As I sit down to write, I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and some fresh Ontario “first-pick” strawberries that I got at the market yesterday, along with a slice of freshly baked Date Bread. Although I know it will get warmer and more humid this afternoon, we had thunderstorms last night so this morning it is cool and overcast and looking like it could rain again at any moment… very fall-like, and just the kind of weather I love!
My volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. This is one of the books that I’ve had on my shelf for years and falls into Italo Calvino’s category of “books you’ve been meaning to read for ages and now it’s time to finally read them”. Written by a German who was a former soldier during WWI, it tells the story of Paul Bӓumer, a German soldier in WWI. But unlike other “war stories”, it is, as he writes on the first page before the novel begins, “neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by war.” There were, of course, battles and attacks, and leaves to go home, and card games, and trysts with French women, and hospital stays, and dealing with the wounded, both German and French, in the field. But there were also many scenes of philosophizing about war and life amongst the men of Bӓumer’s battalion, as well as contemplation about the nature of war, and how it affects soldiers, both during the war and afterwards. While on leave, Paul finds that he has difficulty fitting into his old life, and just wants to get back to his men. This leads to consideration about what he will do after the war, how that sort of life is almost impossible to imagine. My group was definitely glad to have read it, although, as is typical for us, it was certainly not an uplifting read. We discussed the nature of war as we understand it. I read aloud a section of the book when the men in Paul’s group are discussing war, and one man, Kat, is pointing out that, in war, unlike in real life, “(a man’s) head is turned by having so much power”. Someone brought up that famous quotation, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Paul considers his experiences so far, as he is barely nineteen years old, and says “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial - I believe we are lost.” This really speaks to the point Remarque states at the beginning of the book, that even the men who are spared the shell are destroyed by war, that they will never have a chance to grow up and experience life as others have, they will always be separated by this horrific period in their lives. We spoke about the poetic language of the book, and one member who read this many years ago in the original German said that the translation she had (translated by A. W. Wheen in 1929, which is the one we all had) was not a very good one, that some of the English words used were not accurate, particularly when the men are speaking. But she said that the sections concerning philosophy and contemplation were fairly well translated. We all agreed that this book made us feel deeply, and think deeply about war and politics. I’m listening to an audiobook that is a historical detective novel called March Violets by Philip Kerr, set in Berlin in 1936. When I’m finished listening to it, I’ll write about it more fully, but it was interesting that just as I was finishing Western Front, which was one of the first books banned and burnt by the Nazis in 1933, one of the characters in the Kerr novel tells the main character, Bernhard Günther, that he should read a particular book now while it’s back in print. He says that the book was banned by the Nazis and she agrees, telling him that it’s back in the bookshops to make the tourists in Berlin for the Olympics believe that things are not as bad as they have been led to believe. That was a curious coincidence, and made me feel that I was meant to read this book now. And with tomorrow being D-Day, thoughts of war linger. We discussed the difficulties of readjusting to civilian life a soldier had, after different wars, and how the affects of war were not really acknowledged by family members, that former soldiers were expected to come home and just get on with things. We talked about the different major wars, and how public responses varied according to how the causes of that war were perceived. This led the group to think about other novels about war, and some of the titles we mentioned were Regeneration by Pat Barker, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Wars by Timothy Finley. This is, of course, a very short list. I also mentioned a German film that this novel brought to mind, “Das Boot”, based on the 1973 novel The Boat, by Lothar-Günther Buchheim. I would definitely recommend this book as essential reading if you want to understand the experiences of soldiers in WWI, and would rate it a 9 out of 10.
That’s all for today. This cool, overcast, rainy weather perfectly suits the book I’m reading right now, Thursday’s Children by Nicci French, a British mystery where the characters seem to always be getting caught in the rain.
Bye for now…
Later: I went out briefly this afternoon and, as if predicted by my reading selection, I did, in fact, get caught in the rain! I find it kind of eerie when my books mirror my life...
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