Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
All Quiet on the Western Front is a story of what war does to a singular person and a generation of men: the camaraderie, the tragedy, and the seeming insensibility of it all. It follows Paul Bäumer, a young German recruit in World War I, and his fellow conscriptors as they navigate the trajectory of war, sometimes finding themselves directly on the front lines, and other times guarding supply dumps or 'rejuvenating' at camp or on leave. We see the intimacy of their bond, as well as their feelings of impotence and uncertainty at what would come next if they were to survive the war. The tale is tinged with sadness but also moments of pure joy, laughter, and the kinship born of that most enduring of bonds -- friendship.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
Just one (pht!) book left! Can you bewieve it? I can hardly believe it. But I'm hosting a party at my mother's house to celebrate the end of the list later this week, so I'd better get to reading The Crimson Epistle or whatever it's called.
I read this book once before, for my Western Civilization class freshman year at Haverford. I seem to recall liking it then, but I must admit I loved it this time around. It is poetic, lyrical, tender, thoughtful, nuanced, and exquisitely painful to read. It chronicles a deeply dark time in the history of man, and does so with care, perspective, and sweetness.
If you haven't read it (and don't mind crying here and there in the dark parts), go grab a copy! It's definitely a masterpiece, imho, and deserves a permanent place in our designation of 'classics'.
Here are my thoughts, in no real order:
I have a nose for tasty treats, perfectly done pies, and excellent books
I loved this description of the head of Paul's band of men:
"Stanislaus Katczinsky, the leader of our group, 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." What do you have a remarkable nose for?
- "All the older men are linked up with their previous life. They have wives, children, occupations, and interests, they have a background which is so strong that the war cannot obliterate it [...] Kantorek would say that we stood on the threshold of life. And so it would seem. We had as yet taken no root. The war swept us away. For the others, the older men, it is but an interruption. They are able to think beyond it. We, however, have been gripped by it and do not know what the end may be. We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a waste land."
- "The war has ruined us for everything. We are not youth any longer. We don't want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war."
- "What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; -it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?"
My only real connection to trench warfare is Mr. Mulholland's game in HS social studies, so I was pretty taken aback to read the visceral descriptions and harrowing truths of its reality in this novel. Here are two moments that stood out to me:
- "To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier. When he presses himself down upon her long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the the fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother; he stifles his terror and his cries in her silence and her security; she shelters him and releases him for ten seconds to live, to run, ten seconds of life; receives him again and often for ever."
- "Once [in the trenches] I fall fast asleep. Then wakening suddenly with a start I do not know where I am. I see the stars, I see the rockets, and for a moment have the impression that I have fallen asleep at a garden fête. I don't know whether it is morning or evening, I lie in the pale cradle of the twilight, and listen for soft words which will come, soft and near - am I crying? I put my hand to my eyes, it is so fantastic, am I a child?"
In reading this list of novels, I've come across quite a few wars, in different time periods, locales, and perspectives, from the Spanish Civil War, to the World Wars, to conflict in Afghanistan, to the Civil War - the list goes on and on. What I found remarkable (and disturbing) was the evolution of the concept, and how war shifts and metastasizes, like a tumor on the world. Here are a few moments that are emblematic of this particular conflict:
-- Gas - "The gas still creeps over the ground and sinks into all hollows. Like a big, soft jellyfish it floats into our shell-hole and lolls there obscenely."
-- Kill or be killed - "We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend against annihilation [...] If we don't destroy them, they will destroy us."
-- Throwing one large group of men at another at a 'front' line: "We see time pass in the colourless faces of the dying, we cram food into us, we run, we throw, we shoot, we kill, we lie about, we are feeble and spent, and nothing supports us but the knowledge that there are still feebler, still more spent, still more helpless ones there who, with staring eyes, look upon us as gods that escape death many times."
Army leave, a curse and a kindness
When Paul gets leave to go home to his mother and sister, he isn't sure he wants to go. At first, I was confused by this, but now I realize how agonizing it would be to go home to security, safety, and a totally different world away from the war, and then have to throw yourself back into the foray. Here are some of the scenes from Paul's leave:
- Paul, to himself, on first getting his leave notice:"Shall I meet all these fellows again?"
- "I lean against the wall and grip my helmet and rifle. I hold them as tight as I can, but I cannot take another step, the staircase fades before my eyes, I support myself with the butt of my rifle against my feet and clench my teeth fiercely, but I cannot speak a word, my sister's call has made me powerless, I can do nothing, I struggle to make myself laugh, to speak, but no word comes, and so I stand on the steps, miserable, helpless, paralysed, and against my will the tears run down my cheeks." I just wanted to reach out and hug Paul in this moment.
- "I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval... I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world."
- "What is leave? -A pause that only makes everything after it so much worse. Already the sense of parting begins to intrude itself."
- "I ought never to have come here. Out there I was indifferent and often hopeless - I will never be able to be so again."
One of my favorite scenes in the book takes place when Paul has been injured a first time, and is convalescing in an army hospital. There are many men in each room (at least 8, I think) and most of them are wholly immobile. They strike up a truly amicable spirit toward each other, and offer to help out when this challenging situation arises -- one of the men is supposed to have a visit from his wife, but just before she arrives, he gets a fever, and is required to stay in bed. These hijinks ensue ;)
"Here lies the carpenter Johann Lewandowski, a soldier shot to a cripple, and there is his wife; who knows when he will see her again? He wants to have her, and he should have her, good.
Lewandowski can only lie on his side, so one of us props a couple of pillows against his side, Albert gets the child to hold, we all turn round a bit, the black mantilla disappears under the bed-clothes, we make a great clatter and play skat noisily.
In the process we almost forget Lewandowski. The business is over. We now feel ourselves like one big family, the woman is happy, and Lewandowski lies there sweating and beaming." I know maybe I should be weirded out, but it was a tender and conspiratorial moment in light of such a dark time.
Authors make the best readers
In reviewing my posts to prepare for my party, I was struck by how many beautiful passages there are in these novels about... you guessed it, novels! Writers clearly are not simply creators - they share a deep affinity for and devotion to that most beautiful and sacrosanct of activities - reading. It makes sense, but it still catches me a bit off-guard, to think of a great writer being touched and moved by books in the same way that his or her readers are moved by his/her creations. On leave, Paul tries to reach out to literature to rekindle himself:
- "I want that quiet rapture again. I want to feel the same powerful, nameless urge that I used to feel when I turned to my books. The breath of desire that then arose from the coloured backs of the books, shall fill me again, melt the heavy, dead lump of lead that lies somewhere in me and waken again the impatiences of the future, the quick joy in the world of thought, it shall bring back again the lost eagerness of my youth."
"Words, Words, Words - they do not reach me.
Slowly I place the books back in the shelves.
Quietly, I go out of the room." How destitute I would be if written words ever failed to reach me.
Who starts a war?
Again, this is not a particularly new argument, but I think it's one worth continuing to hit home. Here are some of Paul's friends arguing about how wars get started:
"Mostly by one country badly offending one another."
'A country? I don't follow. A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France. Or a river, or a wood, or a field of wheat.'
'Are you really as stupid as that, or are you just pulling my leg? I don't mean that at all. One people offends the other -"
'Then I haven't any business here at all. I don't feel myself offended."
'Well, let me tell you, it doesn't apply to tramps like you.'
"Then I can be going home right away!" Particularly in the past, but still on occasion in our current sphere, wars are started over big things but also small things, things that seem insignificant after thousands and millions of lives are lost and exponentially more are affected, ruined, or forever changed.
At one point, Paul calls comradeship the "best thing to come out of the war". This scene occurs just after Paul has been stranded behind enemy lines for days and finally hears his friends' voices as he stumbles back upon their trenches:
"At once a new warmth flows through me. These voices, these quiet words, these footsteps in the trench behind me recall me at a bound from the terrible loneliness and fear of death by which I had almost been destroyed. They are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades.
I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness; -I belong to them and they to me."
Paul, on killing a man up close after he jumped into his shell-hole
"Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late." This reminded me of a few similar thoughts on killing:
For Whom the Bell Tolls (Roberto, to himself:)
"Don't you know it is wrong to kill? Yes. But you do it? Yes. And you still believe absolutely that your cause is right? Yes.
But you mustn't believe in killing. You must do it as a necessity but you must not believe in it. Because if you are not absolutely straight in your head you have no right to do the things you do for all of them are crimes and no man has a right to take another man's life unless it is to prevent something worse happening to other people."
Jessica, Paul Atreides' mother, after Paul has killed a man, Jamis: "He has killed a man in clear superiority of mind and muscle. He must not grow to enjoy such a victory."
- Queen of the buggers, to Ender: "We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again."
As I mentioned, the main characters in this book are shifted in various proximity to and distance from the front. At one point, they are assigned to guard a supply dump in a mostly abandoned town, and Paul is assigned to pancake duty for their feast. This scene was simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, and reminded me of the Banana Breakfast in Gravity's Rainbow.
- "They keep dropping closer and closer all round us; still we cannot leave the grub in the lurch. A couple of splinters whizz through the top of the kitchen window. The roast is ready. But frying the pancakes is getting difficult. The explosions come so fast that the splinters strike again and again against the wall of the house and sweep in through the window. Whenever I hear a shell coming I drop down on one knee with the pan and the pancakes, and duck behind the wall of the window. Immediately afterwards I am up again and going on with the frying."
In the convalescent hospital, medical care is so-so, and the wounds from the front are severe. After a little while, one of the wardmates tells Paul that there's a 'dying room', a place where nurses move patients who are beyond hope, and from whence patients never return. Cue this scene with Peter, one of their young fellow wardmates:
"And then little Peter begins to get worse. His temperature chart looks bad, and one day the flat trolley stands beside his bed. 'Where to?' he asks.
'To the bandaging ward.'
He is lifted out. But the sister makes the mistake of removing his tunic from the hook and putting it on the trolley, too, so that she should not have to make two journeys. Peter understands immediately and tries to roll off the trolley. 'I'm stopping here!'
They push him back. He cries out feebly with his shattered lung: 'I won't go to the Dying Room.'
'But we are going to the bandaging ward.'
'Then what do you want my tunic for?' he can speak no more. Hoarse, agitated, he whispers: 'Stopping here!'
They do not answer but wheel him out. At the door he tries to raise himself up. His black curly head sways, his eyes are full of tears. 'I will come back again! I will come back again!'" I cried super hard at this scene. Poor Peter! But then, guess what? Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles - he does come back! Peter actually does make it back, and heals up! #onlyhappyending
Finally, some reasons why I would make a terrible soldier (similar to the reasons I would make a terrible fisherman, see Old Man and the Sea post)
- Sleep apnea --"Katczinsky is right when he says it would not be such a bad war if only one could get a little more sleep. In the line we have had next to none, and fourteen days is a long time at one stretch." Oh, NO. oh Hell, no - fourteen days!? I would be a crazytown zombie by then.
- Lack of resourcefulness -- "Kat gives no explanation. He has the bread, the rest doesn't matter. I'm sure that if he were planted down in the middle of the desert, in half an hour he would have gathered together a supper of roast meat, dates, and wine...Then he hauls out a frying pan from under his coat, and a handful of salt as well as a lump of fat from his pocket. He has thought of everything...That is Kat. If for one hour in a year something eatable were to be had in some one place only, within that hour, as if moved by a vision, he would put on his cap, go out and walk directly there, as though following a compass, and find it." I do not feel confident I could find roast meat and dates in the desert. I think most likely I would starve.
- Rats -- "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." ICK ICK ICK ICK. I think I would just run away and then probably be hung or shot or imprisoned for deserting if these rats came near me. I always think of Templeton from Charlotte's Web when I think of fat rats. Even cartoon Templeton scares me!
- Food -- "It is a good thing we have something decent to eat at last; we still have a use for all our strength. Enough to eat is just as valuable as a good dug-out. It can save our lives; that is the reason we are so greedy for it." Limited food supply? Meredith turns into a raging beastmonster. Just ask Lex or Dinah on a road trip at the end of our rations! ;)
- My enemy is my friend - "It is strange to see these enemies of ours so close up. They have faces that make one think - honest peasant faces, broad foreheads, broad noses, broad mouths, broad hands, and thick hair." I cannot imagine a world in which I could forget that the people I was fighting were also humans. This is the biggest failure I would have as a soldier, methinks.
- "Our legs refuse to move, our hands tremble, our bodies are a thin skin stretched painfully over repressed madness, over an almost irresistible, bursting roar."
- On shelling: "Mighty fine fireworks if they weren't so dangerous."
- "The front is a cage in which we must await fearfully whatever may happen."
- "We have to take things as lightly as we can, so we make the most of every opportunity, and nonsense stands stark and immediate beside horror."
- "Our hands are earth, our bodies clay and our eyes pools of rain. We do not know whether we still live."
"Between the meadows behind our town there stands a line of old poplars by a stream. They were visible from a great distance, and although they grew on one bank only, we called them the poplar avenue. Even as children we had a great love for them, they drew us vaguely thither, we played truant the whole day by them and listened to their rustling."
"But now the sun streams through the world, dissolving everything in its golden-red light, the train swings round one curve and then another; - far away, in a long line one behind the other, stand the poplars, unsubstantial, swaying and dark, fashioned out of shadow, light, and desire."
Sending you thoughts of pleasant poplars and embarking on my final installment, The Ruby Symbol! (#NAILEDIT)