Posts Tagged ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’

Bernard Adams: Nothing of Importance

January 4, 2018

51yxyb3Bv0L._AC_US218_A couple of months ago I finally watched a documentary on poets and writers of the Great War which I’d recorded a couple of years ago (!). And, despite having taught the literature of that time to sixth-formers for many years, several writers who I’d never come across were mentioned. Tracking down texts wasn’t difficult and I’m catching up on some literature of those times.

What far better-know title does Nothing of Importance remind you of? Bernard Adams‘ book is nothing like the great Erich Maria Remarque‘s masterpiece, though. Whereas Remarque’s novel gives the lie to its title, being full of violence, mayhem and chaos, much of Adams’ memoir is of what comes across as a very quiet time at the front. He spent time first in Flanders, before being transferred to the Somme for the four months leading up to the great July 1916 offensive.

What struck me first of all was how ordinary he made it all seem: his matter-of-fact tone meant that nothing surprised him, nothing really shocked or horrified him. Shelling, squalor, the occasional death or wound, everything quite easily became normal, routine. And although he is aware of this, it doesn’t move him much.

He’s very good at explaining all sorts of technical details to the ordinary reader through careful pencil diagrams which pepper the text, and his maps also clarify a lot of the details of the safeties and dangers of being in the trenches; his approach made issues of topography a good deal clearer to me. He was absolutely fascinating on mines and countermines, and I realised where some of the more recent writers like Sebastian Faulks might have got some of the knowledge they used in their fictions.

There are blow-by-blow accounts of things like patrols into no man’s land which again fascinate because a century later a reader finds it hard to imagine the fine details. We share his exhilaration, even though we also find ourselves asking, ‘yes, but what, exactly, was the point of that?’ And because, although we know exactly where he is on the front lines, his experiences are not linked to the greater sweep of the war itself, are in isolation, really, it’s impossible to understand the significance of anything that he sees or does… It’s clear he was regarded as an effective and efficient soldier and officer, by his men, his peers and his superiors.

The book, and his tone, become a good deal more serious, though, when a number of his fellow officers are killed: the suddenness and meaninglessness of it hits him hard, and is thereby so much more powerful in its effect on the reader. The real horrors do seem to begin to shake his sanity, though the language of a century ago conceals this somewhat. He is pleased to receive a ‘blighty’ wound towards the end of June 1916, when everyone can see that something big is in the offing; we experience his shock, and as he gradually convalesces, his anti-war sentiments come out more strongly. He’s not outspoken in a Sassoon sort of way, but comes over more as a decent sort who can make points effectively.

He obviously wrote his book while convalescing, for after recuperation he went back to the front, and was killed there in 1917. It’s a good read, because very much of its time, and is available as a free download on the Internet Archive website.

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Helen Zenna Smith: Not So Quiet…

August 17, 2017

This novel was apparently written in a few weeks, based upon the diaries of a woman who had served as an ambulance driver on the Western Front; it appeared a little while after the much more well-known All Quiet on the Western Front by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque and was intended as a version of this novel from a female viewpoint. Certainly the similarities are noticeable. But it stands very much as a powerful, if little known work, in its own right. It shocked me when I first read it, and has lost none of that power.

Women were recruited as volunteers to work in various roles near or at the front; nursing and ambulance-driving were the most perilous because they meant being very close to the action. Many middle-class and upper-class women served, and they saw at first-hand the products of mechanised warfare; they cared for and tried to repair broken men; they were fully aware of the horrors.

We follow the transformation of a respectable English woman, shocked by what she has to deal with and also the unbridgeable gulf between what she sees and knows and what the do-gooding matrons back home with their committees imagine. Here she is as determined as Siegfried Sassoon to let everyone back home know the reality, and the hypocrisy, even though we are more than ten years after the end of the war. The bitterness comes across even more strongly than Sassoon’s, and the overt anti-war stance and criticism of politicians extends even to some of the young men due to go into action.

Initially we gain the impression that some self-censorship of the horrific details is going on, but this is merely to lull the reader into a false sense of security: alluded to obliquely at first, the full horrors hit us as she describes the unloading of the ambulances at the field hospital, in her mind addressing her mother back home, whom she wishes could see and experience what she is actually going through. There is no heroism or glory here: the narrator is terrified a lot of the time and admits to this…

Behind the scenes everything is about keeping up appearances, whilst sexuality rears its head and lesbianism lurks in the background; this last is a little muted and some critics have accused the writer of seeking to normalise the heterosexual: this may be true, and the context is complex, and also not what I’m interested in here. What does come across is the extraordinary pressure on both men and women when so close to the possibility of death: the narrator’s sister has to procure the money for an abortion, and the narrator herself chooses to sleep with an officer heading to the front lines the next day. Later on in the novel she learns that her fiancé has not only been blinded and lost a leg from the hip, but has also been emasculated.

There is a feeling – partly from the hectic pace of the novel and the nature of the narrative style – of great honesty in the narrator as she shares her experiences and feelings, including the death of her friend in an air-raid, and she raises the question of what is to become of her once the war is over. I mentioned similarities with Remarque’s novel earlier, and this is one of them: in All Quiet, Paul wonders what his generation will be like after the war; he is never to find out, of course, although the author does explore the lives of those who returned. There is also the return home: Paul returns on leave and hates it because he has nothing to say to those back home, who are incapable of understanding; so too the heroine of Not So Quiet, who is sent back home on sick leave, and clashes with parents, relatives and all those who are ‘doing their bit’ to support the ‘war effort’ without knowing what that actually entails.

Women like her are mentally and emotionally destroyed just as the men are, even though they may have missed out on the actual fighting in the trenches. Ultimately everything is taken from her, and although I rate All Quiet as probably the most powerful and effective novel that came out of the Great War, there are enough punches to the gut in this book to make it a worthy challenger for the title.

Differences…

August 22, 2014

So, following on from my previous post, I tried to think of a couple of texts to compare, and came up with Sebastian FaulksBirdsong, and Pat Barker‘s Regeneration Trilogy. Both texts are set in the First World War, both were written in the 1990s. What differences are there to observe between a male and female novelist?

The central characters in the main part of Birdsong are male: it’s set in the trenches. The overture to the story features the hero’s passionate affair with the wife of his employer several years earlier, and the hero’s story is being researched by his granddaughter. There are rather more female characters in Regeneration, and more completely integrated in the structure of the story. Both novels contain graphic details of warfare, injuries, death and destruction. The mental effects of warfare appear in both.

In many ways, Birdsong feels like a more ‘traditional’ novel, with a fairly conventional structure, although the central narrative is framed by earlier and later years. The Regeneration Trilogy – which is therefore rather longer – is more complex, more diffuse, with a number of plots loosely converging and intertwined: treatment of shellshock at Craiglockhart, the relationship between Owen and Sassoon, the relationship between Sassoon and Graves and the former’s protest against the conduct of the war, various political intrigues during the FWW, the work of Rivers the psychologist, the relationship between the shellshocked Billy Prior and Sarah Lumb, women’s work during the war… Home Front and Western Front take on equal importance, it seems to me.

The central relationship in Birdsong is that between Stephen and his friend Weir, and we are constantly aware of Stephen’s distancing himself from what he is experiencing. The horrors of combat are foregrounded, and graphically described; the enduring and psychological horrors are revealed as his granddaughter gradually uncovers more and more of his story many years later. Although Barker can match Faulks in terms of graphic details of conflict and its consequences, it’s not her primary focus, which is the mental and psychological effects of combat and the stress of the frontline on officers and men, and the attempts to treat it, to rebuild the men who are suffering (so that they can then be shipped back to the front!). She explores a range of different relationships – peer to peer, superior to inferior, male/ male and male/female.

Both writers clearly researched their subject-matter in great depth; both adopt a no-holds-barred approach to unpleasant detail: there is not much to choose between them here. Yet, in a blind reading, if asked to decide which of the two was written by a man, I’m sure most would go for Birdsong. If asked to read Regeneration and then identify the gender of the author, I’m not so confident about readers’ ability to identify a female writer. Why? It’s very difficult to nail down. Is the tightness of Birdsong’s structure, and of Faulks’ writing, self-evidently masculine? Is it the openness of Barker’s treatment of both characters and subject-matter, the looseness or freeness of scope, structure, direction a more female trait?

If you’re interested in exploring these issues, I recommend these two novels, and will just append two others for you to think about: All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, a classic from 1929 that most will have heard of, and Not So Quiet, a response by Helen Zinna Smith, from 1930, which is largely undiscovered. One recounts the FWW from an exclusively male perspective, the other from female one. Which is better/more powerful/more effective?

 

Ernst Jünger: Storm of Steel

October 8, 2013

41THFV0041L._AA160_I was astonished to find writing about the First World War that was even more horrific than Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, but Storm of Steel manages it. It’s the account of four years on various sectors of the Western Front by a German lieutenant who survives (clearly) though wounded and hospitalised seven times, and who was eventually awarded the Empire’s highest military decoration at the age of twenty-three.

Jünger was a nationalist, and some feel his writings glorify war. I was interested, when I looked up what happened to him after, that he refused to support the Nazis or be used by them, that he experimented with LSD and other substances in the 1960s and survived to the age of 102 (among lots of other things).

What stood out for me is that this book is clearly factual – a memoir – in a way that All Quiet isn’t. It was written in 1920, so has immediacy, though not the reflectiveness of the memoirs of British writers such as Graves, Blunden or Sassoon. He fights in Flanders and on the Somme, describing the British attack of 1 July 1916 from the other side. He takes part in the German offensive of spring 1918. His picture of occupied France and Belgium is at odds with other accounts I have come across.

He pulls no punches in his descriptions of war and its effects on people and places. Comrades are mutilated and killed by the score, and he moves on, sometimes allowing that he is affected, but mostly focused on survival for himself and his comrades. You can see how his experience of war over time makes him a better soldier and survivor, even in the chaos of the First World War. You can also see how he gradually realises that Germany will be outfought. I say outfought, because we see the effects of the Allied blockade through the increasingly poor quality of the soldiers’ food, contrasted with the plenty discovered in captured British trenches and dugouts. Equally, the impression is that it’s superior firepower that tips the balance for the Allies: they just shell the daylights out of whatever they plan to attack; there is no limit to their resources, whereas it becomes increasingly clear that Germany is running out of materiél.

The nature of the war also becomes clearer in terms of what each side was faced with. Germany’s great advantage was to have attacked in the first place, and to have had a couple of years to entrench themselves and build fortifications, and it’s clear from the book and from what I saw on my recent trip to the Somme, that these were formidable. Then they could just sit tight. (OK, I oversimplify a little…). The Allies had, therefore, to throw everything they could at the enemy. This led to the total wasteland that we are familiar with from photographs. However, when the war gradually developed into one of movement, however slight, it meant that things were more even: the descriptions of hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches in 1918 are some of the most gripping and horrific in the book.

Only very occasionally do we get a glimpse of the degradation of humanity as a result of war that Remarque portrays so brilliantly in his novel. But I didn’t find myself agreeing with those who felt that Jünger’s book glorifies war. It’s a remorseless account of the effects of human stupidity on those who have no power to change and shape their world, but who want to survive.

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