Review of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT – Erich Maria Remarque

1928, 2013, Random House, translated by A. W. Wheen, 222 pages

One of the duties of Nobel Prize winners is to write a Nobel Lecture. When singer-songwriter Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel in literature, he was on the road, on the “Never Ending Tour,” as he calls it. Musician and friend Patti Smith accepted the prize on his behalf in Stockholm where she also and sang his “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” It was not until June 2017 that Dylan had a chance to record his Nobel Lecture in a LA Studio accompanied by a piano in the distance. The recording is available on YouTube.

In his lecture, he talks about his songs and their relation to literature. He specifically brings up three pieces of literature: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Homer’s Odyssey, and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I’ve read Moby Dick and the Odyssey. I had heard of All Quiet on the Western Front, but had never read it. Dylan’s endorsement piqued my curiosity. There is so much to read, however, and sometimes decades pass before books on the reading list get attended to. A few months ago, however, it was my turn for book club suggestions. I presented three choices, one of which was All Quiet on the Western Front. Book club went for Remarque’s book. Now was my chance to read it. I’m glad I did.

Remarque’s book stands out for its directness. A bunch of kids are in a war where the world they love is getting blown apart. The strange thing, to them, is that they are doing the blowing up. Now, in between things and people getting blown up, you see human nature at work. Officers may abuse soldiers in training, but on the front lines, the jungle rules. The soldiers and officers who have the most miserable jobs in civilian life are the most power hungry in military life. Childhood friend Kemmerich is dying: who will get his boots? The poplar trees and the butterflies are always beautiful, especially when viewed from the trenches. Nature seems to keep going without any sense of loss from all the mounting casualties in the trenches. War is very body oriented: the dead make gurgling sounds, soldiers learn to go to the washroom together, bombs blow body parts everywhere. In today’s saccharine world, this book stands out. The veil of hope has been lifted. While reading this book, I thought I could understand, for a moment, why a soldier would want leave to end so that he could go back to the front, go into the trenches, and dive on that grenade to save his friends. The book gives you flashes of another way of living, flashes of how adaptable the will is. It is eye opening. Remarque himself fought in WWI and spent a year in a military hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds.

Dylan mentions All Quiet on the Western Front because it has influenced his writing, and the writings of others. He finds a link between the world of Remarque’s novel and some of the songs of Charlie Poole (1892-1931), one of which has this refrain:

I saw a sign in a window walking up town one day.
Join the army, see the world is what it had to say.
You’ll see exciting places with a jolly crew,
You’ll meet interesting people, and learn to kill them too.
Oh you ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talking to me.
I may be crazy and all that, but I got good sense you see.
You ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talkin’ to me.
Killin’ with a gun don’t sound like fun.
You ain’t talkin’ to me.

On the novel itself, Dylan has this to say. To him, All Quiet on the Western Front has worked his way into many of his songs because:

All Quiet on the Western Front is a horror story. This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world, and now you’re shooting it to pieces.

To Dylan, it was not so much the message of All Quiet on the Western Front–he doesn’t believe that literature, or his songs, for that matter have a “message”–but the vernacular and the language that appeals to him. In other words, Remarque has put together the story and the words in a convincing way. It sounds good. And because it sounds, good, it has influenced Dylan and made its way into his songs.

Dylan concludes that art is alive. Books were meant to be read. Plays were meant to be seen. His songs were meant to be heard. Though good books, plays, and songs sound good, they don’t mean anything, not in the sense that a psychoanalytic or structuralist critic would have them mean. There is a rift between the naive power of the artist and the analytic power of the interpreter. The artist is not looking for meaning, the interpreter is. The artist, to Dylan, hears, reads, and sees artistic stimuli everywhere. Without knowing why, the artist incorporates these stimuli into art, not for the sake of meaning, but for the sake that it has a good jingle, is a good story, provokes a memorable impression. Like Plato’s investigation of art (through his character Socrates), artists find it hard to explain their works because, in great art, there’s nothing to explain.

While there’s nothing to explain, there is something to experience in art. Art tells a story that impacts us in powerful ways. How All Quiet on the Western Front impacted Dylan was that it made him never again want to pick up another war novel. And he hasn’t. Art must be experienced, otherwise it loses its vigour. Art studied and analyzed isn’t real art anymore, according to Dylan. It’s like that violin that sits in a glass case in a museum. Sad. Or, in another analogy that comes to mind, art interpreted rather than experienced is like a martial arts form that is no longer used for combat. Tai Chi used to be a system of self-defence. But nowadays, it’s an exercise or meditation. It cannot be used for self-defence anymore because it has separated from its roots. Theatre read or lyrics spoken outside of the bars, concert halls, and live venues becomes to audiences what Tai Chi has become to its practitioners: form divorced from practise. To Dylan, that would be a shame.

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

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