Posts Tagged ‘Literature and the First World War’

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front

October 1, 2022

     My former students will know, and if you search this blog you will discover, that I have a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of literature from the Great War. This novel, which I’ve read several times now, still moves me to tears at the end, and, I would argue, is probably the most powerful novel written about those hellish places and times. And, for the first time, I was struck by the parallel between the end of the novel and the final moments of the epic film O What A Lovely War.

Written in 1929 and the first novel (and film) the Nazis banned on coming to power, it clearly gains from the sense of immediacy – only a decade after the events it recalls. The writer lived through those times; it shows in a way in which no modern novel, no matter how well-researched, can do, and that is not to disparage contemporary writers like Pat Barker or Sebastian Faulks. It’s different from novels which present the British or French perspective; in particular the serious privations of both the men at the front and their folk at home are emphasised.

Remarque’s techniques stand up to scrutiny. The tone of the narrative is matter-of-fact throughout: the message is that you will get used to anything, eventually: the horrors are not dwelt on in gory detail. The tone makes the novel, laconic, the hero old and wise before his time, with a sense of doom ever-present in the back of his mind (just as in Wilfred Owen’s poem Anthem for Doomed Youth, I feel). The language enhances the effect, with the constant feeling that there just aren’t the words available to describe what he and his comrades experience. And there’s also the feeling that insanity is never that far away; even the hero notices and remarks on this. There is that memorable scene in the 1930 film when the men are under endless bombardment, which I still cannot forget even after many years. (Incidentally, why remake the film, as I learn has been done?)

There is a sense of timelessness; home and past are now and forever unreal. I have always found the section where Paul goes home on leave one of the most poignant in the novel. He can have none of that old life back, ever. I realised how much more effectively this is portrayed here, than in more recent fiction, too. Remarque’s style is obviously not contemporary; it takes us back in time in a different way. I found myself trying to work out why, for me, writing from that time is so much more effective, and I think it comes down to the fact that I’m not seduced by plot or story here; there is just warfare; there are just incidents; characters come and go (they are killed)…

This timelessness is enhanced by the wide use of the present tense in the narrative: here it works to convey the sense that there is only now for these men; that technique is gratuitously overused to no effect in much contemporary fiction. What will happen, what can happen for these men if they survive, and when the war is over? There is no future for them; their minds and hopes are already destroyed. The sadness about the love and the sex they will never enjoy is hinted at, just as in Owen’s Disability, which for my money is one of the most powerful poems ever written about that or any war. And Remarque did write a sequel, about what happened to those who made their way back, and in its own way, it’s as grim as this novel.

I remain of the opinion I formed half a century ago: war serves no purpose, war is evil. Some vile people derive power and profit from it: most people suffer. Re-reading this novel, and contemplating current events confirm my feeling.

On a century of Owen’s poetry

December 3, 2020

This month offers another opportunity to write about one of my favourite poets, and still the war poet par excellence, in my opinion, as we reach the centenary of the first publication of his poetry – posthumous, of course.

In a sense, of course, Wilfred Owen’s reputation is frozen in time because of his untimely death in the final days of the Great War: he left behind his personal story of bravery at the front, his struggle with shell-shock and his time at Craiglockhart. There he met and was encouraged by Siegfried Sassoon, and out of it all came the small volume which is his complete poems. There is no more: would he have gone on to greater things had he survived the war, or would he have faded into obscurity, his best work written in his twenties?

Can you remember when you first encountered his verse, and the effect it had on you? Two poems stand out for me, at school when preparing for my O Levels: the explanation of how the sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth works, and the sheer horror of the images in Dulce et Decorum Est. They were the two poems everyone knew in those long-gone days, the 1960s, when interest in the Great War was re-awakened by the fiftieth anniversary.

These two poems re-appeared when I was teaching, in anthologies of poetry devised by examination boards to meet various arcane criteria, and later on A Level English Literature offered a unit on Literature and the First World War and there was the opportunity to read much more widely. For me, the Owen poem I have always found most effective and most powerful in the classroom is Disabled (you can read my analysis of it here).

Disabled is about a boy who lied and said he was nineteen in order to join up. You are talking about the age of many of the (male) students in the classes I taught. Subtly, the implications of his horrendous injuries are made clear, and it’s the fact that his age is the age of awakening sexuality which shocks most: you don’t actually need to say anything…

Or you can consider Mental Cases, which has as much of the graphic detail as does Dulce et Decorum Est, but with the added nightmare quality of mental derangement, insanity on top of physical injury. And in the latter poem, the man dies, whereas the men in the former poem survive and have to live with their visions.

There are many other Great War poets, as powerful in their use of graphic detail or in their ability to make the reader think: Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney to name several. What makes Owen stand out above the others? for he does, I am convinced. His bravery, his youth and his own tragic end are part of it. His astonishing use of the poetical power and expressive possibilities of the English language must not be overlooked: just read Exposure aloud, slowly and carefully. His stance on the war itself is also important. He was not unpatriotic or anti-British; he did not shirk his duty. He did not merely seek to horrify his readers through descriptions of atrocity. Like Sassoon, he wants his readers to feel very uncomfortable: Owen is writing, as he put it himself, about ‘the pity of war’. His poems say to his readers: these things are going on, these men are suffering and dying, in your name. Implied are such questions as ‘Why?’, ‘Do you approve?’, ‘Now that you know, what will you say?’.

The Virago Book of Women and the Great War

October 31, 2020

     This anthology was compiled and published over twenty years ago, and it is a worthy but flawed collection, I feel; worth having, but the curating and editing could have been better done. I wasn’t impressed reading in the introduction that the bulk of the literature of the Great War was written by British writers – a sweeping statement which is easy to challenge. And decimal currency was introduced in 1971, not 1972…

Having griped a little, I will admit that this is a pretty catholic selection, from some French and German sources but largely from British women writers. The main interest lies in the individual pictures of life and work in those times, and the way that many excerpts counter the general, broad sweep of ‘official’ history: not everyone partied and rejoiced at the outbreak of war, not everyone was eager to volunteer and join up. We also see British women involved, mainly in medical and caring roles, in all sorts of places I hadn’t expected: Serbia, Russia, Austria and other countries.

The editor ranges very widely in her choice of sources, but even to this experienced and hardened student and reader of Great War literature, there’s rather too much information, as the current saying puts it. And yet, I can accept that such an anthology needed compiling before all sorts of material disappeared. There is a clear focus on women’s very real role and contribution to the war effort, men’s reluctant realisation and acceptance that this was both the case and very necessary to the achievement of Britain’s war aims. Women established themselves widely in the workforce and strove for equal pay and conditions with men; clearly the desire for suffrage and other rights was also in the forefront of the efforts of many, and this is evidenced in great detail from contemporary accounts and material.

And yet, there’s a bit too much here; the best is the personal accounts of front-line experiences.

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.

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

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