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BARRON’S BOOK NOTES
ERICH MARIA REMARQUE’S
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
^^^^^^^^^^ERICH MARIA REMARQUE: THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Born Erich Paul Remark on June 22, 1898, he grew up in a Roman Catholic family in Osnabruck in the province of Westphalia, Germany–a city in the northwest part of what is now West Germany. He adored his mother, Anna Maria, but was never close to his father, Peter. The First World War effectively shut him off from his sisters, Elfriede and Erna. Peter Remark, descended from a family that fled to Germany after the French Revolution, earned so little as a bookbinder that the family had to move 11 times between 1898 and 1912. The family’s poverty drove Remarque as a teenager to earn his own clothes money (giving piano lessons). He developed a craving for luxury, which he never outgrew. His piano playing and other interests, such as collecting butterflies and exploring streams and forests, later appeared in his fictional characters. His love of writing earned him the nickname Smudge.
Because of the frequent moving, Remarque attended two different elementary schools and then the Catholic Praparande (preparatory school). He loved the drama of Catholic rituals, the beauty of churches, the flowers in cloister gardens, and works of art. He later wrote with a sense of theater, and he featured churches and museums, flowers and trees as symbols of enduring peace. While in school, he had problems with teachers, however, and eventually paid them back by ridiculing them in his novels. At the Praparande he argued so much with one teacher that he used the man’s personality and another’s name (Konschorek) to produce a specific character in Ail Quiet on the Western Front: Schoolmaster Kantorek.
In November 1916, when Remarque was eighteen and a third-year student at Osnabruck’s Lehrerseminar (teachers college), he was drafted for World War I. After basic training at the Westerberg in Osnabruck (the Klosterberg of All Quiet), he was assigned to a reserve battalion, but often given leave to visit his seriously ill mother. In June 1917, he was assigned to a trench unit near the Western Front. He was a calm, self-possessed soldier, and when his classmate Troske was wounded by grenade splinters, Remarque carried him to safety. He was devastated when Troske died in the hospital of head wounds that had gone unnoticed. Still, he rescued another comrade before he himself was severely injured–also by grenade splinters–and sent to the St. Vincenz hospital in Duisburg for much of 1917-1918. He was there when his mother died in September 1917. A year later, still grieving for her, he returned to Osnabruck for further training. After the war he substituted her middle name, Maria, for his own, Paul.
The war ended before Remarque could return to active service, but even though he had not experienced frontline fighting at its worst, the war had changed his attitudes forever. He had learned to realize the value–and fragility–of each individual life, and had become disillusioned with a patriotism that ignored the individual. To him and many of his companions, civilian careers no longer held any meaning.
The next few years in Germany brought shortages, profiteering, runaway inflation, unemployment, riots, and extremist politics–including the rise of National Socialism from the postwar German Workers Party, a group almost fanatic in stressing nationalism. For lack of anything better to do, Remarque and several friends returned to the Seminar, but they found the studies and the older teachers’ attitudes ridiculous. Remarque became involved in many disputes. For example, to ridicule the town authorities for their continued belief in the glory of war, he had himself photographed with his dog for the local paper–he in an officer’s uniform decorated with two Iron Crosses and other medals. The scandalized Osnabruck officials demanded a public apology.
Still, at graduation he was given the customary letter of recommendation (although it did describe him as more freethinking than the average teacher), and in June 1919 he began two years’ work as a substitute for teachers on leave. He was blond, strikingly goodlooking, and very muscular, and managed to dress elegantly whatever his income. He stayed out of politics but became interested in all sports, especially cars and racing. Finally, bored with teaching, he wandered from job to job: playing organ on Sundays in an insane asylum, working for a tombstone firm, working as a small-town drama critic, writing advertising copy for an automotive firm. He married an actress, Jutta Ilse Zambona, in 1925, shortly after taking a job in Berlin as associate editor of the illustrated magazine, Sport im Bild, and became a regular in Berlin society, often sporting a monocle, superficially happy.
Early in 1920, as Erich Remark, he published a novel so poorly received that the embarrassment caused him to adopt his great grandfather’s spelling of Remarque. His journalistic writing was stiff often mediocre and overly sentimental. Thus, the great success of his novel All Quiet on the Western Front, published in 1929, astonished him and everyone else. He hadn’t even set out to write a bestseller but had written, instead, to rid himself of the bleak moods that he and his friends were still experiencing. “The shadow of war hung over us,” he said, “especially when we tried to shut our minds to it.” The result, known in German as Im Westen nichts Neues, deeply moved people on both sides of the Atlantic who were also still seeking to make sense of the war.
In its first year, German readers alone bought more than one million copies of All Quiet; and the British, French, and Americans bought thousands more. The novel also attained success as an American motion picture. (One of the first “talkies,” the film, starring Lew Ayres and Lewis Wolheim, is still considered a classic. A 1979 made-for-television version starred Richard Thomas as Paul, Patricia Neal as Mrs. Baumer, and Ernest Borgnine as Katczinsky.) By 1932 All Quiet had been translated into 29 languages, and the unknown journalist had been transformed into a world-famous author.
Despite its popularity, the book generated a storm of controversy. Some people charged that Remarque had written solely to shock and to sell. Others called the book sentimental pacifism. The Nazis chose to read it as an attack on the greatness of the German nation. Ignoring the book as literature, they spread rumors to undermine Remarque’s popularity. They variously claimed that he was a French Jew, an old man who had never seen a battlefield, or the worthless son of millionaire parents. Remarque refused to comment, later telling an interviewer, “I was only misunderstood where people went out of their way to misunderstand me.”
During the controversy Remarque and his wife lived in Berlin. They were divorced in the early 1930s after the Nazis exiled him but remarried almost immediately so that Ilse, who suffered from tuberculosis, would not lose her Swiss residence permit. They lived separately until their final divorce in 1951.
Remarque’s sequel to All Quiet, based on his and his friends’ experiences after they returned from the front, was published in 1931. It was called Der Weg zuruck, or The Road Back. At the time, Remarque was neutral (or noncommittal) rather than a convinced anti-Nazi, but the sequel aroused further Nazi persecution. Goebbels, chief organizer of the witch-hunt, had first brought things to a head in 1930, when the American film version of All Quiet was screened in Berlin. His bands of Hitler Youth had rampaged through the theater hurling stink bombs, scattering white mice, and shouting, “Germany, awake!” The film was banned, and in 1931 Remarque was forced to leave Germany, where both his novels were thrown into the fire during the infamous bookburning of 1933.
Remarque commented in 1962, “I had to leave Germany because my life was threatened. I was neither a Jew nor orientated towards the left politically. I was the same then as I am today: a militant pacifist.” It is said that Goebbels later invited Remarque back, but that Remarque replied, “What? Sixty-five million people would like to get away and I’m to go back of my own free will? Not on your life!”
In 1932 German officials seized his Berlin bank account–supposedly for back taxes–but he had transferred most of his money as well as his Impressionist paintings to Switzerland, where he bought a villa at Porto Ronco on Lake Maggiore, gradually filling it with valuable antiques.
By the time Remarque was actually deprived of his German citizenship in 1938, his first three books had already been made into films in America and he was sometimes called the King of Hollywood. Until 1939 he divided his time between Porto Ronco and France; from 1939 to 1942 he rented a bungalow in Hollywood. His female companions included Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo; his male friends, Charles Chaplin, Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. Eventually, he tired of the Hollywood glitter, and in 1942 began to divide his time between New York and Porto Ronco. In 1957 he received critical acclaim as an actor for his role in the film version of his novel A Time to Love and a Time to Die. In 1958 he married an American actress, Paulette Goddard, whom he had met in the 1940s.
When he first came to America in 1939, Remarque had none of the passport difficulties experienced by most German political exiles at that time. But he felt the injustices of his fellow countrymen deeply and described them fully in his novels. He applied for American citizenship in 1941, becoming a citizen after the time required by law. He loved America–especially the easygoing friendliness of the people–but never felt fully accepted by the Germans and always resented the loss of his German citizenship. Nor was he the only member of his family to suffer at the hands of the Nazis. In 1943 his younger sister Elfriede Scholz was beheaded for spreading subversive propaganda. He was deeply moved when Osnabruck named a street for her in 1968. In 1971 the authorities also named a section of road along the town walls the Erich-Maria-Remarque-Ring.
Wherever he was living he continued to write, and, despite his financial success and love of fine living, never forgot the lessons of World War I. His work eventually included 11 novels, all written in German but immediately translated and published in English as well. They developed themes first introduced in All Quiet. (Each is described in the Further Reading section of this guidebook.) Early in the 1950s Remarque returned briefly to Germany to collect material for a book, but he never returned to his hometown, even when attending his father’s funeral near there in 1956. He felt that the new city, rebuilt after World War II, wasn’t the town he had enshrined in All Quiet, The Road Back, and The Black Obelisk.
A series of heart attacks in the late 1960s obliged Remarque to choose Rome instead of New York for his winter quarters, and he lived there and in Porto Ronco until his death in a hospital in Locarno on September 25, 1970.
Tributes from the world press were varied, and sometimes stressed strange things. In his native Germany, the weekly journal Der Spiegel published an obituary that managed to omit his ever having written a great World War I novel. Remarque would not have been surprised. The news media had always been far more interested in his glamorous life than in his novels. But the public had bought more than 13 minion copies of his books. And All Quiet on the Western Front, accounting for 8 million in sales, is still one of the greatest European bestsellers of the 20th century.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: THE PLOT
All Quiet on the Western Front tells what happens to a group of German teenagers during World War I. The narrator is Paul Baumer. He and his classmates had patriotically marched off for recruitment, spurred on by the slogans of their teacher, Kantorek. But they find no glory in war.
As the story opens, 80 men have just returned from two weeks at the front. Seventy of their comrades may be dead or wounded, but their empty bellies concern them more. They nearly riot when the cook won’t dish out the food prepared for twice their number. But the commander steps in, and for once they eat their fill. Afterward, Paul and his friends visit their classmate Kemmerich, dying from a leg amputation. All Muller can talk about is who will get Kemmerich’s fine leather boots. The more sensitive Kropp laughs bitterly at Kantorek’s having called them Iron Youth.
Lounging around the next few days, Paul recalls the basic training methods of the sadistic Corporal Himmelstoss. Cruel as he was, Himmelstoss did a lot more than Kantorek to toughen them for battle. Alone with Kemmerich, Paul can hardly bear it when his friend dies and all the orderly cares about is getting the bed cleared. Outraged at the senseless death of all such frail-looking boys, Paul nevertheless takes Kemmerich’s boots to Muller–they are of no use to Kemmerich now.
Soon, underfed replacements arrive. Katczinsky, a scavenger who could find a dinner roast in the Sahara, surprises everyone with beef and beans. He listens as Paul and his friends gleefully recall the night they trapped Himmelstoss with a bedsheet and soundly thrashed him, and joins in as they argue heatedly that the leaders simply ought to slug out their war with each other, while the soldiers watch them.
Horror descends anew the night they string barbed wire at the front. In the dark, the men instinctively avoid incoming shells, but the screaming of horses innocently caught in the bombardment chills them to the bone. When the shelling eases they trudge to a cemetery to wait for transport. Many nearly suffocate in a surprise gas attack, and after a new bombardment their stomachs turn at the sight of dead companions mixed with corpses from blown-up graves. At dawn they mindlessly return to camp.
Resting the next day, Paul’s group reluctantly conclude that war has ruined them. After their horrifying experiences, how can they ever again take jobs or studies seriously? Their spirits lift when Himmelstoss appears, sent to the front at last! Tjaden and Kropp openly insult him and leave him sputtering. When the matter is officially reviewed that evening, their light punishment is amply balanced by the lecture Himmelstoss gets on the idiocy of saluting at the front. Much later, Paul and Katczinsky slip off to a farm. Neither squawking goose nor growling bulldog thwarts Paul, and he and his comrade Katczinsky spend a companionable night roasting and eating their goose.
Then it’s back to rat-infested trenches at the front. At night they scramble for masks when the enemy sends gas; by day, they cower in stiffness to deceive observers in balloons. Terror is their companion through deafening barrages; Paul’s dugout survives a direct hit. One night the French infantry attack. All through the next day Paul’s company fights in a frenzy, the men armed only with grenades and sharpened shovels. For days, attacks and counterattacks alternate. Once Himmelstoss panics until Paul shouts sense into him and he plunges back into battle. Paul’s only relief is to dream of quiet cloisters. By the time the siege ends, only 32 men are left in the company.
Back at a field depot for reorganization, the men loaf and joke as if they hadn’t a care in the world. Thinking about their lost comrades would only drive them mad. Even Himmelstoss has changed. Not only did he rescue Westhus, who had been wounded, but, as substitute cook, he is slipping Paul’s group badly needed extra rations. Twice, Paul, Kropp, and another classmate, Leer, swim a closely guarded canal, not for the brief pleasures of a soldiers’ brothel but for the luxury of hours with three French girls. When Westhus dies after all, Paul–due for leave and temporary reassignment–wonders in agony who will be there when he returns.
On leave in his hometown, Paul relishes the way his classmate Mittelstaedt torments their old schoolmaster Kantorek, now a pitiful specimen of a soldier in the reserve unit Mittelstaedt commands. Nowhere is Paul comfortable. Duty drags him to visit Kemmerich’s mother, but his own sensitivity has been dulled by the carnage and he can’t begin to comprehend her hysterical grief over a single soldier. His own books and papers no longer comfort him, his civilian clothes don’t fit, old men lecture him on how they think the war is really going, and his mother, whom he adores, is seriously ill. So out of place does he feel that he is glad to report for duty at a nearby camp. There he often guards Russian prisoners of war, whom he begins to identify as men like himself and his comrades. The more he sees their suffering, the less he can grasp why he must call them enemy.
When Paul rejoins his company, he is relieved to find that all his closest friends have survived. Polishing is the order of the day; the troops are preparing for an inspection by the Kaiser. The whole ridiculous display leaves them burning with resentment at the blindness of their leaders. Up at the front again, Paul volunteers for a scouting mission with his friends. He is briefly separated from them in the dark trenches and panics until their distant voices steady him. Only comradeship sustains him now. Later, trapped by shelling, he blindly, repeatedly, stabs a French soldier who falls into his foxhole and must listen and watch for hours as the man’s life slowly ebbs. He is guilt stricken at having personally killed a plain soldier like himself. It takes the cool way the sniper Oellrich tallies up his kills to snap him back to front-line reality.
By sheer luck Paul’s entire group next find themselves guarding an abandoned village and supply dump. For two glorious weeks they lose themselves in feasting sleeping, and joking. Then, again by chance, both Paul and Kropp receive leg wounds while helping to evacuate a village. During their stay in a Catholic hospital, the wonder of clean sheets soon evaporates, and Paul discovers just how many ways a man can be killed–or maimed for life. The wards seem worse than the battlefield. Kropp’s leg is amputated, but Paul recovers.
After a short while Paul is back to animal existence at the front, except that conditions have grown even worse. Starved and short of supplies, the men are emaciated and their nerves so frayed that they are prone to snap at the slightest provocation. It takes only the wonder of cherry blossoms at the edge of a field to madden one man with thoughts of his farm: he deserts and is court martialed. Another, who stoically bore the screaming of the horses in the earlier battle, dies in an insane attempt to rescue a messenger dog.
As the summer of 1918 wears on, existence is reduced to a paralyzing round of filth, mud, disintegrating gear, dysentery, typhus, influenza–and battle. Muller, shot point blank in the stomach, gives Kemmerich’s boots to Paul–the boots are sturdy and may survive them all. When pleasure-loving Leer collapses of a hip wound, all Paul has left is his friend Katczinsky. Then even Katczinsky is wounded: his shin is shattered. Paul doggedly cames him far behind the lines to an aid station. But the medics can only shake their heads. Katczinsky has died on Paul’s back from a tiny splinter of shrapnel that freakishly pierced his head.
The months wear on to October, and Paul is alone. Back at the front after two weeks of rest for a trace of gas poisoning, he has nothing to hope for. He is killed on a day so quiet that the army report consists of a single line: “All quiet on the Western Front.”
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: PAUL BAUMER
Paul Baumer is the 19-year-old narrator of the story.
At the front, Paul’s special friends in Second Company include his classmates Behm, Kemmerich, Muller, Leer, and Kropp. The six of them were among 20 who enlisted together, prodded on by Schoolmaster Kantorek. Although he doesn’t say so, Paul is obviously a natural leader: Franz Kemmerich’s mother implored him to look after her son when they left home. Paul is also courageous. He may momentarily panic, but he doesn’t break under the most terrible battle conditions. He learns the sound of each type of shell; he dives for cover or grabs his gas mask at the right instant. In one battle, he gently comforts an embarrassed rookie who has soiled his underpants, and later soberly contemplates shooting the same man to spare him an agonizing death after his hip has been shattered.
Cool as he is in battle, though, Paul has a hard time making sense of it all. He keeps recalling Behm, the first of his class to die, and when a second–Kemmerich–dies, he rages inwardly at the senseless slaughter of scrawny schoolboys. The callous attitude of commanders and orderlies toward an individual death saddens and disillusions him. His elders were wrong–there is nothing glorious about war–but he has no new values to replace the patriotic myths they taught him.
At first his companions seem shallow to him–immediately forgetting the dead and turning their total attention to stockpiling the cigarets and food originally meant for the deceased soldier–and he is at pains to tell us why this callousness is necessary. Gradually, though, he comes to accept their approach: that poetry and philosophy and civilian paper-pushing jobs alike, all are utterly pointless in the midst of so much carnage. All you have is the moment at hand, and getting from it all the physical comfort you can is a worthwhile goal. There is another important element, too, to being with your comrades, as going on leave proves to Paul: no civilian understands you the way these men do, and nothing from your former life sustains you the way their friendship does. These values come together for Paul the evening he joins an older friend, Katczinsky, on a goose-hunting raid. They spend the night roasting the goose before eating it, and each time that Paul awakens for his turn at the basting, he feels Katczinsky’s presence like a cloak of comfort. At other times, panicked and alone in the dark of the trenches, all it takes to steady his nerves is the sound of his friends’ voices. If he awakens from a nightmare, the mere sound of their breathing strengthens him: he is not alone.
Paul gradually comes to realize that the enemy is no different from himself or from one of his friends. The Frenchman he kills in the trenches, Duval, looks like the kind of man whose friendship he would have enjoyed. The Russian prisoners he guards have the same feelings and desires and needs as he. He comes to see war as the ultimate horror. It’s bad enough that it pits man against man. But even animals and trees and flowers and butterflies are innocently caught up in the carnage inflicted by Man, the great Destroyer.
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