[Classic Read 2012-01]
For Christmas this past year, I gave my brother ten books from my library, classic novels I have always wanted to read but have never taken the time to do so. I gifted them with the idea that together, perhaps, we could read roughly a book per month and, by the end of the year, feel ecstatic that in one short year we were able to finish ten classics while still holding down full-time jobs. All Quiet on the Western Front was our first selection from the pile, and what a pleasantly depressing way to begin our year.
I felt a natural bond to portions of Quiet, because I myself have spent some time in the military. While I did not fight in any war (especially WWI), I could still relate to the author’s thinking at times, for example, when he writes on page 16: “For…the older men, [war] is but an interruption. They are able to think beyond it. We [younger men], however, have to be gripped by it, and do not know what the end may be.” From my own experience in the Army (as short-lived as it was), I can see this delineation. At twenty-six, I was considered an older man in my company. I had a college degree, I was married, I was a whole twenty-six years of age. I was even older than some of my Drill Sergeants, and, as a result, my mind never got so stuck on the Army as did the minds of those high-school-dropouts that I bunked with. I saw the military (a career choice at the time) as a blip on the screen of life: they saw it as life itself. I had aspirations of moveing to Asia after a short, three-year Army experience: they had aspirations of retiring at 40 with pensions and all that jazz. For me, the Army was an interruption in life, but they were gripped by it. This latter mentality is that with which Remarque writes, and, for anyone with ties to the military, it is truly gripping.
This youthful mentality is also a shade of Remarque’s theme, for in writing as an eightteen-year-old soldier destined to die on the front lines, he brings to constant memory the disparity between the older and the younger generations. With timeless sincerity, he writes on page 12: “[Our teachers of the older generation] let us down so badly. For us lads of eightteen, they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity…We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a manlier wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered that belief…The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke to pieces.” As the story unfolds, the reader is introduced to some of these older men, at once haughty behind the lecturn, but then weak and imbecilic in the real world; enthusiastic about the ideas of war, but too old to get involved themselves. Thus they fill the minds of the youth with the romance of war and fail to inform them that war is actually quite hellish. Remarque’s thinly-veiled contempt for those German leaders who had let him down so severely must surely have been the main reason Quiet was, for a long time, banned in Germany.
Remarque’s philosophizing alone is not what makes this book an excellent read for all generations and nationalities. His beautiful writing style also adds a great deal of heart to the story, for as he penned this manuscript from a hospital bed far from the Western Front, Remarque employed his vivid imagination to his real-life experiences and recorded for posterity what life was really like in the trenches of one of the filthiest, deadliest wars of all time. “Attack, counter-attack, charge, repulse—these are words, but what things they signify!…Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades—words, words, but they hold the horror of the world” (81, 83). At one point, amidst a bloody bombardment from the air, Remarque’s protagonist, Paul, lies face down in the mud. And with the sounds of bombs expolding all around him, he writes: “Earth!—Earth!—Earth! Earth with thy folds, and hollows and holes, into which a man may fling himself and crouch down! In the spasm of terror, under the hailing of annihilation, in the bellowing death of the explosions, O Earth, thou grantest us the great resisting surge of new-won life. Our being, almost utterly carried away by the fury of the storm, streams back through our hands from thee, and we, thy redeemed ones, bury ourselves in thee, and through the long minutes in a mute agony of hope bite into thee with our lips!” (37). Like a Shakespearean sonnet in the midst of Saving Private Ryan, such a passage could never be found in the fluff-novels being put out today.
All Quiet on the Western Front, though dark and depressing and displaying some of the worst sides of humanity, struck me as one of the best books I have ever read. My brother agreed, and so, I bet, would you. Pick it up sometime.