeks earlier, were his friends at the school they attended in a quiet German town. They were persuaded to sign up by their fervently patriotic schoolmaster Kantorek, who told them of glory to be had in serving their nation; their illusions are quickly shattered once they are posted to the Front. Parts of this book are very difficult to read. The vivid accounts of hideous deaths, of gruesome injuries, and of the trauma of enduring such terror, fear and physical pain are stomach-churning, but one is compelled to read almost from a sense of guilt that young men had to, often still have to, endure the horror while the rest of us sit at home in comfort or mourning. One cannot help but think of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers at this point.
Besides the accounts of trench warfare, what is equally shocking is how little progress either side seems to make in exchange for their losses. You have to ask how any of it could be called a victory. The pace of the book is also extraordinary: the periods of fierce and brutal conflict are short episodes of violent action amidst a wider tedium. Most of the soldiers’ time (those that survive the battles) seems to be spent doing very little, just trying to survive. Or in Paul’s case, thinking. The rations are poor and the food is often rank, the conditions are appalling – the descriptions of the ongoing battle to keep rats at bay at night is particularly awful – and no detail is spared in describing toilet habits, for example.
When Paul returns home for a period of leave, the contrast between his life on the Front and that of civillians is stark. Distressingly, Paul feels that he can no longer relate to his family, that he must spare them the reality of war, but that in doing so he is a co-conspirator in concealing the truth. He cannot wait to get back to the Front, to be with those who can understand him, who share his experience.
Paul survives almost the whole war, dying only weeks before its end, on a relatively calm day when the single line report from the military authorities read simply “In westen nichts neues” (translated as “All quiet on the Western Front”) from which the book takes its title. In reality, Paul could never have returned to his old life and his family, not after what he had seen and experienced.
There have been two translations of the book into English; my edition will be the original by Arthur Wesley Wheen. The second was by Brian Murdoch in 1993. It is interesting that my edition does not include any credit to the translator. Nowadays, translation is considered almost an art in itself, bringing the out the intention and talent of the author to those unable to read books in their original language.
I recommend this book highly. It is practically essential reading, though it is not an easy one.
The next book for this challenge from my TBR shelf is The Bloody Chamber by the late great feminist author Angela Carter. I think I got this as part of a set of three books by her (along with Nights at the Circus and Black Venus) back in the day when I used to subscribe to a postal book club (remember those?) It’s another of those books I’ve been ‘meaning to read’ for years – at last an excuse!