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[757] All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque


” We are little flames sheltered by frail walls against the storm of dissolution and madness, in which we flicker and sometimes almost go out. Then the muffled roar of the battle becomes a ring that encircles us, we creep in upon ourselves, and with big eyes stare into the night. ” (Ch.11, p.275)

This book is narrated by Paul Bäumer, a young man of nineteen who fights in the German army on the French front in World War I. Paul and several of his friends from school joined the army out of their own volition after listening to the stirring, provoking, patriotic speeches of the school master, Kantorek. Bust after experiencing first-hand the atrocity and brutality, they realize that the empty talk of nationalism and patriotism made by these so-called intellectuals, who know nothing about the constant physical terror and encroaching fear, has consumed a whole generation of young men who are disconnected from their normal lives.

I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow . . . Through the years our business has been killing;—it was our first calling in life. (Ch.10, p.263-4)

The young men belong to Second Company, which is soon dispatched to the front line. After the first combat with heavy shelling, only 80 of the 150 men survive. They also endure the strictest disciplinary actions meted out by the reckless Himmelstoss, a postman in civilian life who has taken up bullying, Soon Paul witnesses the slow death of his friend Kemmerich, who is eaten up by gangrene after having one leg amputated. What eagerness and enthusiasm in soldiering at the first place have turned into inconsolable misery. This is exactly the aim of the novel—sets out to portray war as it was actually experienced, replacing the romantic picture of glory, honor, and heroism with a decidedly unromantic vision of fear, meaninglessness, and butchery.

We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our booms, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down . . . (Ch.6, p.113)

All Quiet on the Western Front depicts soldier as an everyman in any given war. Despite the physical horror and carnage, the book focuses on the ruinous effect that war has on the soldiers. The intense physical threat serves as an ceaseless attack on the nerves. That constant fear of death has deprived them of reasonable thought process. Along with the meager provisions, the appalling living situation, the poor sanitation, the book gives an overall effect of these conditions as a crippling overload of panic and despair. The only way for soldiers to survive is to disconnect themselves from their feelings, suppressing their emotions, and accepting conditions of their lives. That is the reason Paul feels there exists a thickness, a veil in place between him and his family when he goes home during leave. What makes this book so powerful is Paul the universal soldier—his voice speaks for all the soldiers, for all of humanity. Despite the military differences, regardless of the sides, soldiers are just ordinary men who have rights to live a normal life.

296 pp. Ballantine Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading “All Quiet on the Western Front”


I have never been a fan of war stories. All the description of artillery, shelling, grenade, shrapnel, munition and trench confuse me. I have evaded reading All Quiet on the Western Front in high school because honors English didn’t have it on the reading list.

The book is intriguing for once, it’s written in the perspective of a young German soldier, who, out of patriotism and honor, gets drafted. But after experiencing the uncompromising brutality, Paul and his classmates realize that the ideals of nationalism, so professed by these men of authority who “continued to write and talk” away from the front line.

Clothes do not make the man. Most of the authority figures in the novel are painted as one form or another of idiots, sycophants, toadies, and other lower order life forms. Kantorek (the boys’ teacher back home) and Himmelstoss (postman-cum- reckless disciplinarian in army) are core figureheads in this arena. But they represent the many others who assume their form. This type of representation is one of the things that makes All Quiet on the Western Front such a great book—it is clearly everyman’s story of the war.

[639] The Year After – Martin Davies


” They all wanted Tom unchanged, I could see that now. Lady Stansbury, Margot, even young Bill Stansbury. Tom was dependable, Tom was a rock. Tom was their link to the past, something that had survived, something solid to build on. No one wanted to believe there were any cracks. (Ch.12, Tom, p.380)

Set in 1919, The Year After concerns Captain Tom Allen, a soldier who has recently returned to England following the First World War. Feeling alone and unsettled in austere post-war London, Tom accepts a timely invitation to spend the Christmas season at Hannesford Court in Devon, home of the Stansbury family. The visit draws him back to the high society haven where he spent his pre-war years.

Behind the majestic decor and aside from the genteel façade, the war has been very tough on Hannesford. A son lost, another maimed, both daughters robbed of advantageous marriages. It seems inconceivable that the delicate, unworldly hostess, Lady Stansbury, could have survived such accumulation of sorrows. She asks Tom of a favor—to speak at the memorial service of the family’s golden boy, Harry. While Hannesford contrives to restore a festive air, the place, once full of boisterous young men who frequented raucous parties, is strangely empty.

Sturdy, honest folk. Yet I knew what Anne had said was true. I too would have found it much pleasanter to believe in an Eden free of serpents. (Ch.10, Tom, p.302)

The return to Hannesford prompts Tom to re-examine a dark, long-forgotten episode, just before the war, that occurred the annual grand ball in 1914. The death of a German professor marred the idyllic days of the house before the outbreak of the apocalyptic war. With the help of Anne Gregory, once the house nurse but now living in the vicarage, he uncovers a web of secrets and deception—and suddenly it dawns on him that none of the Hannesford inhabitants, or those were revered, is what they appeared to be. The family rather buries their shameful secrets along with the dead.

They were all the past. Nothing was the same. They were fragments of the world I’d thought we were defending. Yet it was gone already, despite those endless ranks of wasted lives; gone without anyone really noticing its passing. (Ch.8, Tom, p.255)

The Year After is not a war story, but one of love, loss, and the struggle to adapt to the world in the aftermath of the most destructive of conflicts. The bulk of the plot actually occurred back in 1914, unfolding at the expense of Tom and Anne’s remembrance and soul-searching. It is told in first person from Tom’s perspective, but much more intriguing, and revealing, despite the brevity, is the voice of Anne, whose accounts intersperse Tom’s. Her narrative fills in the gaps of happenings at Hannesford Court in Tom’s absence. Redolent in the pages ate lofty themes of unrequisited love, blind war pride, bereavement, and the whole british awkwardness as a result of a deliberate denial of reality and truth. The book shows how memory can be an uncertain witness and emotions can affect time’s malleability. Davies’s prose is a feat of lyricism, evocative of the period and life.

401 pp. Hodder/Hachette UK. Paper 2012. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]