(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
By Erich Maria Remarque
Book #47 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Originally published serially the year before, Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 All Quiet on the Western Front concerns the events of World War One a decade previous, and in particular the insanely long battlefront running almost the entire length of western Europe that the war became most known for, in which both sides lined up millions of soldiers along an unmoving border that stretched literally from
Scandinavia to Spain Belgium to Switzerland, where over the course of four years the armies died in numbers scarcely ever seen in human history before, because of clueless generals applying 19th-century strategies (like endless frontal assaults and thousands of miles of defensive ditches) to a war full of 20th-century technology (like machine guns, barbed wire, biological weapons and a lot more). Much like Oliver Stone's Platoon, then, Remarque's book is not known so much for its plot than for its astute and unblinking look at the actual warfront environment, establishing for the first time many of the elements that eventually became staples of war fiction -- the chaotic terror of the actual fighting, the maddening monotony of the non-combat times, the pure randomness of war-related death, and the moments of surrealistic humor that can nonetheless be regularly found within such environments. Although it's tempting now to dismiss the novel as a series of cliche-filled vignettes, it's important to remember that this was the title that created many of these cliches in the first place -- a book that spelled out the very horrors that returning soldiers found impossible to share with friends and family, which is precisely why their friends and family devoured the book so voraciously when it first came out -- all told through the filter of our introspective teenage hero Paul Baumer, as over the course of half a decade he watches literally every person he went to high school with eventually get killed, with even Baumer himself succumbing in a random and unremarkable way by the end.
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, as mentioned, according to its fans, there's a pretty simple argument for why this book should be considered a classic; it's demonstrably the very first novel to establish so many of the tropes now found in almost all modern creative projects concerning war, including not only the examples already mentioned but also the older rah-rah schoolmaster who gets all the boys whipped up for combat in the first place, and the concept of a returning soldier finding it almost impossible to reconnect with his old life once getting home from active duty. Plus the book has a strong connection to both Hollywood's past and future, with the 1930 adaptation being the very first non-musical "talkie" to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, and with a brand-new big-budget adaptation in the works as we speak, starring Daniel "Harry Potter" Ratcliffe; plus it's an important landmark of the Early Modernist arts as well, say its fans, the book that inspired the term "Lost Generation" through Baumer's remarkable monologue about halfway through, on how he and all his school buddies left for the war as naive children who thought they understood the way the world worked, but were returning as scarred adults who have lost the ability to understand how polite society even works, shades of the Tropic of Cancer "Jazz Age" times just around the corner. And then there's the fact that the Nazis were so threatened by this book, it was one of the first they banned after gaining power in the 1930s, even going so far as to cut off Remarque's sister's head in retribution for Remarque himself successfully escaping to America; and if the Nazis hated it this much, there's gotta be something to it almost by default, right?
The argument against:
Not much, to tell you the truth; although like most books that are considered classics, you find a fair share of people online complaining about being forced to read this in high school under unpleasant circumstances, which pretty much ruined whatever chance they had to enjoy it. But that's not really a complaint about the book so much as it is about their old high-school lit teacher, so am not sure how appropriate it really is.
As regular readers know, after three years we're finally approaching the halfway point of the CCLaP 100, at which point I plan on writing a long essay about everything I've now learned from the process, including a series of lists such as the titles I've been most enjoyably surprised by; and All Quiet on the Western Front definitely earns a spot on such a list, a shockingly powerful book to this day which is not exactly the anti-war screed its fans claim it is, but rather becomes one by default for so unflinchingly detailing the random, utterly unglamorous brutality that comes with war. And indeed, this was one of the many surprises I had with this novel, was learning just how many military veterans love it themselves, precisely for being one of the most realistic depictions of life along an actual battlefront ever written, which when combined with its poetic Modernist elements makes it still such an affecting winner, even 81 years after its original publication. (And for an excellent example of the "poetic Modernist elements" I'm talking about, see the whole section near the end where Baumer gets caught in an enemy foxhole during an artillery attack, is forced to kill a French soldier at close range, then is stuck with the corpse in the hole for four straight days without food, which drives him so insane that he starts holding conversations with the dead man and promising to deliver his personal effects to his widow after the war is over, a temporary insanity that he quickly comes out of again once being reunited with his buddies. If that isn't one of the most effectively bizarre war anecdotes ever written, I don't know what is.)
Although not exactly a textbook example of Early Modernism when it comes to style, and in fact displaying at points more of an affinity for the now-hated Genteel literature of the same period ("Ah! Mother, Mother! How can it be that I must part from you? Here I sit and there you are lying"...sheesh), this is very much a touchstone of Modernism in terms of expanding the scope of what was allowed to be discussed in "polite company," and it's hard to imagine how we would even have such modern classics as Saving Private Ryan and the like without this trailblazer paving the way. It's not only an undeniable classic, but will probably end up as one of my ten personal favorites of the entire series once it's all over, and it comes strongly recommended today for just about everyone out there.
Is it a classic? Yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)
And P.S., for an even more interesting experience, make sure to spend some time at Google Images looking through all the fascinating covers that have been made for this book over the decades.