All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

“This book is to be 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 the war.”

  • Erich Maria Remarque

We are all used to talking about the horrors faced by British soldiers during the First World War, and we can automatically sympathise with the brave men who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the trenches from 1914-1918. Though it is rare to hear the story from a German’s perspective.

Erich Maria Remarque’s poignant novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, tells the tale of Paul Baumer, a young man on the brink of adulthood, living in wartime Germany.

Paul enlists to fight, goaded by his pompous schoolmaster to defend the Fatherland. But what he perceives to be a glorious battle couldn’t be further from reality. Upon arrival at the front, Paul and his friends are immediately under fire, with his friend Kemmerich soon in hospital, destined to die.

The loss Paul faces only leaves him open to further heartache. He witnesses innocent boys, some as young as fifteen, dying upon the battlefield, being brutally dismembered and horrifically disfigured before his eyes.

As the novel progresses, we see Paul return to his home on leave. When he enters the door, he cannot help but cry, for his home is no longer there, but at the front with his few remaining friends. Remarque’s stunning portrayal of Paul perfectly encapsulates the fragile mental state faced by many young men returning to their normal lives after the war. He is unable to comprehend his life after armistice, and cannot face even his own mother, as it simply brings him too much pain.

A highlight of the novel would have to be the moment Paul comes face to face with his first kill. As he hides in a crater in No-Man’s Land, he must play dead whilst French soldiers run over his safe haven. It is only when he revives himself that he makes his mistake.

He stabs a French soldier, frightened by his sudden appearance, only to have to watch the man die an extremely slow, agonising death. Paul has never had to face his victims dying before. He becomes increasingly distraught, haunted by the man’s strained breathing and dying cries.

Overcome with guilt, he tries to save the soldier, whispering ‘camerade’ (comrade in French), trying to comfort him in his final moments. The soldier passes away before he can be helped, and the sight of this event further degenerates Paul’s sanity.

Remarque beautifully illustrates the nature of a war-torn soldier here. We see Paul, representative of a young man cruelly corrupted by war, show his capability of empathy for his supposed enemy – a small shred of hope in a world which is effectively crumbling around him.

Put simply, All Quiet on the Western Front is an incredible book, which discusses the long-term psychological damage inflicted upon soldiers – from both sides of the trenches. An emotional, thought-provoking read, this is a book which will stay with you long after you finish the last page.

All Quiet on the Western Front is available from all good bookstores, from £7.99

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Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – Review

“No child or future generation will ever know what this was like.  They will never understand.  When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them.  We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings.  We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us.”

Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ most successful novel, is a harrowing account of the trials and tribulations of the young men fighting not only the supposed enemy, but their own destroyed psychological system.

A country in which the young Englishman Stephen Wraysford will now sacrifice his youth in exchange for a lifetime of terror and corruption.  Where young men age prematurely and are brutally disfigured, for the moral gain of their leaders.

A country torn by war, only the beginning of the loss of an entire generation.

France, 1910.

We follow Wraysford, from his initial arrival in France to analyse the textiles industry, to his intimate love affair with his guardian René Azaire’s wife, Isabelle, and finally, his hellish experience at the front.

A young man, Stephen is innocent, and upon arrival at the Azaire mansion, is entranced by the beauty of Isabelle.  She at first attempts to ignore her mutual feelings towards him, but this fails.

The pair develop an intense passion for one another, and commit adulterous acts behind René’s back.  Stephen, confident that Isabelle loves him, is unfazed by the potential for the husband’s revenge.

Upon his discovery of the affair, the leader of the Azaire household demands they leave his home, bellowing that Stephen will go to hell for his acts.  This comment barely affects Stephen in his current state, but becomes a gross understatement of the horrors the boy is sure to face in a short while.

France, 1915.

Wraysford, who has matured dramatically, can be found on the battlefields along the Western Front, where he has advanced to the status of Captain.

Throughout this time, he has endured some of the bloodiest events in the conflict, from slaughtering German soldiers to rescuing the decapitated corpses of his former comrades.  He mentions his progression from a young boy, to an old man in an adolescent’s body.

The highlights of this tragic novel are never-ending.  There are multiple points where, as a reader, one will have to put the book down to cry in sorrow at the dreadful experiences of so many young men.

But the scene which really tugs at the heartstrings is that of Stephen’s comrade, Brennan.  A young Irish man, who seems to suffer the utmost devastation of the war.

Brennan is unable to locate his brother upon his return from No Man’s Land, and his frenzied attempts to find something that remains only demonstrates the fragility of his mind at this point.

Stephen watches as his fellow soldier locates the body of his younger brother, unable to comprehend the emotions which course through his veins.  He listens as Brennan does not cry, but softly sings Irish songs to the headless corpse, his mind numbed to the point of no return.

Birdsong is, overall, a poignant and emotional novel, and Faulks’ intricate use of both symbolism and characterisation portrays the psychological degradation imposed upon soldiers from all countries involved in the bloodiest, most devastating conflict in history – the First World War.

The Tactile Lover

I know she is watching.

She waits there, for me to speak, for me to ache for her approach.

The floorboards creak softly under her footsteps, her soles softer than silk.  Closer.  Closer.

My arms reach out, hands grasping at nothing, to find her.

A hand.  Both hands.  So delicate and smooth, but so fragile and cool.  Thumbs pressing, blood pulsing, massaging my palms, her touch consoles me.

In the dark, she is my light.

“I am here.  And my love for you is strong.”

A voice of a heavenly being, like butter on the tongue.  Sweet, and melting the heart.

Her hands squeeze, and I release one to touch her face.  I stroke, gently, what I presume to be her cheek.

A warm palm on the back of my hand, delicate fingers tracing the veins, feeling the rush of blood just under the skin.

“My handsome boy…” she whispers, caressing my hair, which I imagine to be dark and soft.

I cannot help myself.  I hold her, whimpering like a pathetic puppy.  Guiding her wrists, I plead her to do it again, for me to feel the sense of reality in a world of discombobulation.

Her fingertips massage the scalp, relaxing and stroking the hair, before her lips touch my forehead.

In the storm, she is my calm.

I try to force myself awake from a never-ending trance, but I cannot succeed.

“Maria…”

A small sigh, and the feeling of helplessness intensifies.  She looks, searching through the fog to no avail.  I turn my head in shame.  I cannot bear to face the humiliation.

A hand, on my chest, rising with each breath, popping buttons and opening the crisp shirt, until the last one gives way.

My head lowers, in confusion.

Why does she still wish to touch me?

“My boy is so beautiful…”

A sensation of skin upon skin, trailing from my neck down.  She lingers at the stomach, stroking, tracing the muscles.

“So strong, so gentle and kind.”

A rush of warmth, not least to my cheeks, and I know that I blush.

I pant, reaching for her, but cannot hold anything.  My fingers touch nought but emptiness.  Searching for meaning in an endless void.

And she will rescue me.

She holds my wrists, guiding my hands to her body.  I feel the curve of her hips, the supple flesh of her stomach.

I need not my sight to know that she is divinely beautiful.

A light weight in my lap, and her warmth is just inches away.  Her hand sneaks inside my shirt, rubbing my chest, making me shudder in guilty pleasure.

On my neck, she strokes the tense muscle, feeling the pulse of my circulation, the blood rushing through my body.  I feel too warm, but it can be ignored.

My hand is guided once again, and placed upon skin, to feel the beating of her heart.  I lower my head, not quite staring towards it, feeling the strength of the pulse.

“My dear boy…”

I feel her breath on my lips, and the warmth as they connect with that of my woman.  Only then can I feel equal.

I run my fingers through her hair, holding her in our kiss.  My tongue glides along her own, and I know that she intends to be mine.

In my blindness, she is my eyes.

Less Than A Man

To be of homosexual nature, or to have such preferences, is rather something of an outrage in these times.

Society expects you to live a life extracted from the pages of a textbook, to abide by words in ink which  never seems to fade, to smother your inner being and forget your true desires.

Do humans function in a way that we cannot comprehend our own fate through the absence of a conscience, like that of a dog, a cow, a lamb to the slaughter?

We are an example to our children, and their predecessors.  We show them what it is to live a normal, satisfactory life.  Teach them the rights and the wrongs, the birds and the bees, and the things which are nowadays deemed as socially acceptable.

So why is it that we do not teach them to embrace differences?

They do not allow their children to engage with a homosexual man or woman, this lies within the petty myth that we set a bad example – we go against the will of God, we commit our sins and we corrupt.

Sometimes I believe that human compassion ceases to exist.

In this sense, we cannot be differentiated from animals, or mere objects.

They argue that they teach their children to love, but it is easy to see the cracks in one’s facade.  A homosexual, when caught, becomes equivalent to a criminal, and said criminal must then learn to adjust to his new surroundings in a world where he is hated for no real reason but that of which is his diverse approach to love.

We have tried to love those that we were told to love, but how may one truly portray their feelings when they are being suffocated of their freedom to choose?  Is it not our ability to choose which makes us human, and brings us infinite psychological pain?

It never fails to amaze one’s self when they hear of the hardship of their kind.  A man may be a doctor, a teacher, a celebrity of sorts, but one confession can see their career and their reputation come crumbling to the floor around them.  The man who created the antidote to your previously incurable illness a while back, he becomes a monster.  The woman who taught your child to read and write, she is now an animal.

What, one may ask, is the way to cleanse the world of this sickness, this disease?

To shun us.

To chemically castrate gay men, to emasculate them and strip them of the barely existent dignity that they may have had.  To shun the women, talk to them like that selfish, inconvenient piece of dirt on the bottom of your shoe.  To kick us to the gutter and teach your child to mock us.

And we may hardly call the human race better.

The foundations of a self-proclaimed “nurturing” society begin to crumble.

We begin to doubt the meaning of existence in the first place.

Why live when you cannot thrive, cannot love what is natural, and have your love treated as though it can be surgically removed?

The world will weep when it sees the prejudice the people have brought upon it.