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Old 01-20-2014, 01:18 AM   #1
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Book Club January 2014 Discussion: All Quite on the Western Front by Erich Maria Rema

The time has come to discuss the January 2014 MobileRead Book Club selection, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. What did you think?

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Old 01-20-2014, 10:52 AM   #2
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I really liked it. The story is told simply and is short, but it's powerful and philosophic and packs in a poetic punch. I'm not big on war stories but I liked this one mainly because of the beautiful and melancholic poetic nature of some of the passages and also because the descriptions were very vivid. I liked how it interspersed scenes of terrible war and violence with scenes of relaxation and beauty. Here's a short passage that I liked:

Quote:
It might easily have happened that we should not be sitting here on our boxes today; it came damn near to that. And so everything is new and brave, red poppies and good food, cigarettes and summer breeze.
I also liked the abrupt final sad scene, as well as longer passages when he and another soldier cook a goose in the middle of the night and also when he's remembering a cathedral cloister and a meadow stream with a line of trees; I wanted to include the latter passage in this post but I think it's too long.
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Old 01-20-2014, 02:55 PM   #3
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This book is even more powerful than the film--and that film is one of the greatest war films ever made But then this is perhaps the greatest Anti-War novel in European Literature. I read the older standard translation by A.W. Wheen done in 1929. In 1993 Brian Murdoch published a new translation and I toyed with getting it. But after reading a number of quite mixed reviews, I decided to stick with the older version as it has stood the test of time.

All Quiet . . . is a devastating attack on the glory of fighting for the "honour" of one's country. It is filled with horror and soul-destroying events. It is also filled with compassion for the innocent young lives that were sacrificed on this terrible altar of blood. Yet there is a kind of consolation. Even in this cauldron it is possible for true heroism to exist--the heroism of validating the self--not through blood-letting but through a recognition of the falsehood of a mirage of glory. Wilfred Owen put this recognition powerfully:

"My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori."
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Old 01-20-2014, 03:13 PM   #4
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I also really liked it. Although it was fiction, it seemed to be a realistic portrayal of war to me. Not that I've ever fought in a war, but I have been close to a couple of men who did, and the craziness of the day-to-day existence and fighting seemed to match their stories (including one similar story of a friend who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and got separated from his command, and was eventually picked up and carried back like a king on top of a mattress).

The realism of emotions also struck me, like with his mother and his comrades. Real, and almost too wise and too admitting of human weakness to be done by someone so young. But I think this was the best way to tell the story, related as the incremental learnings and adaptations of a young man in war.

Some very minor things that I noticed (with page numbers of the Little Brown hardcover edition):

P. 72 When talking about why he might stay in the army and giving its good points:
"In the army in peace-time you've nothing to trouble about," he [Haie] goes on, "your food's found every day, or else you kick up a row; you've a bed, every week clean under-wear like a perfect gent, you to your non-com.'s duty, you have a good suit of clothes; in the evening you're a free man and go off to the pub."

If that means one pair per week of clean underwear, and it's worth listing as a benefit? Yikes, we've got it good!

I recall this being a classic when I was in the lower grades of school, yet with subjects that today might be cause for censorship (p. 153 fart, p. 174 masturbation) in some places in the U.S. (Texas, Arizona, ...). I hope I'm wrong on that.

Thanks, Book Club voters. I never would have thought to read this book.
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Old 01-20-2014, 03:39 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by fantasyfan View Post
...I read the older standard translation by A.W. Wheen done in 1929. In 1993 Brian Murdoch published a new translation and I toyed with getting it. But after reading a number of quite mixed reviews, I decided to stick with the older version as it has stood the test of time...
I had the same experience; I looked into the newer version but after seeing mixed reviews decided the older version was the way to go.

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...I never would have thought to read this book.
Ditto. I had toyed with reading it years ago since it was never required of me, but didn't. And I wouldn't have anytime soon either without the book club since I've already seen the film, but I'm glad I did.
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Old 01-20-2014, 06:05 PM   #6
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I also read the Wheen translation, the one I've had since first reading it in high school about 40 years ago. This must be at least the fifth time I have read it, and as others have said it remains one of the best indictments of patriotic and military madness ever.

I've always been struck by the episode where Bäumer stabs the French soldier who stumbles into the crater that Bäumer has crawled into to take cover in the middle of the battle field. Alone there Bäumer briefly recovers his humanity as he first tries to save the French man's life, then resolves to write his wife telling her of his death, and then resolves:

Quote:
“to-day you, tomorrow me. But if I come out of it, comrade, I will fight against this, that has struck us both down; from you, taken life—and from me—? Life also. I promise you, comrade. It shall never happen again.”
All forgotten once Bäumer makes it back to his unit and continues the business of war.

This quote about how Bäumer and his young comrades have been forever altered always gets to me as well:

Quote:
He is right. 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.


Quote:
Originally Posted by fantasyfan View Post
This book is even more powerful than the film--and that film is one of the greatest war films ever made But then this is perhaps the greatest Anti-War novel in European Literature. I read the older standard translation by A.W. Wheen done in 1929. In 1993 Brian Murdoch published a new translation and I toyed with getting it. But after reading a number of quite mixed reviews, I decided to stick with the older version as it has stood the test of time.

All Quiet . . . is a devastating attack on the glory of fighting for the "honour" of one's country. It is filled with horror and soul-destroying events. It is also filled with compassion for the innocent young lives that were sacrificed on this terrible altar of blood. Yet there is a kind of consolation. Even in this cauldron it is possible for true heroism to exist--the heroism of validating the self--not through blood-letting but through a recognition of the falsehood of a mirage of glory. Wilfred Owen put this recognition powerfully:

"My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori."
Yes, and it seems that things never change. I was reminded by this of a poem from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. A different war in a different country [the US Civil War]:

Quote:
Knowlt Hoheimer

I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge.
When I felt the bullet enter my heart
I wished I had staid at home and gone to jail
For stealing the hogs of Curl Trenary,
Instead of running away and joining the army.
Rather a thousand times the county jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal Bearing the words, "Pro Patria."
What do they mean, anyway?
And this NPR (US) radio program that I recently listened to:

Kamikaze Diaries Reveal That Many Pilots were Coerced.


Quote:
Originally Posted by jj2me View Post

P. 72 When talking about why he might stay in the army and giving its good points:
"In the army in peace-time you've nothing to trouble about," he [Haie] goes on, "your food's found every day, or else you kick up a row; you've a bed, every week clean under-wear like a perfect gent, you to your non-com.'s duty, you have a good suit of clothes; in the evening you're a free man and go off to the pub."

If that means one pair per week of clean underwear, and it's worth listing as a benefit? Yikes, we've got it good!
Yes, today we can not well imagine how tough life was for the typical working class person in European countries before WWI.
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Old 01-21-2014, 12:45 AM   #7
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It had been years since I watched the movie, and I'd never read the book before this month, so today I rented the movie on my iPad from Google Play and watched it again on my TV via Google Chromecast. Renting movies in this manner is a brand new thing for the Chromecast device; unless I'm mistaken, it's only in the past week that you could rent and/or buy movies from GooglePlay to watch on an iPad (or broadcast them to your TV from your iPad if you have the Chromecast device plugged into your TV).

But that bit of tech announcement aside, I was amazed at how faithfully the 1930 movie followed the book. So much of the dialog was word for word, and so much of the action was scene for scene. I can't think of another book whose screen adaptation has more accurately followed the author's intention. Even details such as the men choosing their spades over their bayonets for hand to hand combat was not overlooked, although the reasons spades were preferred was not given in the movie.

That being said, I did feel the movie failed to give the full impact of the book; perhaps because books are simply better mediums to express the inner thoughts and feelings of their characters than are movies, and perhaps also to a lesser degree because books are not limited to the same time constraints as movies.
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Old 01-21-2014, 09:20 AM   #8
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I think this book should be required reading for everyone on the planet. It certainly takes the glory and romance out of war.
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Old 02-08-2014, 07:04 AM   #9
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I think this book should be required reading for everyone on the planet. It certainly takes the glory and romance out of war.
I enjoyed the book too. As an ex-military nurse I was required to treat all people in my care, during the conflicts I served in, equally according to the Geneva Convention. Maybe because of this I found it very easy to be compassionate towards the German soldiers depicted in the novel.

I think that anything that makes the reader/viewer remember that all humans are equal and deserve the same respect and consideration should be compulsory reading. Another such book that had a similar impact on me was Roots by Alex Haley.
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Old 02-08-2014, 10:18 AM   #10
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I think it is easy to identify with the German soldiers, even without military training. It is part of what makes this book so thought-provoking and why it sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in its first 18 months. The issues of mortality, patriotism, identity, etc that Paul and his fellow soldiers struggle with are universal. You can easily imagine the the British and French soldiers on the other side of the trenches having similar discussions and dealing with similar emotions. You can see it in how Paul deals with killing the French soldier who appears in his hole in no man's land. You can also see it in how Paul reacts to the Russian prisoners of war when he goes on leave back home & to training. The scenes with the Russians about music and about wanting to share his food were very touching to me. The reader relates to Paul and doesn't see him as a heartless monster. They are fighting, killing, and surviving with animal instincts in the name of their country due to decisions made by a small number of people many levels higher so far removed from them. Yet they are humans with their own individual lives and families and hopes and dreams for the future that have been destroyed by the war. This book was banned and burned in Nazi Germany because of the anti-war questions it raised, especially about patriotic propaganda in the name of the Fatherland.
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Old 02-09-2014, 09:19 AM   #11
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I'm going to be contrarian and say that AQotWF didn't hold up to my memory of it. I've read a lot of Great War literature and there are many first-person and quasi-first person accounts with greater insight and of higher literary quality. This worked as the thoughts of a not-very-well-educated nineteen-year old, but the verisimilitude made it far less compelling to me than the accounts of the officer class. And the end was just cheesy. Remarque had it both ways; a first-person account would end either abruptly with the obvious inference or with the narrator having survived, but Remarque had to go for the final tug at the heartstrings with the third person ending. It would have been better just to stop.

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Old 02-09-2014, 08:50 PM   #12
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I'm with issybird on the ending. I thought it fell utterly flat. However, up until that point I enjoyed it.

What I found quite interesting was that it was very familiar to me. I've neither read the book nor seen the film before, but so much of this I felt like I had read (or seen) before. It might be a testament to how influential the book was on other works - or that it was remarkably accurate and therefore naturally echoes throughout other similar pieces.

It might be a bit contentious, but one of the things that I liked about the book wasn't necessarily the "anti-war" sentiment, but the demonstration that in this war, a lot of the bullshit was actually stripped away. That civilisation, feelings of superiority, justifications are the luxuries of those who don't experience the reality of the life-and-death struggles of the front line. There is not only a feeling of comradeship with the enemy, but a recognition of the more primal aspects - that man is just another animal.

Sometimes, in my own contemplations, I wonder which aspect is better. Once you've dealt with the animal too long, it's probably difficult to exist in civilisation and the author brings this up a great many times, but from a very specific point of view (that of a certain age). But it is as a civilisation that we can justify war. In the book it is only too obvious that as the individual devolves towards the animal, the killing is accepted, but not really understood.

I did find the book a little on the heavy-handed side. It certainly gave the message power. But sometimes I felt that it became a little repetitive - especially the author's contemplations. They seemed to be like a chorus for this ballad and although that's not necessarily a bad thing, it still felt a little overplayed to me.

Anyway, I'm glad that I finally had a chance to read this book. In high school, several classes studied this book, but I was not in one of them. I can't remember what we studied instead - but in that year level I remember the books to have been particularly good - To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies - so I didn't exactly miss out. I actually managed to get a copy of the book just last week from a friend who had two copies, along with several Steinbacks and a Hemmingway - Score!!
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Old 02-11-2014, 10:49 AM   #13
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I'm going to be contrarian and say that AQotWF didn't hold up to my memory of it. I've read a lot of Great War literature and there are many first-person and quasi-first person accounts with greater insight and of higher literary quality. This worked as the thoughts of a not-very-well-educated nineteen-year old, but the verisimilitude made it far less compelling to me than the accounts of the officer class. And the end was just cheesy. Remarque had it both ways; a first-person account would end either abruptly with the obvious inference or with the narrator having survived, but Remarque had to go for the final tug at the heartstrings with the third person ending. It would have been better just to stop.

Great comments from our resident expert on books about WWI. That said I will make some contrarian comments to the contrarian.

I actually like that the story was told from the point of view of young enlisted private instead of from that of an officer. In large part because in Europe at that time the division between officers and privates would have reflected the economic and social class stratification in the peace time countries.

I agree with you about then ending. Perhaps Remarque was a little at a loss about how to best wrap the story up? I've heard literary critics say similar things about Mark Twain and the ending of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In my opinion it might have been better to just end AQotWF with the end of chapter XI:

Quote:
On the way without my having noticed it, Kat has caught a splinter in the head. There is just one little hole, it must have been a very tiny, stray splinter. But it has sufficed. Kat is dead.

Slowly I get up.

“Would you like to take his paybook and his things?” the lance-corporal asks me.

I nod and he gives them to me.

The orderly is mystified. “You are not related, are you?”

No, we are not related. No, we are not related.

Do I walk? Have I feet still? I raise my eyes, I let them move round, and turn myself with them, one circle, one circle, and I stand in the midst. All is as usual. Only the Militiaman Stanislaus Katczinsky has died.

Then I know nothing more.

or to make Chapter XII the final chapter, but omit the final two paragraphs of that.

Quote:
But perhaps all this that I think is mere melancholy and dismay, which will fly away as the dust, when I stand once again beneath the poplars and listen to the rustling of their leaves. It cannot be that it has gone, the yearning that made our blood unquiet, the unknown, the perplexing, the oncoming things, the thousand faces of the future, the melodies from dreams and from books, the whispers and divinations of women; it cannot be that this has vanished in bombardment, in despair, in brothels.

Here the trees show gay and golden, the berries of the rowan stand red among the leaves, country roads run white out to the sky line, and the canteens hum like beehives with rumours of peace.

I stand up.

I am very quiet. Let the months and years come, they can take nothing from me, they can take nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear. The life that has borne me through these years is still in my hands and my eyes. Whether I have subdued it, I know not. But so long as it is there it will seek its own way out, heedless of the will that is within me.

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.
Either would have been in my opinion a stronger ending. I would have preferred it to end on a note that it is unknown if Bäumer returned home after the war or died before it ended. It really does not matter either way to the fact that his generation was destroyed by the war whether they lived or died. And that when this war ends there will just be another soon enough; in the case of WWI in just a generation.

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