ALL’S QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT / Erich Maria Remarque. 1928. (175 pgs)
First Sentence: “We are at rest five miles behind the front.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: We is the first word of the story and is used consistently as the dominant pronoun throughout the first ten pages of the book. This story is a narrative of broad strokes via dialogue and description spoken not just by one, but for several, in this case, four school-chums who graduate high school for the battlefield of WWI.
What the reader learns the in first paragraphs: Through a fluke of military planning we are experiencing a windfall of excess; double rations, extra smokes and extra hours of sleep. The reality is that of the 150 men who began the battle fourteen days earlier, only 80 have returned, hence ‘double’ rations.
What the reader learns in the first ten pages: War is so much worse than hell, and it is an arbitrary luck of the draw as to who will survive it. There are several episodes in these early pages where the reader meets the four main characters (some of whom will surely not survive to the end) as boys. They have known each other since boyhood and they harbor a great dissatisfaction toward their elders; schoolmaster, clergy, local politicians and parents who baited them with promises of glory and honor.
Character: Like in Margaret Atwood’s story THE HANDMAID’S TALE posted on this site, ALL’S QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT begins with several voices blended into one narrative voice clearly identified as “we”. Like with Atwood’s story, one voice emerges as the prominent storyteller who, lucky for him, will probably survive until the final pages. Coincidentally, both stories take place in a military setting where the characters are under duress.
Setting: There is a sentimental mix of settings in the early pages that I suspect will diminish as events progress. There is the ubiquitous location of the battleground and camp, but there is a long passage dedicated to the soldiers’ days at school and the grudges they feel at being suckered into the military, particularly by their provincial school teacher. The setting swings back and forth from the front line to the classroom giving the reader a feel for who these boys are in uniform and also the men they were intent on becoming after putting away their school uniforms.
Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: “The brutalizing effects of continuous terror and sudden death and the debilitation of war and the intimacy with death, fear and survival.” Remarque uses his story as a political platform. The characters self identify as simple people from simple backgrounds and yet they are apt to flights of complicated social theory and lush language.
Random Comments: Again, as with most of the first ten pages I have posted on this site, the author quickly locates the reader into a particular place. We may not know exactly where on the map this company of soldiers have put down for the night, but we are made intimately aware of their immediate sense of place; in their tents, in the field hospital, how they wash up and where. Locating the characters (and thereby the reader) into a specific place usually happens within the first few pages of these successful stories. Each author I have cited in this blog has done it, and most so seamlessly that it is not until several pages later that I realize I am co-existing with the characters in their setting.
As this book was written almost exactly between the end of WW1 the beginning of WW2, it seems Remaque was submitting a political and personal challenge to the fathers, uncles and grandfathers of those boys who would soon be dying in the second ‘great’ war.
This book was originally published in 1928 in German under the title, Im Westen Nichts Neues. It was translated and published in English a year later by Little, Brown and Company.