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'All Quiet on the Western Front': Literary Analysis and Cultural Context.

The power of Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) remains undiminished. Even today, more than sixty years after it was written, it has lost none of its capacity to move. A pacifist masterpiece, the novel spoke resonantly in 1929 not only of the experience of a whole German generation for whom 'the war ruined everything', it struck a chord across national boundaries and by the mid 1980s had sold - according to sources more recent than those which Firda quotes (see Brian Murdoch's edition of 1984 published by Methuen) - some ten million copies in forty-five different languages. Any fresh examination of the novel is therefore welcome, even though Richard A. Firda's thorough and wide-ranging monograph is not the 'first book-length study of All Quiet on the Western Front' which it claims to be: Hubert Ruter's Remarque. Im Westen nichts Neues. Ein Bestseller der Kriegsliteratur im Kontext (Ferdinand Schoningh, Paderborn, 1980) must take precedence here. Furthermore, Firda devotes rather less than a quarter of his book to detailed analysis of the actual text of All Quiet. The rest is given over to a brief, but lively account of Remarque's life, the literary and historical context of the work, its sequels, the film versions of it, and its status and achievement alongside other European novels about the First World War.

In the scope of what it tackles Firda's volume has much to offer, particularly to those without access to German materials and who have sketchy familiarity with the fraught literary and political circumstances of Weimar Germany in which Remarque was writing. He establishes convincingly why the novel was caught in the ideological crossfire of the interwar years: why it could be attacked by the Left for being insufficiently revolutionary in the treatment of what for socialists was a capitalist war, and by the Right for the demythologization of the military values and the supposed glories of war. In close textual analysis of selected chapters he demonstrates the virtues of Remarque's attempt at an impressionistically fictional rather than a strictly documentary account of the Great War and is particularly interesting on the language of the novel which, through the central character Paul Baumer, caught perfectly the voice and stoically borne misery of the ordinary enlisted man. It is in this, the sense which Remarque brings out of a common humanity transcending narrow chauvinism, that we find the key to why All Quiet on the Western Front became such an enormous international popular success.

Firda's book has its imperfections. Proofreading of the German in the footnotes and bibliography could have been more meticulous. There is a less than excusable sprinkling of careless formulations: '... the Ullstein conglomerate ... would provide the setting for Remarque's antiwar novel' (6). Some readers may wince at infelicities such as 'Their no-win situation is the central thematic paradox of Road' (66) or 'Baumer's grief over the nonviability of war' (50). And the august S. Fischer Verlag would certainly not be flattered to see itself spelled - as it is on page xii once and on page 14 four times as 'Fisher'.

MARTIN KANE University of Kent

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Author:Kane, Martin
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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