Martine's Reviews > All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
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's review
Oct 02, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: continental-european, early-twentieth-century, favourites, film, historical-fiction, modern-fiction, war
Read in September, 2009

All Quiet on the Western Front (or, to give it its German title, Nothing New in the West) has been hailed as the best war novel ever, and it's easy to see why. World War I is described in such vivid non-glory in its pages that you are sucked into the story straight away and stay there for the next two hundred pages. It is obvious that the author, Erich Maria Remarque, had first-hand experience of the things he writes about; the details are so right and authentic-sounding that they couldn't possibly have been wholly made up. Needless to say, the ring of authenticity adds quite a punch to the reading experience, elevating a good war story into an absolute classic of the genre.

All Quiet is a short book, but remarkably complete. All the aspects of trench warfare are there -- the excitement, the tedium, the horror, the pain, the fear, the hunger, the dirt, the loss, the sense of alienation, the awareness that you may die any minute, and last but not least, the realisation of the futility of it all. All Quiet has a pervasive sense of futility, an initially unvoiced but later fully expressed question of 'Just what is this war all about, and why am I putting my life on the line for it? What could be worth such a sacrifice?' The answer is, obviously, nothing, because if this book has one message, it is that war is awful and young men ought not to be forced to fight them. This is not a book which glorifies the war effort, or portrays soldiers as heroes. It is not a book which tries to justify Germany's involvement in World War I. In Remarque's own words, it is 'an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war -- even those of it who survived the shelling'. As such, it is brutal and confronting, but in the best possible way. Anti-war fiction has seldom been this effective, or this memorable for that matter.

All Quiet tells the story of Paul Bäumer, a young man who gets talked by an idealistic teacher into joining the German army fighting World War I in Belgium. In short, business-like sentences, Paul tells the reader about his experiences in and around the trenches, plus those of his similarly duped classmates, all of whom end up dead. All Quiet does a brilliant job of evoking the strain of being at the front, providing vivid descriptions of the horrors of night-time shelling, being caught in no man's land, the smell of gangrene in the hospital, etc. Reading the book, you get a good feel for what it must have been like to be a soldier in World War I. Remarque does not spare his reader. He not only tells you what it's like to hide from the shells that are coming your way, but also what it feels like to crawl through a recently dug cemetery where shells have just exposed some body parts, and what it's like to crawl deeper and deeper beneath a coffin so that it will protect you, 'even if Death himself is already in it'. He tells you what it's like to hear friendly voices after having been stuck in no man's land for what seems like an eternity, and what it's like to have an unscratchable itch because there are lice underneath your plaster cast. He tells you what it's like to stare longingly at the picture of a squeaky clean pretty girl when you're absolutely filthy yourself and crawling with lice. He tells you why you need coarse and black humour to deal with the horrors of war, and why you need girls, or at least fantasies about girls. He also tells you what it's like to talk to the parents of a soldier who has died a horrible death. And last but not least, he shows you the aftermath. All Quiet on the Western Front demonstrates quite unequivocally how scarred the soldiers emerged from the trenches, because, as one of Paul's classmates says halfway through the book, 'Two years of rifle fire and hand-grenades -- you can't just take it all off like a pair of socks afterwards.' It shows how alienated the veterans of trench warfare felt from those at home, who could not for the life of them understand what it was like to experience the things they were going through. I guess this was the most powerful part of the book for me -- the part where Paul goes home and finds that he cannot communicate with his family, that he cannot possibly share the horrors of his recent experiences with his loved ones, because (1) they wouldn't understand, and (2) he does not want to upset them any more than their concerns for his well-being have already done. With chilling accuracy, Paul describes how empty his war experiences have made him feel. War, he says, brutalises soldiers, turning them into human animals, to the point where they have nothing to live for, as their former interests, dreams, tenderness and the future have all 'collapsed in the shelling, the despair and the army brothels'. His sense of desolation and isolation is so exquisitely rendered that by the time his leave is over and he has to return to the front, you find yourself agreeing with his classmate Albert: 'The war has ruined us for everything.'

As you can probably tell from the above, I had a strong reaction to All Quiet on the Western Front. From the sparse but effective prose to the expert way in which Remarque builds up the final two deaths, I just loved the book, responding to it unreservedly, jotting down astute observations and sharing passages from it with my boyfriend, who is a World War I buff. I felt like I was experiencing the boys' emotions with them, the good ones as well as the bad ones. I was shocked, horrified and repulsed when Remarque wanted me to be, but also got a few chuckles out of the book, because all the bad stuff really makes the good moments the boys experience stand out. I loved the male camaraderie which occasionally drips off the pages. I loved the descriptions of the little acts of vengeance the boys enact on those who have wronged them, as well as the few moments of genuine happiness they experience at the front, such as when they eat a stolen goose, raid an officers' supply depot or make their way to some girls they are not supposed to visit. These events are drawn so vividly and have such a genuine feel of relief and excitement about them that it's hard not to get drawn in. Mostly, though, I just sympathised with the boys, asking with them why war is necessary, and whether those who wage wars on others have any idea what they're doing to the men who fight the wars for them. I think All Quiet on the Western Front should be compulsory reading for every leader who has ever considered going to war. The fact that the book is eighty years old and deals with events which took place nearly a century ago does not make its message any less valid today.

A note on the Vintage English translation: Brian Murdoch's translation is good but a bit sloppy at times, especially in the second half of the book, where he occasionally uses German-sounding grammar and makes a few typos. It also sounds a bit too British for my taste, to the point where I occasionally had to remind myself that I was reading about German soldiers, as they all sounded so terribly English! I would have preferred a slightly less 'placeable' translation, but really, that's a minor complaint. By and large, Murdoch did a good job. Next time round, though, I think I'll read the book in the original German.
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Comments (showing 1-19 of 19) (19 new)

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Lori I hate war stories, except for this one. Read in high school, have NEVER forgotten it, one day I know I'll reread it. I'm looking forward to Jake reading it soon.

Dave Russell It is obvious that the author, Erich Maria Remarque, had first-hand experience of the things he writes about; the details are so right and authentic-sounding that they couldn't possibly have been wholly made up.

I wonder, is that necessarily so? Have you read The Red Badge of Courage? Many Civil War veterans read it and assumed Crane must have been there because it was so authentic. The truth is Crane was just a really good writer and journalist who had done his research.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio "At eighteen Remarque was conscripted into the army. On 12 June 1917 he was transferred to the Western Front, 2nd Company, Reserves, Field Depot of the 2nd Reserves Guards Division at Hem-Lenglet. On 26 June he was posted to the 15th Reserve Infantry Regiment, 2nd Company of Trench Battalion Bethe, and was stationed between Torhout and Houthulst. On 31 July he was wounded by shrapnel in the left leg, right arm and neck, and was repatriated to an army hospital in Germany where he spent the rest of the war."


message 4: by Martine (last edited Oct 02, 2009 06:16PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Martine Lori, how old is Jake? I've been wondering for the last few days if I could have done full justice to the book if I had read it as a teenager. I was more or less supposed to read it at secondary school. My classmates and I had to read fifteen books in German for our final-year exams (on top of even more books in Dutch, French and English), and most of my classmates chose All Quiet on the Western Front because it's so short. Being the class rebel, I chose to be original (ahem) and read another book instead. I now think I robbed myself of a great reading experience, but perhaps I wasn't quite ready for it at age seventeen...

Dave, I haven't read The Red Badge of Courage yet, but I will soon. It's been on my list for a while. I'll be interested to see if I can tell Crane's fantasy apart from the real thing. Not that I've read a lot of 'real' American Civil War literature; is there any out there with which I can compare The Red Badge of Courage? All I can think of in terms of Civil War literature is The Red Badge and Gone with the Wind, neither of which was written by a veteran...

As for the authenticity of All Quiet on the Western Front, it's not just the factual details which struck me, but the psychological ones. I'm not sure someone who hadn't experienced the events described in the book could have done such a good job of describing their emotional aspects, or indeed their lasting emotional effect, especially since these were things that few veterans would have spoken about. Research can provide you with a lot of technical details, but psychological veracity is harder to achieve, I think.

MyFleshSingsOut, thanks for finding the relevant information. Yes, I knew Remarque had been in the war himself; the afterword in the Vintage edition I read mentions that he did six months' training in the Caprivi Barracks in Osnabrueck, followed by six weeks' service at the front. He got injured during the battle of Passchendaele and spent some time in hospital. He would have returned to the front eventually, if it hadn't been for the end of the war.

Dave Russell BTW, I knew that Remarque had been in the war. I wasn't questioning that part.

I definitely recommend Red Badge. I think the psychological details are just as detailed and (as far as I can tell) authentic as in All Quiet.

I can't think of another comparable work about the Civil War written by a veteran. In fact the only major writer I can think of who actually fought in the war is Ambrose Bierce.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Oh, sorry. I didn't know. I had to look it up. So I learned something new at least.

Lori Martine, Jake is 13 but a very precocious 13. Probably from being an only. But still, I do think he's too young. He's still into action, and altho he does like depth and a bit of philosophy in his books, he's not quite out of his young boy self enamored with battles and such.

I think for me, growing up with Vietnam and the peace movement, I was quite open to this book. It affected me deeply. I also saw Renoir's The Grand Illusion only a couple of years later, and it too blew me away. Have you seen that?

Martine Lori, I think thirteen might be a tad young for All Quiet on the Western Front, even if Jake is a very precocious thirteen-year-old. I'd wait a few years if I were you.

I've never seen La grande illusion, but thanks to your recommendation, I'll keep an eye out for it! It sounds good.

I haven't watched any old films for a while. It's kind of weird, as I used to love my classics. I'm not sure what happened...

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Grand Illusion is well-worth watching.

message 10: by Dave (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dave Russell I'm pretty sure I read this book when I was 14. I know I had to read it during the summer for the following year's English class. I think it was Freshman English.

message 11: by Dave (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dave Russell It's interesting what you said, Martine, about the German title of All Quiet On The Western Front. La Grande Illusion is better translated into English as The Great Illusion or The Big Illusion. The theme of the movie is that all these things that divide us during war (Nationality, religion, etc.) are really just a big illusion--not a "grand" one (that has connotations of "goodness")--when compared to socio-economic class divisions.

Martine Oh, I'm pretty sure the book can be read by fourteen-year-olds, Dave. An intelligent fourteen-year-old will probably appreciate it for its vivid portrayal of a major historical conflict. I'm not sure he or she could relate to the more mature aspects of the book, though -- the sense of desolation, the loss of dreams, that sort of thing. But perhaps it's one of those books that people get different things from at different ages, thus making it rewarding for readers of all ages? My classmates who read it at age seventeen seemed to think it was a good book, so it definitely has some appeal to teenagers, whether they completely understand it or not. I still think thirteen might be a bit early, though.

I agree on the translation of La grande illusion. Judging from the way you describe the film, it should be 'the great illusion' rather than 'the grand illusion'. Definitely.

I just discovered that Australia has its own equivalent of Netflix, called BigPond Movies, which has La grande illusion available for hire. I think I'll have to sign up with them, not just for this film, but for other non-blockbusters I've been missing out on lately. I'm not watching nearly enough arthouse films these days...

message 13: by Rose (new) - added it

Rose I liked your description of the vivid non-glory of war.

Martine I was wondering if anyone was going to say anything about that. Thanks, Rose. :-)

message 15: by Dottie (last edited Oct 11, 2009 06:10PM) (new) - added it

Dottie I have yet to read this, Matrtine. I am wondering if you've visited the Flanders Fields Museum in Belgium? That museum unsettled me deeply both times we went there and the description of this book as you lay it out sounds like it would do likewise but I am going to move it up on the TBR none-the-less on the basis of your review. Excellent as always. And how is the world 'down under' treating you?

Martine Dottie, I have not visited the Flanders Fields Museum myself, but my boyfriend, being the World War I buff that he is, has. Ieper was the place he most wanted to visit when he first came to visit me in Europe. He was fairly impressed with the whole experience, particularly the dawn service. He said the Last Post bugle call at the Menin Gate gave him goosebumps. I hope one day to experience it all for myself, but I fear it will be a while...

Life Down Under is treating me well, although I did just go through a short period of homesickness in which I really missed my friends, family and (wait for it) green grass. Somehow all this brown grass I kept seeing around me really depressed me. But we've had a bit of rain over the last few days, and the grass is looking slightly greener, so things are looking up. In general, I'm very happy to be in Australia. And if all goes well, I'll get a permanent resident visa in a few days, which will make my life even better.

Do read All Quiet. I thought it was an excellent book, although my boyfriend, having read a few too many similar books, found it a tad disappointing.

message 17: by Dottie (new) - added it

Dottie Oh I completely understand that homesickness for green grass -- I moved to southern California from Ohio and it took me ten years to understand that Californians weren't crazy when they talked about the changing seasons -- they just saw the changes and I couldn't -- until I'd watched it for ten years. There really IS a season when things get green naturally (as opposed to the things that are green year round because people water them -- like lawns). Now after forty years here, I love that green period after the rainy season when the rounded hills are various tints and shades of green.

By the same token, they couldn't understand why I said that I missed the woods -- there were woods up in the mountains, all one had to do was go up and visit them -- but when I visited the mountains, I found forests of evergreens -- not woods of deciduous trees like the woods of Ohio.

The line we were given in our cultural training seminars before moving to Belgium was -- "things will be different, not better, not worse, just different" and that holds a lot of truth. I now find myself missing aspects of Belgian culture and being very hard on some aspects of my own culture -- just one way living elsewhere can influence one's viewpoint.

Marion Husband wonderful review of a brilliant novel

Kassia I read the new translation, which was pretty good, and not too British sounding. Although the word "lorry" had most of my classmates confused. I guess they've never read British literature...

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