“War, hey, What is it good for?”, famously sang the late, great, Ringo Starr.
The answer the former Beatle cried out in his uncharacteristically political 1973 solo hit, “War (Huh? What is it?)”, was that all war was good for was sending profit to the pockets of rich capitalists.
In many ways, this remains true: wars continue to be waged for purely economic purposes: war is an industry with a need for consumption to match its production.
There is no “good” war, and though the Nazis did absolutely everything they could to justify a war being waged against them, the war crimes committed by the victorious – and troublingly unpunished and remorseless – Allied forces showed that the veneer of moral superiority was about as thick as the paint on my cheap IKEA table: you don’t have to scratch with a knife to see the cardboard beneath, tho in my metaphor the cardboard is the genocidal dropping of nuclear bombs on TWO Japanese cities filled with non-combatants, as well as the firebombing of multiple German cities, most famously Dresden but plenty more beside.
I’ve lost my focus, what I was planning to write above (when I made my joke about confusing Edwin Starr and Ringo Starr, who I of course do not think are the same), was that war is also good at being a thematic focus for literature. I got distracted by thinking about the actual nature of war, which is sinister, corrupt, and utterly – and always – for the benefit of the elites while crushing those of us who aren’t, well, who aren’t elite.
The First World War is possibly the exception, though, as even the posh lads died, even the middle class lads died, and the poor – of course, as always – were massacred.
I’ve read a few novels set in this period in my time, but I think that rather than WW1 being a weird interest of mine (I don’t think I find military history interesting – if I did, I would be sure to get back into raving to balance that out), I think it’s that this period, this particular conflict, has had a lasting and far reaching effect on literature, far more so than most other conflicts I can think of.
WW2 may have the bigger cultural importance, and I think that definitely comes from the whole concentration camps and mechanised genocide thing and so it’s easy to pretend that war was “black and white”, “goodies v baddies”… but Nazis aren’t in literature the way the trenches are.
The churned fields of Belgium call out to writers and novelists in the way that SS uniforms call out to filmmakers.
In part, this might be because the period coincided with the most significant shifts in the world of letters, from the pre-modernist realism of the 19th century, into the psychological, knowable, powerful, and no longer escapist, fiction of the new century.
In France, in Germany, in the USA, in England to a lesser extent, the literature that continues to be most highly regarded begins beyond the turn of that century, it is rooted in the changes that came from growing class and international consciousness…
other than in Russia, the First World War achieved its aims of defusing a proletariat revolution in the capitalistic West (by killing all the young men), but it is that same consciousness, the mass global literacy that came from the 19th century’s hard push for universal education (a universal education they soon grew to regret (“teach a man to fish and he might wonder why he and all of his buddies have one tiny rod to share and you have a massive fucking net all to yourself”)) that shifted literature from its position as written by the comfortable for the comfortable, to by the uncomfortable for the comfortable, and then to by the uncomfortable for the uncomfortable, three positions most texts continue to clearly fall into.
(My books, I think, are the middle one, but contemptuously so: I expect everyone reading my books is happier and healthier than I am, but I wish that wasn’t true; I understand that my malaise and mishaps are very entertaining for the slightly less precarious middle class.)
All this is to say, I read another novel written in the twenties and it was incredible.
I read another novel about the Great War and it was deeply moving.
Erich Maria Remarque was a teenage soldier, conscripted when he finished school into the German army, and though this 1929 novel isn’t 100% autobiographical, All Quiet On The Western Front is definitely a novel written with knowledge, experience, and bitter knowing.
It’s anti-war in that it’s accurate.
It’s polemical in that it depicts the death and horror and the occasional, fleeting, impossible, joy; there are mentions of sex – the Army-sanctioned brothels; the horny, lonely housewives left behind the front in the French countryside; the homoeroticism between soldiers that is very visible to a twenty first century reader who’s fresh out of The Regeneration Trilogy (and also a bit prurient) – but it is always off stage, out of view. There is intoxication – liquor, drugs (opiates in the hospital) – but always there is the threat of danger, the reality of death.
Structurally, tonally, it’s very reminiscent of Catch-22, with its blunt honesty and occasional bleak humour
It’s a thoroughly impressive and powerful novel of that awful, pointless, terminally unjustifiable, war, written – unlike many of the classics – by someone who was actually there. And showing that “the other side” experienced the gas and the shells and the gunshots and the hunger and the fear, just the same as “we” did.
NB: the translation I read was produced by Brian Murdoch in 1994 and was not the classic 1929 translation by A. W. Wheen.
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