Sunday, January 04, 2015

Reading group: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

If the last few meetings are anything to go by, our group seems to be developing a consensus about books - a bit of a change from some of the heated arguments we've had in the past.

All present admired and were greatly moved by this famous German novel suggested by Clare. Written in the aftermath of the First World War, and based on Remarque's own experience at the Western front, it is the searing first-person account of a young regular soldier's experience of the conflict. All of us said that although there is so much material about the First World War, so that one feels one knows all about it, reading this book was an eye-opening experience. Unlike most accounts (such as those of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy of novels and of the British War Poets) it presents the vivid perspective not of an officer, but of a regular soldier. Pushed by their teacher with his ideology of national glory, the narrator and his classmates enlist as regulars at the age of eighteen, but, thoughtful and intelligent, the narrator is very soon aware of the ironies of army life and reflects on its de-civilising and dehumanising nature:
'At first astonished, then embittered, and finally indifferent, we recognised that what matters is not the mind but the boot brush, not intelligence but the system, not freedom but the drill... After three weeks it was no longer incomprehensible to us that a braided policeman should have more authority over us than had formerly our parents, our teachers and the whole gamut of culture from Plato to Goethe.'
Not only does the book present in acute detail the physical experience for the ordinary soldier, it is intently concerned with the psychological effects of war. Once his unit is moved into active service on the front, and as his experiences become searing, the narrator comments on the disassociation required to perform a soldier's tasks and manoeuvres, the suppression of thought and feeling - the need to be all animal instinct - simply to be able to stay safe. He comes to understand the devastating consequences for his generation. Home on leave, where the war is still viewed in terms of glory, and thus unable to communicate his experience, he sees that his particular generation of young men - signing up before they had had the chance to develop lives back home to return to - will be forever destroyed, alienated from society even if they survive the war, their promise shattered. I said that at the point where the narrator voices this notion, I was in floods of tears, and everyone agreed that it was devastatingly moving.

Needless to say, in the run-up to the Second World War the book was banned in Germany as unpatriotic. People in our group however expressed an appreciation of the fact that for us British readers the German point of view dispensed with all issues of patriotism and underlined the devastating effects of war per se for all. We were all immensely moved by the incident, recalling Wilfred Owen's 'Strange Meeting',  in which the narrator instinctively kills a Frenchman who jumps into a crater in which he is sheltering, only to then see his humanity and mourn him.
'I see how peoples are set one against another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains in the world invent weapons and words to make it more refined and enduring.'
Clare said that she wasn't sure it was the greatest literature, but it was certainly a book worth reading for its message. I said, though, I found that the style in which it is written - a particular plain realist style that was fashionable in Germany between the two wars - served admirably its stark subject matter and message, and was in any case enlivened throughout by moments of incisive irony: 'little Albert Kropp, the clearest thinker among us and therefore only a lance-corporal'. (There is a wonderfully droll irony in a discussion amongst the soldiers, prompted by a visit from the Kaiser, about why wars occur.) Like Clare, the rest of us said we were really glad to have read the book, and grateful to her for having suggested it.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.
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