I was immediately impressed by All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s classic 1929 novel about the First World War. Set on the Western Front, it follows a German soldier as he struggles with army life and the loss of his friends and, more disturbingly, his own selfhood. The novel is narrated by Paul Baumer, whose eloquent expression of the war’s lost generation and their purposeless existence equips him perfectly for the role of the ‘unknown soldier’: a youthful archetype of a soldier whose sense of self has been contaminated by the war before he has even begun in life.
Baumer, along with his entire class, is persuaded to join the army by a fervently patriotic schoolmaster, and the novel follows him as he navigates the tyranny of the battlefield. Literally translated from its original German as the rather sarcastic ‘Nothing New on the Western Front’, its English title is altogether more haunting, a fitting evocation of the sadness and anger that characterises the novel.
The premise itself is intriguing: not only does it instantly render to the reader just how utterly pointless the First World War was, but its focus upon German soldiers – the traditional villains of twentieth-century warfare – emphasises clearly the humanity at risk in this most bloody of wars. Germans, French, British and American: they’re all people, imprisoned in a false war by the manouevres of unfeeling governments. I was really struck by this sense of loss from the beginning of the novel, and I liked how realistic it was: from the almost casual deaths of friends to the dispassionate illustration of a great variety of battlefield experience.Never monotonous, the novel covers the emotional perils of going on leave, the fragility of military hospitals, the terrible boredom of daily existence, the desperation of prisoners-of-war, the ugliness of no-man’s-land…
The emotionality is explored in an engaging and sensitive manner – poignant and mesmerising, it really makes you feel for an entire generation despite the fact that the First World War was so long ago (a hundred years ago now). At times the prose can be too clunky, especially towards the end of the novel, and Remarque occasionally loses the intensity of the feeling he is yearning to express. Overall, however, this is a startling and captivating book; still immediate and urgent long after the events it so fluently depicts.