I finished reading All Quiet on the Western Front last night. Like Primo Levi’s account of his time in Auschvitz, it had the same (thankfully) lack of politics and judgement, rather his direct experience of the human condition in such extreme circumstances.
Curious, I was interested to read of Erich Remarque’s life. His subsequent books – I gather – do not reach the story or literary hight of All Quiet. May be he became too rich and content in his belly.
‘With the wealth he gained from the popularity of All Quiet, he became one of the century’s first playboys, buying a house in Switzerland. He became a connoisseur of fine art and antiques, collecting an outstanding group of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. The perception of AllQuiet as a pacifist novel and Remaque’s heartfelt indignation about human suffering made him a spokesman against fascism in all forms, especially during World War II. His literary career made him the center of the publishing world for decades. It also opened the door of world of cinema, through which he entered the world of glamor. His numerous lovers included Marlene Dietrich and Natasha Paley Wilson, and he counted among his friends Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, and many other Hollywood stars.
It is immaterial he is German, he is a soldier. Only the occasional food references give away the cultural divide – lots of pork. ‘The corned beef over there is famous along the whole front – sometimes the chief reason for a flying raid.’
The book opens at a resting time and in the now:
‘We are at rest five miles behind the front’ are the opening words. Life is good. ‘There is a double ration of smokes – 40 altogether, enough for a day’. The reason for the double ration unfolds. After a period of quiet at the front, the English heavies opened up on them, returning only 80 men. The rations were for 150 men.
The life centres around the relationship between the narrator, Paul, and Stanislaus Katezinksy, the leader of the group, described early on as ‘shrewd, cunning, and hard-bitten, forty years of age, with a face of the soil, blue eyes, bent shoulders and a remarkable nose for dirty weather, good food and soft jobs.’
At rest, the established rituals in life are drawn. The latrine is early on. There are individual boxes – known by the ‘old boys’ as preferable to the public general latrines – which can be moved through inside hand rails. The three friends move them together in a ring, and there they will sit comfortably for 2 hours.
‘I no longer understand why we should always have shied at these things before. They are, in fact, just as natural as eating and drinking… the soldier is on friendlier terms with this stomach and intestines. Most of his vocabulary is derived from these regions.
‘The wind plays with our hair; it plays with our words and thoughts. The three boxes stand in the midst of the glowing, red field-poppies.
They visit Kemmerich, who does not realise he will never need his boots again,
‘Under the skin the life no longer pulses, it has already pressed out the boundaries of the body. Death is working through from within.
At 18, he is one of the old boys, ‘Youth? That is long ago. We are old folk… Our early life is cut off from the moment we came here.’ … stone age veterans
Wounded horses. It’s unendurable. It is the moaning of the world.
The night raid to find the goose, is a most intimate and poignant description.
‘We are two men, to minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death. We sit on the edge of it, crouching in danger, the grease drips from our hands, in our hearts we are close to one another, and the hour is like the room. What does he know of me or I of him’.
It takes a long time to roast a goose, they take in turns through out the night.
Gas, rats, lice, a recruit going insane
The quietness is the memories, recalled as he lays in a hole holding his wet rifle.
‘Their stillness is the reason why these memories of former times do not awaken desire so much as sorrow – a vast, in apprehensible melancholy. Once we had such desires… They are in the past, they belong to another world that is gone from us.
The gulf between that time and today, is clear on his visit home. ‘They talk too much for me. They have worries, aims desires that I cannot comprehend
One front line event spreads over several pages. He has gone out on a mission, get’s separated, takes cover in a crater, into which an enemy soldier falls. He reacts swiftly by stabbing him. But the man dies slowly. He moves towards him, there is a dance of fear, before he finds water to drip into the mans dried lips.
‘How slowly a man dies’
This is the first time he has killed with his own hands, whose death is his doing. When he finally dies, the contemplation on his life begins, as he halucinates with hunger and fear. He finds his pocket book, his name. Pictures and letters fall out. Perhaps he will write to them. . ‘I have killed the printer, Gerard Duval.’
Both he and Albert are wounded, Albert seriously in the leg. The story moves to the field hospital run by nuns. Albert looses that thing that he fears most, his leg. Lewandowsky gets to make love to his wife, pillows to support his side, two men on lookout . ‘We now feel like one big family. Everyone is happy’.
The mad story of Detering. His misfortune was that he saw a cherry tree in a garden. In civilian life he had an orchard. He deserted, but was caught, no more was heard.
The months pass. The summer of 1918 is the most bloody and terrible.
Kat is hit. Paul binds the wound. Takes him on his back. They rest, smoke a cigarette,
‘We are going to be separated’ Paul said, and a sadness overtook him. They continue, Paul carrying Kat.
Voices reach them
‘You might have spared yourself that, says an orderly. I look at him without comprehending.
‘He is stone dead.’