August 5, 2009
The Presence of War
Someone recommended to me that at least once a year I should read a book that is over fifty years old. What seems so hot and compelling now may be forgotten and rather pointless ten or even five years from now. Dave Barry, for example, describes the 1960s as an era in which "a nation gets high and has amazing insights, many of which later turn out to seem kind of stupid." That's kind of like what many bestsellers turn out to be.
So this summer I read an eighty-year-old book, All Quiet on the Western Front--a book that had somehow by-passed my liberal arts, English-minor education. Not your typical, light beach reading, it was surprisingly unremarkable for a book so recognizable: the themes--the meaninglessness and brutality of war--were very familiar. As it turns out, however, it was this book that helped created a whole genre of war novels (and movies) which has made its approach commonplace for us.
Erich Maria Remarque's novel broke with the tradition of books that romanticized war. Instead it portrayed the senseless carnage of the trenches. It paved the way for the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, movies like Apocalypse Now and so many others. It explained why soldiers do not talk to civilians about their experiences in battle long before Tom Brokaw wrestled story after story out of the greatest generation.
One feature of the book, however, struck me as unusual--even for today. It is written in the present tense. For a hundred novels written in the past tense, maybe one is written in the present. For the first-person narrator of All Quiet on the Western Front, protagonist Paul Baumer, there is only the ongoing, unending presence of bombs, of guns, of rats, of lice, of meager food, of dismemberment, of death. He cannot imagine a future. He cannot remember the past. He is imprisoned in the present.
Are there other sides to war? No doubt. But this is a book whose quality continues to work deeply on readers, enduring well over fifty years to the present. It's a book still needed in the future.