BOOK REVIEW / Laying the ghost of a cataclysm: 'All Quiet on the Western Front' - Erich Maria Remarque Tr. Brian Murdoch: Jonathan Cape, 14.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PUBLICATION of Im Westen Nichts Neues in January 1929 was preceded by the most intensive bombardment of publicity in the history of German publishing. Like the war that was its subject, the effects exceeded all imagining. Close on 650,000 copies were sold in just over three months. Within a year it had been translated into more than 20 languages. Worldwide, it remains the best selling work of German literature.

As often happens, the success of this one book generated a market for others on a similar theme. In May 1929 Richard Aldington cabled his American agent to urge 'earliest fall publication Death of a Hero to take advantage of public mood. Large scale English war novel might go big now.' After more than a decade of virtual silence about the experience of the front, the so-called war boom of 1929-30 saw the publication of canonical prose accounts by Sassoon, Graves, Blunden and Manning.

Sassoon and co. are second-rate writers who had the good fortune to undergo an experience which rendered their ability to record it secondary to the mere fact of having done so. There are decent passages in all their books but none comes close to Remarque's. The story of a group of German soldiers, All Quiet on the Western Front is narrated in a jagged present tense by one of them, a 19-year-old called Paul. The 30-year-old author's larger purpose was 'to give an account of a generation destroyed by the war'. By 'personalising for everyone the fate of the unknown soldier', as Modris Eksteins puts it in Rites of Spring, Remarque's novel helped lay the ghost of a cataclysm that had shattered victorious and defeated nations alike.

Its power has not diminished over time. Reading A W Wheen's 1929 translation today one is stunned by the book's modernity. Widely praised for telling the truth about the war, its vivid battle scenes are imaginatively rather than literally accurate (hostile critics pounced on details, such as a man continuing to run after his head is blown off, as evidence that Remarque's experience of combat was not as extensive as the hype suggested). In one scene dozens of horses are injured by artillery and the air is filled with the sound of their dying: 'It is the moaning of the world (according to Wheen), it is the martyred creation, wild with anguish, filled with terror, and groaning.' It is a coincidence that the imagery anticipates Picasso's Guernica, but it is a telling one, for All Quiet is that rare thing, a work of popular modernism.

This crucial quality emerges as powerfully in Wheen's version as it does in Brian Murdoch's. I am not qualified to judge which translation is more faithful to the German, but whereas our experience of Camus' L'Etranger, for example, has been changed significantly by Matthew Ward's new American translation, our experierice of All Quiet remains essentially the same. It did not need revivifying because it was already intensely alive.

A reissue like this offers the chance to re-present an established text in a new light. The jacket copy of this edition declares that All Quiet is 'the most famous anti-war novel ever written'. Fair enough in a blurb, but this tired-sounding claim is echoed in Murdoch's afterword: 'the novel shows us that war . . . is not about heroism . . . not about falling bravely and nobly for one's country'. But so thoroughly have we seen through 'the Old Lie' that it might have been more worthwhile to re-translate the nearest thing we have to a pro-war book, Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger (from whom Remarque, like Owen from Henri Barbusse, derived some of his imagery). Far from re-animating the novel, Murdoch comes close to mummifying it. For a more illuminating framing we must once again turn to Eksteins who stresses the book's intimate connection with the postwar rather than the wartime mind. More broadly, he suggests that its extraordinary reception highlighted a larger change brought about by the war. 'The historical imagination, like so much of the intellectual effort of the 19th century, had been sorely challenged by the events of the war.'

In a sense history itself was defeated by a war whose meaning was articulated so well by fiction and poetry. So much so that the war has almost dissolved into its imaginative representations. Some of the most harrowing front-line footage shows a pair of hands, cut from the body by machine gun fire and left dangling from barbed wire. This sequence, which has been used in documentaries about the war, is from Lewis Milestone's 1930 version of All Quiet.

Comments