Tuesday, 12 April 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front

I recently returned from a trip with my students to the cemeteries and battlefields around Ypres and the Somme and while I was there I read Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the greatest pieces of literature to have emerged from the Great War.

Remarque was baptised and raised a Catholic. He was educated in Catholic schools and attended a Catholic teachers' seminary until he was called up in 1916 and then injured at Passchendaele. So it seems reasonable to ask what impact Catholicism had on his most famous book.

It is something of a cliché that religious belief was one of the casualties of the war and, at first glance, All Quiet on the Western Front seems to bear the cliché out. While meeting the bereaved mother of one of his fellow soldiers, Paul Bäumer, the narrator (or, at least, the first of the novel's two narrators) says, "God, is there anything I hold sacred? You soon change your views on that sort of thing where we are."

However, as Brian Murdoch  points out in the Afterword to his translation of the novel, "All Quiet on the Western Front is not a memoir." It is a work of fiction and we have to see this narratorial comment in the context of the whole novel, a novel in which, to quote Brian Murdoch again, "the motif of the inextinguishable spark of life in man" cannot be ignored.

Murdoch does not explicitly link this spark of life with Catholicism but there is surely some link: when, later in the book, the narrator finds himself in a Catholic infirmary he declares that "this is a piece of good luck, because the Catholic hospitals are known for good treatment and good food." 

The place clearly has its faults - the nuns are criticized for praying loudly in the corridor with the doors open - but it is still a place where utter cynicism cannot survive: "There is no one who wouldn't do anything in the world for Sister Tina, a wonderful nurse, who cheers up the whole wing, even when we can only see her from a distance," Bäumer tells us. 

And when we are tempted to see her as an isolated good egg, he reminds us that "there are a few more like her. We'd go through hell and high water for them."

Of course, there's a great deal more to the novel than these hospital scenes. There is much that is harrowing (as well as much that is funny) in its pages. And, given what we know already about Bäumer's ability to lie about the circumstances of his friend's death, it's impossible to draw much consolation from the way his own death is presented at the end of the novel.

And yet, despite the horrors it describes, this is not a book without hope, nor a book that is entirely free of the consolations of religion. Remarque went on to write plenty more novels after this one: I shall now be making a conscious effort to seek them out.

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