I’ve never read an actual war novel before.
I’ve read novels set during wars. The Book Thief is one of my favourites. I cried absolute bucketloads reading that book. I read Connie Willis’ Blackout last year, just before I started Book to the Future (and now the next book is out and I’m wondering how on earth I’m going to squeeze it into my already insane reading schedule. Gah!).
But real war novels are something else entirely. And arguably, when it comes to war as a genre, All Quiet on the Western Front is considered one of the greatest stories of war ever written.
All Quiet on the Western Front takes us straight to the front and shows us first hand what happened, written by an author who somehow managed to stay alive.
Although All Quiet is a relatively short book, it took me the entire week to read…because almost every time I sat down to read, after half an hour, the words on the page started to wobble because of all the water welling up in my eyes.
Here’s my review.
All Quiet on the Western Front
by Erich Maria Remarque
Published in 1929
In the opening scene of Erich Maria Remarque’s most famous novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul and his fellow soldiers are happily receiving double rations.
Two pages later we find out why: half of Paul’s company have just been killed or wounded on the front.
It’s an unsettling way to begin an unsettling book.
Set during World War One, or the Great War as they called it back then, All Quiet on the Western Front is a brutally honest, unflinching account of life – and death – on the German front. It was written around one decade after the war ended; almost as if it’s taken Remarque ten years to fully piece together what he saw.
I always thought war stories were about the English, or the Americans – you know – the guys who actually won the war. The Germans are meant to be the baddies, right? Isn’t that the way war stories work?
All Quiet on the Western Front shows us that there’s no such thing as goodies and baddies. Just petrified young men. There are no sides here, no nations – just kids who don’t really understand what they’re fighting for. They’ve just been handed weapons and told roughly where to shoot.
Remarque begins with a disclaimer:
“This book is intended neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling”
All Quiet might be a work of fiction, but it’s so close to being autobiography, it’s almost awkward to read.
Remarque’s narrator is Paul Baumer; an intelligent nineteen-year-old boy. He is a poet, a good student. Or at least he was, before the war. When the war began, Paul and his classmates were bullied into enlisting by their schoolmaster; a middle-aged man who goaded them with talk of glory and heroism. Even some of the boys’ parents implied that they were cowards.
So, with their heads held high, Paul and his friends march off to war. But no-one really understood the horrors of The Great War. The boys’ parents didn’t understand. Paul and his friends thought it was all some kind of game.
And so, one by one, the Great War claims the lives of Paul’s classmates.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a series of episodes, divided here and there into chapters. It’s written in the first-person, present tense – the perfect choice, because Remarque’s writing perfectly conveys a chilling sense of immediacy:
“Our faces are crusted with dirt, our thoughts are a shambles, we are dead tired: when the attack comes, a lot of our men have to be punched hard so that they wake up and go along; our eyes are red and swollen, our hands are ripped, our knees are bleeding and our elbows raw…”
Remarque’s long, flowing sentences are ideal for conveying action. And there’s a great deal of action in All Quiet. In one memorable episode, Paul finds himself lost on the front, isolated from his friends and forced to struggle for his survival. In another, their little concrete bunker on the front is bombarded with shelling so intense, Paul and his companions sit and wait to die. Towards the beginning, a battle is fought in a military graveyard, with the bodies of the recently-dead blasted from their graves…
This is harrowing reading. There were so many times when I had to stop, just because it was all a little too much. There’s a section set in a military hospital which literally gave me nightmares.
But All Quiet also has its moments of reflection. Paul’s visit to his hometown in the middle of the book gives him (and the reader) the chance to step back from the fighting and take a few quiet moments to rest. But not for long.
There were times at the beginning of All Quiet on the Western Front that I found myself scoffing at Remarque’s use of what I thought were war clichés. But scenes and dialogue that seem clichéd to me now in 2011, weren’t clichés when they were first written in 1929. When it comes to portraying war, All Quiet on the Western Front has been remarkably influential.
I have to say – I found it incredibly difficult to keep track of which character was which. Remarque seems to have put all of his effort into Paul. Of his other characters, there are only a couple of memorable faces. Remarque’s method of introducing us to all of the characters at the very beginning feels a little too clumsy to be taken seriously.
It’s the same with the dialogue. None of Remarque’s characters seems to have a distinctive voice. It’s difficult to tell who’s speaking from one moment to the next. And I’m not sure whether this is something to do with the way All Quiet was translated, but they all sound terribly English.
It feels wrong to criticise a novel that’s so terribly close to being an autobiography. But, nonetheless, All Quiet is a novel. It’s a work of fiction. But it’s so heavily based in fact that this is a review I didn’t want to write, simply because it feels so strange.
All Quiet on the Western Front conveys the violence, the sadness, the waste and the sheer tragedy of war in clear, simple language that has a way of cutting straight to the heart of things. It’s made all the more tragic because, as a modern reader, we know what Remarque didn’t: that the Great War wasn’t the war to end all wars. At one point towards the end of the book, Paul says:
“But if I get out of this, pal, I’ll fight against the things that wrecked it for both of us: your life, and my – ? Yes, my life too. I promise you pal. It must never happen again”.
But we know it’s going to. In only a few decades’ time, it’s all going to happen again, and this time, it’s going to be even more horrendous than before…
It might be uncomfortable reading, but I think All Quiet on the Western Front is one book that needs to be read.
Official Book to the Future rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it:
Yes, if you’re interested in history, and acknowledging the mistakes of the past.
No if you’re squeamish. This is not a book for the faint of heart. Like me…
In a word: