I was surprised that this book was so stark and short and fundamental and powerful. It’s one of those books that you always know and hear about and even see, and it was never especially interesting or inviting to me. I don’t know, I guess I thought it was German and more hefty and esoteric, even though it obviously had some sort of universal appeal. And I would say, I guess, that I’ve never been one to seek out war books. A certain number of them seem to come along in one’s way, and you get a sense that you understand the story and the message and the horror, I suppose. But is this the central text in the genre? Do people ever see it as such, and do they still? Do readers and teachers know how accessible and powerful it is? I didn’t, but I do now.
I wish I could have interviewed myself or written about this book before I read it, or before it showed up on the Lit of WWI syllabus. I really am curious about my general pre-read impression, which includes images from seeing clips from the film version. And I would also add an attempt to record the way that I have thought of the horrors of WWI. I think I remember learning about the trenches in a junior high history class, gaining a lasting sense of the hellish realities. And then I’ve put a number of layers of study and understanding on top of that early view, a few decades worth of largely incidental contact points. The literature, film, art, and history of the war (and the next one) stay after you, haunting in the true sense of the word, a vague mist of black inhumanity and pain that I try to avoid and push away and half-remember.
This book goes right to the heart of it all, and as much as anything else it brought back that early, childhood impression of dehumanizing horror and gave it shape and focus. With so much knowledge and narrative and imagery, it felt like I had read this book, even though I know I hadn’t. It’s a primal war narrative, direct and universal, which reads like revealed truth, the story of a known experience. Part of it, I suppose, is that it fits so neatly into a folder with other basic war narratives, books like Red Badge of Courage and Johnny Got His Gun. I always think that I never read anything before I went to college, but it seems to me that I read both of those and was quietly traumatized by them.
And this book has a similar accessibility and simplicity. It seems like strong medicine that one might be given at an impressionable age. I grew up under the shadow of Vietnam, turning 10 towards the end of 1968, and Johnny Got His Gun and other books that I’m forgetting were a major cultural element, strong anti-war propaganda aimed at kids like myself. And there were ironic, more complicated things like Catch-22 and Mash, WW2 novels, protest literature, all sorts of strong messages about the tragedy and futility of war. One wonders, looking back, if that got lost in the 80s and the 90s, if kids growing up ten, 20, now 30 years later, didn’t get indoctrinated against war in the same way that my generation was, and that’s part of the reason for our current mess. So it might be hard to take, but I would recommend this book to any teenager, and I would push to see it taught in high schools. It’s the kind of text that can have a deep and lasting effect on one’s perspective.
One part of the tragedy is how young the characters are. The narrator, Paul I think is his name that is only mentioned once, makes it absolutely clear that he’s young and has known nothing of life, that his coming-of-age is taking place in Hell on Earth. The book clarifies the Lost Generation and Wasteland themes like nothing else I know, and seems to establish them, although they were well-understood by the time it was written. Paul talks about how even just slightly older soldiers had lives to return to or regret, and youngsters would avoid the horribly absurd conflict that would surely exhaust itself, but how he and his mates literally had no life, knew nothing but home and school, and how quickly they lost hope and turned into animals, primitive creatures bent on the most basic survival.
There are all sorts of strong scenes and haunting images, with measured movements and engaging, compelling writing. Again, my only question is whether this well-known book is sufficiently read. In certain parts of the world and different academic and educational circles I’m sure that it is popular enough. It’s truly astonishing that the Nazis were on the rise at the time of its publication and during the subsequent making of the film. It just doesn’t seem possible that something so bad was actually going to get worse. But my current push is to read about World War I and to understand the forces at work, along with its role in shaping the last century. It will be interesting to go through the upcoming 100-year anniversaries with all of this in mind, over the course of the decade.
As a final note, I was thinking quite a bit as I was reading this and finishing it about giving it to my 16-year-old son to read. He likes recommendations but can’t be forced, and picks and chooses on his own. He recently read The Corrections on his own, taking it from me as we went on a trip, and he read The Scarlet Letter for school. I mentioned this to him yesterday and he said he didn’t want to read it, but he had seen the film version last year in his World History class. So there’s that. And it’s a phenomenon I’ve seen before, when a book is so big and effective that a film comes out of it, and the original value of the book fades a bit. It will be interesting to watch the film. But this book is worth reading, a strong surprise if you think you already know it well enough. Or at least it was for me.