Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque

all-quiet-on-the-western-frontDespite its famous title, it had never occurred to me to look up this book until I happened upon it in the library one day.

I thought that it might be horribly gory and not to my taste, but in fact it was a sensitive account of a horrific period of human history. Yes, it is graphic, but how can a book about the First World War fail to be? There are images that I know will stick with me for a long time – Paul, the narrator, sheltering in a graveyard during shelling is one example.

Paul Bäumer, the narrator, and his friends, are convinced by one of their teachers that going to war is the brave thing to do, an adventure. By the time the book starts, some of their class have already perished, they have suffered at the hands of an over zealous corporal, become imaginative in ways of finding food and know all the tricks to staying alive. They are still under twenty. Paul often lingers over how lost they are now, thanks to the war:

“We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it; but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts. We’ve been cut off from real action, from getting on, from progress. We don’t believe in those things any more; we believe in the war.”

Slowly, of course, his friends are picked off and Paul himself ends up in hospital. He enjoys a brief respite at home, though that is perhaps the wrong word as he finds home an awkward and alien place compared to his life at the Front.

The camaraderie is beautifully described, the way in which these men care for each other, the way in which they lose their inhibitions with each other in a way they might never have dreamed of before the war, playing cards together as they sit on toilets. It’s these relationships that give the book its heart and prevent it from being just a string of scenes about the horror of war. It is this heart that makes the book so affecting.

It is worth mentioning that Paul and his friends are German and so the book was banned in Nazi Germany because of its anti-war message. This is not a piece of anti-British propaganda, in fact Remarque manages to convey a sense of the everyman, so that you know this experience is in some way universal, despite what side you may fall on. The terrible fates that befall Paul’s fellows are not unique.

This is not an easy read – there are scenes that will make you put it down to gather yourself, some images that are too strong to truly contemplate for long. But if it is worth remembering those that were lost, it is worth reading this book to have some idea, however vague, of what they suffered:

“We are like children who have been abandoned and we are as experienced as old men, we are coarse, unhappy and superficial – I think that we are lost.”

Vintage, 1996. ISBN-10:0099532816. 224pp.

7 comments on “All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque

  1. Anne Brooke
    February 6, 2012

    This sounds fascinating, many thanks, Nikki – I will definitely have to read this, though I imagine I’ll need to be feeling strong to do so.

    Anne
    xxx

  2. Jackie
    February 6, 2012

    Terrific review of a classic. You really captured the heart of this book in a respectful way. I first read it at school in my teens & remember how powerfully it affected me. I thought if everyone read it, there would be no more war. I guess still not enough people have read it yet…..

  3. Lisa
    February 6, 2012

    Gosh, I felt emotional just reading this piece, Nikki. Thanks for such a moving review.

  4. Christine
    February 7, 2012

    I have been avoiding depressing books lately–not enough emotional bandwidth to handle them. But this one sounds like it is worth reading. Your explanation of his return home makes it particularly pertinent in a country where we have a great many veterans returning from a different kind of war but with a similar sense of awkwardness at being in a world where their day to day realities are so alien. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  5. Melrose
    February 7, 2012

    I have enough trouble watching the end scene in Blackadder IV, I don’t think I could tackle this book, but a lovely, thoughtful review, especially pointing out the dreadful loss of life, no matter what side. Thank you for it, Nikki.

  6. I read All Quiet on the Western Front around this time last year. What struck me as particularly tragic was Remarque’s hope that the inhuman horror of the Great War would never destroy another generation of young people. “It must not happen again” he asserts. For me, this just added another level of heartbreak to this already moving novel.

    Excellent review – thank you.

  7. Pingback: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque « JoV's Book Pyramid

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This entry was posted on February 6, 2012 by in Entries by Nikki and tagged , , , .

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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