Saturday, October 31, 2009

All Quiet on the Western Front...random thoughts

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.

You know all that complaining I do about how much work it is homeschooling Annie? How about some counter-argument? Well, aside from the joy it is to get to spend so much time with her as she's growing up, and the blessing it is that we're able to give her an education suited to her needs, there is the added bonus for me personally of getting to learn and/or relearn so many things, experience new things, and read books I likely never would have read otherwise. All Quiet on the Western Front is the perfect example. I know for many people this is required reading in high school, but it never made any of my assigned reading lists. And while I've long wanted to read it on my own, if I'm being honest, I have to admit that I likely never would have gotten around to it. If not for homeschooling.

And I really can't tell you how grateful I am that I finally did read it. While it is certainly one of those books where using the word "enjoyable" to describe your reading experience doesn't seem quite appropriate, I can definitely say that I think it is a wonderful, powerful, important book.

Many times I found myself reminded of Band of Brothers (the mini-series, not the book which I haven't yet read). Yes, I realize we're talking different wars, different times, and even different "sides," but in part, I think that was part of what made it so powerful to me. While All Quiet on the Western Front is a fictionalized account, Remarque did himself serve in combat in WWI, and was in fact, wounded several times. And yet despite the differences, there are some undeniable, and horrifying, similarities. Because both are told from the perspective of the soldier.

All Quiet on the Western Front is told by Paul Baumer, who at the time he enlists with his classmates, is a  mere 18-years-old. He and his friends did not enlist in the war because they believed in it, but because it is what they're expected to do. It is the older generation, in particular, their teachers, who deliberately make them feel that it is their only choice, that to not enlist would be disloyal.

For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress--to the future. 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 more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.
And as the war goes on, as their experiences in the trenches become their new norm, they come to realize that even if the war eventually ends and even if they survive it, they will never, ever be the same.

Albert expresses it: "The war has ruined us for everything."

He is right. We are not youth any longer. We don't want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in war.

This is such a completely human book. I know that I can never, ever possibly understand, or come anywhere close to understanding, through books or documentaries or anything else, what it feels like to live the life of a soldier in combat. But as with others whose shoes I've never had to walk in...those living in complete and abject poverty, those persecuted simply because they were born, etc....I don't want to shy away from their stories. There are vivid images in this book that I fear will haunt me...a scene involving wounded horses, a scene of a battle fought in a cemetery...and to me, they are but scenes in a book. What must scenes like this, viewed with one's own eyes, do to a person? I realize that empathy is still far from experience, but I still think it brings us closer as people to at least try to understand the lives of others.

This book though, while obviously very sad, and sometimes gruesome, does have lighter moments. Moments that even bring a smile to one's face. It's as if you come to very much appreciate the little things, as these soldiers must. And the closeness that the soldiers feel with one another is a very strong, and beautiful, part of this book.

We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don't talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.

You may have noticed in the passages quoted, that the language is not fancy and flowery. It is certainly well-written and easy to understand. And I found myself very much appreciating its simple beauty.

Monotonously the lorries sway, monotonously come the calls, monotonously falls the rain. It falls on our heads and on the heads of the dead up in the line, on the body of the little recruit with the wound that is so much too big for his hip; it falls on Kemmerich's grave; it falls in our hearts.
Like I said, I am very thankful that circumstances finally "made" me read this book. I can definitely see why this book is considered a classic. It's a book that will stay with me. And though I know I've already inundated you with passages, I'm going to leave you with just one more. It is taken from the time when Paul receives two weeks leave and returns home to visit his family.

My mother is the only one who asks no questions. Not so my father. He wants me to tell him about the front; he is curious in a way that I find stupid and distressing; I no longer have any real contact with him. There is nothing he likes more than just hearing about it. I realize he does not know that a man cannot talk of such things; I would do it willingly, but it is too dangerous for me to put these things into words. I am afraid they might then become gigantic and I be no longer able to master them. What would become of us if everything that happens out there were quite clear to us?

What others had to say:

*Fyrefly's Book Blog
*Book PSmith
*Shelf Love
*Reading Matters

If I've missed your review, feel free to leave a link in the comments, and I will happily add it here. Thanks.


Care said...

OH Debi, this is a beautiful and moving review. and I love the passages you've shared. You've sold me - I want to read this.

Nymeth said...

I agree with Care. This sounds like a book that would make me cry and cry, just like the final section of The Children's Book did :( But I'm dying to read it.

Jason Gignac said...

I think Remarque's point about trust between the older and they younger generation in modern war is an interesting an powerful one. If you look at the great wars of the 20th century, they are followed by (or even concurrent with) youth movements, that are often antagonistic towards the older generation that 'betrayed' them. Weimar culture is an example in Germany, or the Beatniks, and there eventual outgrowth into the Hippies, the Lost Generation and the Dadaists - all of these groups, in their intellectual roots, had a feeling of betrayal to them, of poitnting out that the truth that was drummed into their heads didn't amount to much. But then, the people who were rebelling - people like Hemingway, or Kerouac, for example, were such a damaged generation, so damaged by the very ordeal that taught them to rebel, that they get lost along the way to whatever they want to accomplish. It's a painful cycle, and one that I don't know how history will break...

kreed said...

In recent years my grandfather has just started talking about WWII and what he saw there. I find that most of the time I can't think too deeply about what he is saying or I just kind of start to crumble. He has said more than once that he just went into survival mode...doing what he had to do to live. I simply cannot imagine.

I must say that I am envious of the education you are willing to provide for Annie...she is so lucky to have you around to do that. The further we get into this school thing, the worse it seems to get but I don't have the energy or guts to leap into home schooling. I keep hoping to find ways to work with what we have and make it better. Maybe I could just pay you to be her teacher via webcam...don't you need something else on your plate to do?!?!

Kailana said...

One of these days I am going to read this book! I have owned it forever and just haven't got around to it yet...

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