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.
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.