There is a style in some books. The sentences are short, but each one expresses something profound because every moment in the story is about something small taking on extreme importance or absurdity. All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), by Erich Maria Remarque, is more about the importance than the absurdity. It reminds me a great deal of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) by Solzhenitsyn. That style has to be earned in the narrative. These are stories of survival. The personal emotion of ennui about identity or love is as nothing to death. And not that pretty, spiritual death where things go peaceful and that normal tragedy befalls the narrator. What is profound there is an indulgence. This is brutal survival where every slice of bread is a victory and you realize that your best friend in the whole world you were just talking to ten minutes ago, who you carried a mile through hell to get to the dressing station is dead because a splinter fragment went in his head.
What a great book.
Paul Bäumer, the narrator, is a young German boy who enlists when he comes of age. His best friends are his messmates (and mostly fellow enlistees) Albert Kropp, Stanislaus Katczinsky, Müller, Leer, Tjaden, Haie Westhus, and Detering. Together they go to and from the front, put up barbed wire in No Man’s Land, attack and counterattack, are wounded and sometimes die. This goes on, for them, for three years. Some are lucky enough to be wounded and leave the war to survive as monopods, but many are not. Because they survive a few months, they become veterans and know how to survive even longer. Still, the mortar shells can’t be avoided every time and chance dictates much.
But every soldier believes in Chance and trusts his luck.
When we first meet the group, their luck is bittersweet. The casualties were slight for days and the cook was told to make up dinner for the Second Company, or 150 men. A day of bad luck means that only 80 came back. But the food is made and so they eat, drink, and smoke for two.
The soldier is on friendlier terms than other men with his stomach and intestines. Three-quarters of his vocabulary is derived from these regions, and they give an intimate flavor to expressions of his greatest joy as well as of his deepest indignation. It is impossible to express oneself in any other way so clearly and pithily. Our families and our teachers will be shocked when we go home, but here it is the universal language.
The story is very well designed. Its construction is the long slow descent into resigned despair. Things begin with the darkness in the background. In action, things are harsh and survival is a difficult business, but the men are still in command of themselves. They can look the danger—if not in the eye—somewhere around its ear. It’s a matter of informed instinct. Distinguish the shells, foresee the gas, and let your lizard brain do the work. Over the final three years of the war, though, things get dirtier, food gets scarcer, and friends are slowly killed off. The misery is deepens in the hospitals
Here a man realizes for the first time in how many places a man can get hit.
By the end, it is Paul alone sitting and waiting for the war to end. It’s near and they all know it and yet the slaughter continues while those we never see decide how to end it. What do you say to the last man to die in this war, indeed. Perhaps that is the first question to ask when engaging in a violent endeavor.
A theme that Remarque refers back to on occasion is the Lost Generation. Paul joins the military as a young man and has no wife or profession. For years, he is immersed in this deranged universe. How can he come back from that? “It is the common fate of our generation. Albert expresses it: ‘The war has ruined us for everything.’” “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial—I believe we are lost.
We are in low spirits. After we have been in the dug-outs two hours our own shells begin to fall in the trench. This is the third time in four weeks. If it were simply a mistake in aim no one would say anything, but the truth is the barrels are worn out. The shots are often so uncertain that they and within our own lines. To-night two of our men were wounded by them.
Remarque, with the aid of translator A. W. Wheen, has a strong mode of expression. Having been through the war, he pulls out a number of experiences and uses them as the seed of a universal experience (in war). It’s effective and disturbingly wide in its variety. Sometimes, he’ll go into what I see as ill-advised poetics. Perhaps because it is not my taste or perhaps because it is badly done, some of the worst sections are devoted to expressing a feeling. They’re like the chapters in The Grapes of Wrath () between the central narrative. When his powers of expression are so effective within his narrative, these forays into weak poetry are a disappointment.
His greatest asset is that he is human and sympathetic. I know his sadness (even if it is just an echo of it) because he has described the situation so neatly. Here’s a passage about going home, on leave, from the front:
I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world. Some of these people ask questions, some ask no questions, but one can see that the latter are proud of themselves for their silence; they often say with a wise air that these things cannot be talked about. They plume themselves on it.
Having never been to war, I can’t honestly claim any knowledge of the above phenomenon, but it has the clear ring of truth to it. Rather, I should say that I cannot speak to the first sentence, but certainly know of the rest. That’s what a great book can do, it can take a phenomenon you can believe and make you see the other end of it.
Similar thoughts about the pre-war alienation are discussed in the following two passages (Kantorek was their schoolmaster):
While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.
There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best—in a way that cost them nothing.
These are clear thoughts that don’t need poetry. In fact, poetry can only confuse and leave the thoughts subjective and personal for a sympathetic reader to discover. But these are lessons that ought not to be obfuscated. Again, some of this may be taste. The following passage, which I would term poetic, I find quite nice:
I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing;–it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?
What shall come out of you? Not quite my favorite pieces of literature, but some seem quite dedicated to the period. My problem with poetry—or one of them, since I can’t claim to have made any thoughtful survey of the field—is that I find it a bit selfish. “Fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow” is a lovely phrase, but do I know what he really means? I sense the desire for good form trumping good meaning. “Innocently slay one another” is another example. I’d say the paradox is untrue. Does he really see himself as innocent? For these men, I don’t think guilt or innocence came into it.
“The difference between good and bad poetry,” you say. “Perhaps,” says I. “A question of aesthetics,” you say. “Ah,” says I, “then I shall rest safely in my scorn because that would be selfishness and unbecoming.” “A question of aesthetics again,” says you. “Blast off,” says I. We agree to differ.
I would so very much recommend this book. It is brief, educational, and entertaining. I never yawned a bit in the reading of it. It also fits into my view that World War I needs a strong re-imagining for those in the modern day. The question I ask is this: What is the difference between the Lost Generation and the Greatest Generation?