August 22, 2006
Still a classic
This is the season for reading at the camp where my wife and I live in the summertime. Not that it isn’t always the season for reading for us, but it is easier in summer after a morning walk to while away the hours on the porch poring through newspapers and books.
Because I commute to work in summer, I also listen to books on tape. Over the last week or so, I have been reintroduced to an old friend – Paul Baumer, the narrator and lead character in All Quiet on the Western Front.
Since my youth, I have loved the literature of World War I – the great poems Of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sasson and others, the diaries and memoirs of Vera Brittain and Robert Graves, the histories by Martin Gilbert and others, even the recent trilogy by the novelist Pat Barker, the third of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize.
I first read Owen in earnest during the Vietnam War. The distance between the rhetoric and the reality of war seemed universal and timeless.
That thought came back to me as I listened to All Quiet. When American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq speak about their wars, it is easy to see what a challenge it is for them to relate their experiences on the ground to the objectives laid out by political leaders far removed from the front. I wound up thinking that All Quiet should be required reading for any young man or woman considering enlisting in the military – and for any national leader before he or she decides to send a nation to war or to expand a war. The wars we think we are about to fight seldom turn out to be the wars we thought they would be.
Erich Maria Remarque, a World War I veteran and a sports writer from Lower Saxony, wrote All Quiet on the Western Front during the 1920s. It is the story of a group of schoolmates who, in the flush and naïveté of youth, enlist together and grow up, suffer and die as German soldiers on the Western Front. The book was published in January 1929. Eighteen months later, it had sold 2.5 million copies in 25 languages.
As Hitler rose to power in the early 1930s, the book was banned and burned in Germany. Nazis disrupted the premiere of the film, also a masterpiece. Remarque eventually lost his German citizenship and became an American.
Listening to the book last week, I found its power undiminished. Obviously, technology has changed warfare since World War I, for better and for worse. But in clear, powerful prose, Remarque relentlessly destroys any mystery or romance a young person might associate with soldiering. His is a riveting book – a classic for its time and for ours.
Posted by Mike Pride at August 22, 2006 12:39 PM
If you like the literature of WWI, I should recommend a recent novel to you. It's called Rules for Old Men Waiting and is by Peter Pouncey, President Emeritus of Amherst College. Frankly, WWI plays a secondary role: the protagonist is an aged academic who specialized in the war. In his final days he determines to write a short story about the war. The story interweaves with his memories of his wife and son and, in so doing, he creates a tapestry of life, memory, regret and determination.
Posted by: Zeke at August 28, 2006 06:50 PM