All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

Book #667
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

All Quiet on the Western FrontIt’s been a long time since I read a book that had a such profound effect on me as All Quiet on the Western Front. I think its impact has been greater than expected because the book itself exceeded all of my expectations, in every way.

The story is told in the first person, by Paul Baumer, a young German soldier fighting in World War One. It tells of the everyday living conditions of the German soldiers; of the daily struggles, battles, friendships and threats, of the acts of war that were mundane, not unusual, or heroic. When Paul goes home on leave, he feels like he no longer belongs; he doesn’t know how to be a civilian any more, and struggles to see where he will fit in when the war is over. He is relieved to return to his regiment, to his friends, even though he knows it is to the chance of death that he returns. As he watches his friends fall, he tends towards a madness that must be a common scenario during war.

We get back pretty well. There is no further attack by the enemy…in spite of our great hunger we do not think of the provisions. Then gradually we become something like men again.

Night again. We are deadened by the strain – a deadly tension that scrapes along one’s spine like a gapped knife. 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.

There are sentences that are beautifully written, that evoke a sense of peace and stillness, followed by paragraphs that are so fast-paced that they create a sense of the frantic intensity that must have been trench warfare during this time.

He staggers up and runs. I keep beside him. We have to get over a hedge; it is higher than we are. Kropp seizes a branch, I heave him up by the leg, he cries out, I give him a swing and he flies over. With one bound I follow him and fall into a ditch that lies behind the hedge.

Monotonously the lorries sway, monotonously come the calls, monotonously falls the rain. It falls on our heads and on the heads of the dead up in the line, on the body of the little recruit with the wound that is so much too big for his hip; it falls on Kemmerich’s grave; it falls in our hearts.

As could be expected, death is a recurring theme in this novel; it is impossible to write or read about war without knowledge of the incredible number of lives that were (and continue to be) lost. Remarque has a unique ability to treat this subject both poetically and soberly; he does not try to cover it up or pretend it wouldn’t have invaded every man’s thoughts during the time in the trenches, and this adds to the powerful profundity of the story.

We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down – now, for the first time in three days we can see his face, now for the first time three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger.

The story also offers us a view of war that is poignant and, for me, right on the mark. Remarque’s commentary on the futility of war is as relevant today as it was at the time of publication:

“I think it is more of a kind of fever,” says Albert. “No one in particular wants it, and then all at once there it is. We didn’t want the war, the others say the same thing – and yet half the world is in it all the same.”
“But there are more lies told by the other side than by us,” say I; “just think of those pamphlets the prisoners have on them, where it says that we eat Belgian children. The fellows who write those lies ought to go and hang themselves. They are the real culprits.”

How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.

The ending of the story is possibly one of the most poignant and profound endings I’ve read in a long time. I read it twice before closing the book, and it echoed in my brain for days afterwards:

He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.

He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a book that I think everyone should read; I can’t say I enjoyed it, as such, but it has had an effect on me that means I’d not hesitate to recommend it to you all.


Quote of the Week

“What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

Anne Lamott


A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

BOOK #913
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

A Christmas CarolA Christmas Carol is possibly the most well-known, re-published and oft-adapted of Charles Dickens’ works. Since it was first published in 1843, the novella has been a success, and it continues to delight audiences in the 21st-century. It is a story that has been adapted to screen a number of times, and I’ve already got my eye on tickets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet performance of the story later in 2014.

It tells the story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, whose character is transformed following the supernatural visits of his business partner, and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come. The story begins on a “cold, bleak, biting” Christmas Eve, seven years after the death of Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge hates Christmas; he refuses his nephew’s Christmas dinner invitation, and turns away two men who seek a donation from him to provide a Christmas dinner for the poor.

Later that night, Scrooge is visited by Marley’s ghost, who is cursed to wander the earth forever after a lifetime of greed and selfishness. Marley tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits that night, and in order to avoid an eternal curse of his own, he is to listen closely to the lessons of each spirit.

The first, The Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge to Christmas scenes of Scrooge’s childhood, which remind him of a time when he was kinder, happier, more innocent. We are shown a lonely childhood, and a Christmas party hosted by Scrooge’s first employer who treated him like a son. We’re also shown Scrooge’s neglected fiancée, Belle, who ends their relationship when she realises Scrooge loves money above all else; Belle has since married, and we see her happily enjoying Christmas Eve with her family.

The second spirit, Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge to several different scenes – a market where people are happily buying food for Christmas dinner, celebrations of Christmas in a miner’s cottage and in a lighthouse, and Scrooge’s nephew’s Christmas party, where he speaks of his uncle with pity. We also meet Bob Cratchit and his family; his youngest child, Tiny Tim, is seriously ill but extremely happy. Scrooge is told that Tiny Tim will soon die unless the course of events changes. The spirit shows Scrooge two hideous, emaciated children named Ignorance and Want; he tells Scrooge to beware the former above all.

The third spirit is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who shows Scrooge Christmas Day one year later. Tiny Tim has died because his father could not afford proper care, and we see the death of a “wretched man”. The man’s funeral will only be attended by local businessmen if lunch is provided. Various people steal his possessions while his corpse is on the bed, and when the spirit shows Scrooge the tombstone of this wretched man, he sees it bears his name. In tears, Scrooge promises to change his ways in the hopes that he may “sponge the writing from this stone.”

Dickens paints his usual bleak picture of the plight of the poor, but there is an uplifting, joyous note to A Christmas Carol as well. It reminds the reader of the joys of Christmas, of the spirit of the season, and of the impact we can have on the lives of others. It is an easy, very quick read; despite the length, it still has that characteristic style of Dickens’. It is timeless, with a message that will not date, and I look forward to reading this to my boys when they are a little older.

Quote of the Week

“I am simply a ‘book drunkard.’ Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotee. I cannot withstand them.”

L.M. Montgomery