I’ve talked a lot on this blog about books that occupy a position in the popular consciousness without people necessarily having read them, particularly me. I always find it interesting when I actually read them to see how different they are than the idea I’ve formed of them. However, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is a bit different. This book is pretty much what I expected.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Susan Vreeland.)
Mind you, I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’m not saying that the book was necessarily predictable. However, how much surprise can you expect from a book about trench warfare in WWI? I’d expect the characters to be revved up when they first get sent (or horrified, one of the two) and get disillusioned later. I’d expect lots of scenes of horrible, grinding death. I’d expect the characters to be ruined for normal life, presuming they survive.
This is what I expected when walking in to All Quiet on the Western Front. Pretty much, that’s what I got.
There is certainly carnage, some close up and some further away:
Already it has become somewhat lighter. Steps hasten over me. The first. Gone. Again, another. The rattle of machine-guns becomes an unbroken chain. Just as I am about to turn round a little, something heavy stumbles, and with a crash a body falls over me into the shell-hole, slips down, and lies across me I do not think at all, I make no decision–I strike madly home, and feel only how the body suddenly convulses, then becomes limp, and collapses. When I recover myself, my hand is sticky and wet.
The man gurgles. It sounds to me as though he bellows, every gasping breath is like a cry, a thunder–but it is only my heart pounding. I want to stop his mouth, stuff it with earth, stab him again, he must be quiet, he is betraying me; now at last I regain control of myself, but have suddenly become so feeble that I cannot any more lift my hand against him.
So I crawl away to the farthest corner and stay there, my eyes glued on him, my hand grasping the knife–ready, if he stirs, to spring at him again. But he won’t do so any more, I can hear that already in his gurgling.
I can see him indistinctly. I have but one desire, to get away. If it is not soon it will be too light; it will be difficult enough now. Then as I try to raise up my head I see it is impossible already. The machine-gunfire so sweeps the ground that I should be shot through and through before I could make one jump.
Regardless, it is always present. Even when things are lax, it is never too far away.
However, the characters still have to try to live throughout all of this. When not immediately facing destruction, they focus on trying to survive the moment. Food. Women. Really, whatever they can:
We must look out for our bread. The rats have become much more numerous lately because the trenches are no longer in good condition. Detering says it is a sure sign of a coming bombardment.
The rats here are particularly repulsive, they are so fat–the kind we all call corpse-rats. They have shocking, evil, naked faces, and it is nauseating to see their long, nude tails.
They seem to be mighty hungry. Almost every man has had his bread gnawed. Kropp wrapped his in his waterproof sheet and put it under his head, but he cannot sleep because they run over his face to get at it. Detering meant to outwit them: he fastened a thin wire to the roof and suspended his bread from it. During the night when he switched on his pocket-torch he saw the wire swing to and fro. On the bread was riding a fat rat.
At last we put a stop to it. We cannot afford to throw the bread away, because then we should have nothing left to eat in the morning, so we carefully cut off the bits of bread that the animals have gnawed.
Frankly, the biggest surprise to me was that the book was from the perspective of a German soldier. I don’t know why, but I always assumed it was an English one. Not that it really makes a difference, though. Soldiers on both sides of the trenches probably had a pretty similar experience. They were there because they were told to be there and they probably had just as high a chance of dying without a satisfying reason.
Though I wasn’t much surprised by All Quiet on the Western Front, I did think it was well done. The characters seem real, the scenes are engrossing, and there is all the grit you could ask for. I don’t really dig war books on the whole, but I can certainly admit that this one is impressive. Of course, it’s hard not to be humbled looking into the face of something like that.