All Quiet on the Western Front

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession,
and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure
to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell
of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells,
were destroyed by the war.

I read the novel  All Quiet on the Western Front in 1966. I was 13, in junior high school, and probably still believed that being a soldier was pretty cool. My dad had been in the Navy in WWII and I had taken to wearing his old Navy denim jacket and an Army field jacket that a family friend had given me.

Although the Vietnam war was heating up and starting to be part of the nightly news, I wasn’t all that aware of the politics, and Army/Navy surplus clothing was popular with teenagers including the “hippie” that were starting to show up in town and at the high school.

I chose the book from a stack the teacher offered of classics for book reports. I thought from the cover that it would be a war novel with some action.

There was certainly an anti-war movement in the country at the time, but I was at the fringe. That was something high school and college students were doing. We were still kids. All Quiet on the Western Front must have been my first anti-war novel and then I watched the 1930 film version.

At the age of 18, the author, Erich Maria Remarque, was drafted into the German army to fight in World War I. He was wounded five times. In 1929, the novel he had been working on for 10 years was published. The book was an immediate international success. It was banned in Germany, and in 1938, Remarque’s German citizenship was revoked.

All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of Paul Bäumer, the narrator, a young man of nineteen who fights in the German army on the French front in World War I. Unlike Remarque, Paul and several of his friends from school joined the army voluntarily after listening to the stirring patriotic speeches by one of their teachers.

The speeches turn out to be false as they go through their basic training with a petty, cruel Corporal. The patriotism gets beaten out of them by the time they get to the front.

Paul’s squad gets bombed in a French town close to the front. One of his friends dies and another is severely wounded. Paul, who is also wounded, is granted leave and at home finds out his mother is dying of cancer. He realizes that the older men in town, like his teacher, have no sense of the horrors of modern warfare. He tells his friend’s mother that when he was killed he did not suffer. That’s a lie.

As the book closes, he is writing a letter to a friend, the only other survivor of their class, though he is now an amputee. I don’t know if there need to be spoiler alerts for a book and film that are so old, but the conclusion of the novel (and film) really hit me hard as a kid. I’ll leave that unmentioned.

Like Paul and his friends, I started to think about concepts like nationalism, patriotism, the draft, and Vietnam. I started to pay attention to the anti-war movement rhetoric. I didn’t see war as glorious or honorable as I had as a kid playing army with my friends in the neighborhood. I shifted my fear from the atomic bombs they had warned us about in elementary school to the war that I might be required to enter in a few years.

AllQuiet400a-shp
frame from the 1930 film

“Comrade, I did not want to kill you. . . . But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. . . . I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?”

Paul says those words to the dead body of a French soldier whom he has just killed. It is when he first realizes that for any differences of birth or uniform, the enemy is fundamentally no different from him.

The 1930 film version of All Quiet on the Western Front is considered a classic. It won the Oscar for best picture. It is directed by Lewis Milestone. I saw it when I was a teen and later in a film course in college on a big screen.

I originally saw the film version in the “Film Society,” an after-school club that a teacher ran in my high school. That year, the idea of being drafted and going to Vietnam was very real. With all the anti-war sentiment amongst my classmates, the opening sequence of a teacher urging his students to volunteer while troops marched outside their classroom actually got some laughs from our audience. Who would volunteer to go to war?

The film probably seems somewhat dated to modern audiences used to graphic battle footage, but the effect of the camera in the trenches and how the young soldiers quickly lose their ideas of glory on the battlefield still had an impact on me. World War I seems like ancient history to a young audience today – as does WWII, Korea and even Vietnam.

Without a draft, I don’t know that high school and college students give the same thought to war. I was in the last class to be in the draft lottery which we watched on TV in my Rutgers freshman dormitory. That lottery (which always makes me think of the Shirley Jackson short story that we had read in a high school English class) must seem absurd to kids today. We sat in our dorm and watched someone pull balls out – just like the nightly state money lotteries of today – with birthdays and a corresponding number that determined where you were in the draft line. I lucked out with a high number. What could you say to the kid sitting next to you with #10?

In the film, Lew Ayres was the unknown actor who played Paul. I only learned in researching this article that Ayres became a pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II. He did serve in battle as a medic, but taking that position hurt his career in a time of great patriotism between the two world wars when you would have expected a young man to feel that loyalty to his homeland that the German professor pushed at his students.

Now, as American troops have left Afghanistan, war means Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. You see warfare and its effects on the nightly news. South Vietnam fell after U.S. troops left. Today, people go there on vacation. What did we accomplish?

Erich Maria Remarque was born in Osnabrück, Germany in 1898 and became a citizen of the United States in 1947 and was married to American film star Paulette Goddard. He died in 1970.

I watched the latest film version of the novel. It is a 2022 German film (in English). It’s very good but it is much more graphic than earlier versions. It follows the idea that to be anti-war it needs to show us the horrors and futility of war.

Finding True North

There’s a bit of a curse on those of us who studied literature in college. You tend to see symbols, metaphors, and analogies all around you. Maybe you see the games of Chess and Go as defining Western and Eastern societies.  Maybe the seasons take on symbolic significance. For me, using a compass has always felt like more than just literally finding your way and not getting lost.

Let me set aside symbolism for now and write about my own experiences with maps and compasses. As a kid, I was always playing with compasses. At first, cheap ones of the Cracker Jack prize variety probably, and then later a real compass by way of Cub Scouts. I knew very little about how to use it. Like most people, I knew it pointed North, which was useful if you wanted to go North. I had no idea how it would help you if you were in the middle of the forest lost and pulled it out. Which way is home?

It took me a while to learn that the compass really was only useful if you used it when you went into that forest, and it would help if you could use it along with a good (as in topographic) map.

Of course, this was all before GPS could be in your hand. But the GPS you have on your phone or car is not going to help you if you are in the middle of a big forest and get lost. I’m sure that using a map and compass will one day be considered an oddity – like doing calculations with a slide rule.

I enjoyed the compass and map and the drawing lines and angles on the map. It made me feel like a navigator or adventurer from the books and movies I loved in my youth.

Many years later, I got into orienteering for a time. Orienteering is a sport that requires using a map and compass to navigate from point to point in diverse and usually unfamiliar terrain. It can be very competitive.

You get a specially prepared orienteering map which has on it control points marked by flags (like the one shown above). The objective is to get from point to point as fast as possible. In many events, it becomes very much a race through the woods. I found your speed using a map and compass was sometimes only half as important as the speed of your running.

One of the big lessons for me in using a compass was the discovery that if you don’t know how you got somewhere, a compass won’t tell you where to go to get back to where you began.

That’s where the English major in me took over. I would often think in my daily life about where I was – not literally on a map – and wonder “How did I get here?”

Once lost, taking out a compass is nearly worthless. You needed to take a bearing at the beginning. You needed to keep taking bearings throughout the journey. You needed some kinds of reference points for when things around you look unfamiliar.

Why does a post I wrote here years ago called “Getting Lost” continue to be one of the most-read entries on the blog? I’d like to think that it was well written and a good combination of both the literal and figurative aspects of “getting lost.” I think it touched on something that sometimes sends people to counseling, religion, drugs or alcohol, or even thoughts about suicide. How did I get here? How do I get back on the path?

Orienteering courses have boxes (controls) that have been set up for you. and a path is there. You just need to find it. I lost interest in formal orienteering. That was a combination of time constraints (I had two young sons then.), bad knees (trail running is tough), and an inability to do the navigating fast enough to be competitive.

I started creating my own maps and courses. I drew my own maps of local woods. I picked landmarks – huge boulders, the confluence of streams, an unusual tree – and created my own courses. I walked them without concern for speed.

I bought my two sons compasses, gave them lessons, and took them out on treasure hunts. There was one in the Maine woods that we did with friends that led them to a cache of candy treasures that they still talk about 20 years later.

I liked the details in most orienteering maps – the large boulder, isolated tree, big stump, stone wall, fence, swamp, dry river, fields, dense bush – the personalized nature of the landmarking.

I have also had a lifelong fascination with survival techniques. My youthful readings of Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson, and adult readings of survival guides like those by Tom Brown, and non-fiction accounts like Into Thin Air and especially Into the Wild by John Krakauer always send me back, not away, from the woods.

Early on, I came across the survival acronym STOP.  Stop,  Think, Observe, and Plan.  You learn that the single most important survival tool is your brain.

Of course, I also liked the accessories of orienteering and survival training. I own too many compasses, too many maps, and plenty of store-bought and handmade items to take into the wild. (Vaseline-soaked cotton balls, packed in a film canister make a reliable, cheap, non-spoiling, non-spilling fire starter.)

This brings me to True North. True North is the direction along the earth’s surface towards the geographic North Pole. If you get into using a map and compass, you quickly learn that True North usually differs from magnetic north. That’s the direction of the magnetic north pole – the one that your compass needle to dawn to. The North on that compass I had as a child pointed at a North, but which one was the true North? (On the technical side, there’s even a “grid North”  – the direction northwards along the grid lines of a map projection.)

I learned to look up from my map and the trail.  The direction of true north is marked in the skies by the north celestial pole.  Basically, it’s the position of the star Polaris – AKA the North Star, the Pole Star, or the Lodestar. But, due to the precession of the Earth’s axis, the true north rotates in an arc. That arc takes about 25,000 years to complete. I found that to be a staggering thought.

In 2102, Polaris will make its closest approach to the celestial north pole.  (In comparison, 5,000 years ago the closest star to the celestial north pole was Thuban.

Find whatever symbolism you want in that looking up to find True North that I discovered. I did learn that looking only at the trail ahead was not going to get me where I wanted to go.

On maps issued by the United States Geological Survey, true north is marked with a line terminating in a five-pointed star. If only it was so clear in our own lives where True North was located. Not knowing our own destination before we start out, not taking note of the landmarks and milestones along the way, and not knowing that there are unseen forces affecting where True North is located make the journey far more frightening.

More Reading
Be Expert with Map and Compass, the Orienteering Handbook
Orienteering
A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Orienteering: Skills and Strategies
Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS
Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass
Land Navigation Handbook: The Sierra Club Guide to Map, Compass and GPS
Walking and Orienteering

Mid-Week Moments

Last week, somehow, a post that I had drafted long ago “published itself” on the site. Some trick of technology. Or maybe a sign. Get this post finished.

The post is a shorter one than most here. It’s the kind of post that I sometimes use on a Friday night as the weekend is getting into gear. I had created another category here long ago called “Evening Thoughts” which I use when something hits me to write on a weekday. I suppose there is some crossover but the midweek posts will be intentionally on Wednesdays. Not every week, but the first will appear tonight and it’s that post that appeared very briefly online though unfinished and was caught and reported to me by my faithful reader and friend, Leon.

I also occasionally reread an old post and find errors or I have changed my mind about the topic. If I do a rewrite, I’ll make those into Mid-Week Moments. If you’re a new reader of Weekends in Paradelle, they will be new posts. If you’re one of the old faithful, you might recognize some and the really sharp readers will see the changes.

At the Age of 14

The summer that I was 14 was not my favorite summer. I guess I was supposed to be excited to be starting high school in September. But our ninth grade was in the same building as grades 7 and 8 in the configuration known as a junior high school in the days before middle schools. It didn’t seem like a big deal to be a freshman in the same building.

My father had gotten very sick the summer I was 10. He had a brain tumor and when they removed it he was paralyzed on the left side of his body. I was 10, and that was the last summer of my childhood.

What set me down this sad nostalgic path to the past was a calendar reminder on my phone that today is the 14th birthday or anniversary of this Weekends in Paradelle blog. That’s almost as hard to grasp as how many years it has been since I was 14.

Weekends in Paradelle started July 30, 2008. I was still toiling full-time in the fields of academia. Actually, I had recently changed jobs moving from one college to another college to direct a writing initiative that was a five-year federal grant. I thought then that the grant would carry me to a point where I might consider retirement from classrooms and campuses, but the end of that grant didn’t mean retirement. But that’s a different story.

As you can read in the first post on this blog, I intended this to be a place for things that didn’t fit on other blogs I was using. More personal, I suppose. It took a month to two to find its place.

The”paradelle” part comes from an invented poetry form – part villanelle, part parody. It is a form I have tried my hand at writing. rather difficult.

The “weekends” was my idea of controlling the posting and limiting myself to Saturdays, Sundays, and sometimes Friday nights. I’ve stayed with that except for the occasional celestial observation that occurs during the week. A Full Moon on Wednesday will get a midweek post.

“Memory is partly fact, partly fumes,” writes Norman Lock in A Fugitive from Walden Pond. I picked up that novel at one of the local leave-a-book-take-a-book Little Libraries in my neighborhood. It was the title that hooked me, since I have been a Walden fan since I read that book the summer I was 14. That’s just one of those many synchronicities.

I didn’t know it was the fourth book in Lock’s historical novel series. It is about a slave, Samuel Long, who escapes from Virginia, and travels the Underground Railroad to Massachusetts. In Walden Woods, he meets Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Lloyd Garrison, and other transcendentalists and abolitionists. Having made my own journey a few years ago to Walden and encountered all those characters via their homes, books, and graves, I enjoyed the read.

But is memory “partly fact, partly fumes”? Perhaps. I’ve read in several places that our memories change every time we access them. Some of the recollection is fact and i suppose you could call the rest “fumes” from those facts. Fume is an odd word to choose since it is defined as “a smoke, vapor, or gas especially when irritating or offensive.” It goes back to Latin fūmus “smoke” and it shows up in fumigate and the verb form is to be in a state of excited irritation or anger.

Happily, most of my memories are not irritating or offensive. They are partly fact and possibly partly hazy, as through smoke, and not as clear as they once were to me.

I begin another year in Paradelle, my weekend getaway. The weather is excellent today. Clear and not too hot or humid. My 2-year-old granddaughter is her on an overnighter visit. We walked to the Little Library up the block and she found a book she wanted to bring home. She had her sippy cup, we read the book, and now she’s napping as I type. This memory is all fact and partly perfumed by her.

Writing in a Paris Café

My wife and I are still planning to leave Paradelle and jet to France this summer for a vacation that was pandemic-postponed in 2021 and 2020. Of course, a positive COVID test in the 72 hours before we leave will cancel it again. (I did note this morning that they have lifted the testing requirement for now when I return from France.)

Though I hope not to be an American cliché, I will undoubtedly fall into some Romantic traps set by years of reading literature and watching films. I have never been there but my wife studied there and taught French for many years so I feel less conspicuous – though perhaps her skills will make me more conspicuous.

How can I sit in a Paris cafe and not think about Hemingway and all those American ex-patriates who sat there drinking, talking, and writing?

Never write in a café, especially in Europe. Ever since Hemingway, this has been the literary equivalent of what in mountain climbing is called the “tech weenie” (that is, someone who cannot get a foot off the ground but is weighed down with $10,000’s worth of equipment). Literary skill, much less greatness, cannot be had with a pose, and exhibitionism extorts the price of failure. Also, have pity on the weary Parisians who have wanted only a citron pressé but have been unable to find a café where every single seat is not occupied by an American publicly carrying on a torrid affair with his Moleskine. – Mark Helprin

Helprin’s advice for European touring is not unlike my own thoughts here about thinking that an isolated cabin in the woods might prove the inspiration to write that Great American Novel or at least some poems. I don’t plan any serious writing while in France, but I will have a little travel notebook to record places and things we do to supplement my photos. A picture may sometimes speak a thousand words, but I often look at a travel photo and think “Now where was I when I took this one?”

The Yellow House (The Street) in Arles by Vincent

I don’t plan to create any great art when traveling either but I do sometimes do some sketching in the journal, and when we get to Arles I will fall into a van Gogh romance. The yellow house where Vincent lived while he worked there is gone now but I do plan to do some painting there. No fabulous Impressionist canvases but something.

Though I am not a fan of traveling – the getting there and getting home parts – I will always give in to the Romance of being in a new place.

This Jest Seems Infinite

I finished Infinite Jest. It took me five years. I’m proud that I kept at it and didn’t quit, but I am not happy that it took that long or that I am in a minority of readers who didn’t enjoy it.

The novel is David Foster Wallace’s most famous work. It was published in 1996 and was a best-seller and widely praised. It is more than 1,000 pages long. It has 100 pages of footnotes.

The only thing I had read by Wallace before was his collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, which I liked.  Infinite Jest is nothing like those essays.

hatI have a few friends who rate it as one of their favorites and a few more people I know who were unable to finish reading it.  I’m not alone as shown by the fact that you can buy hats and t-shirts stating that you’re in that group (seen above). 

I never got past page 100 in the book and had to return it to the library. I might not have ever picked it up again but I was gifted some Audible books and so I figured I can certainly make it through the other 900 pages as an audiobook.  Sadly, the Audible version didn’t make things much easier.

I started reading in January 2017 and finished in January 2022. Now, that it was a solid five years of reading and listening. According to my Goodreads account, there were more than 200 other books I read during that time period. 

I didn’t enjoy the story or footnotes at all, so what compelleded me to keep going?  I’m not sure. I wrote earlier about the same situation with a John Irving novel and Irving is an author I very much enjoy reading. But it is very rare for me to walk out on a movie or give up on a book once I start reading.

The novel’s structure is unconventional and it includes endnotes (388, including some that have their own footnotes). The novel’s primary locations are the Enfield Tennis Academy (E.T.A.) and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House which are near each other in suburban Boston, Massachusetts.

I am hard-pressed to summarize a plot. The multiple narratives are somewhat connected via a film, also called Infinite Jest, and sometimes known as “the Entertainment.”

I suppose I kept picking up on the novel because some friends liked it so much and the very positive reviews. It made TIME magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.  

The novel’s title is from Hamlet in that famous scene when Hamlet holds the skull of the court jester, Yorick, and says, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!” 

Hamlet is a sad man. Lots of death in that play. Not a lot of joy in Infinite Jest or Wallace either. David Foster Wallace battled devastating depression his whole life and committed suicide in 2008. His unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011. I don’t think I’ll start that one.