Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”

I recently finished reading “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque. Although I am not normally a huge fan of war novels, this WWI story took my breath away. This narrative is both stunning and terrible and unhindered, lays out the realities of war.

My generation is far removed from war. We know what we see on television and what we read about in history books, but it is difficult to grasp the reality of wartimes with anything more than a basic surface understanding. Remarque’s writing cut through my knowledge of what it means to partake in war and recreated the picture that I hold of the first World War with simple, yet piercing imagery of war torn landscape and life, or what can be considered life, that exists in the trenches. He discusses the violent dismemberment of men with commonplace observation, the way I would describe the layout of my kitchen. His sketches of emotional turmoil, deadening, and desensitization to the horrors of daily life at the war front is both disturbing and touching. The clarity with which Remarque writes spoke to me from the perspective of the narrator, Paul Baumer. Baumer, the only survivor of his initial troop and his group of friends and schoolmates, exposes the harsh realities, and does so not seeking pity, but merely sharing the day-to-day existence as if writing a journal.

One of Remarque’s opening statements says it perfectly: “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.” Remarque’s novel shares the tale of stolen youth, of men, younger then myself, brought to fight for their country’s freedom and having their youth taken from them much too early. 

What touched me most about this novel is the ubiquitous nature of the narration. Baumer, although a German soldier, tells a story that is transferrable between soldiers from all nations. He is a character who is simply fighting for survival. It is life or death and he kills only to survive. 

This incredibly sad novel was a wonderful read. It should be a requirement that all people know of this story. It is an eye-opener to the realities of war and though it is fiction, does not hide the truth of the horror and despair that accompanies war. 

 

Reading Colm Toibin’s “Brooklyn”

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What a wonderfully tempting and engaging read this novel was. Colm Toibin’s style in this 2009 novel about a young Irish woman who is sent away from her family in Ireland to Brooklyn, is captivating and simple in a clean and beautiful way. Once introduced to the protagonist, Eilis, I was hooked.

Eilis is a hard working, determined, and motivated young woman. I found I could relate closely to her ambition and her drive to be successful in her business. Unable to obtain work in her native Ireland, she emigrates to New York to work in a department story while taking night classes in bookkeeping. Toibin describes her schedule: working six days a week, classes three days a week from the time she finishes work until late into the night, and homework and an attempt to maintain a social life in those few spare moments. One thing is for certain in this novel, this girl is buuuusy! This 1950s setting expects Eilis to be pleasant and cheerful 100% of the time at work,  to follow the strict rule under the watchful eye of the strict landlady Mrs. Kehoe, and to purport herself as a proper, decent, well-mannered woman. 

Eilis faces the struggle of being a world away from home for the first time, with the only means of contact being letters (certainly not something we’re used to in this day and age). What I find surprising is Eilis makes no close female companions in her time in America. She attends dances with the other women in the boarding house and she socializes with the women at work to some degree, but after two years on this new continent, she cannot claim to have the female companionship that she describes as having back in Ireland. Although she is dedicated and extremely hard working, I am skeptical to the fact that an endearing character such as Eilis remains without female friends throughout the 260-odd pages of this book. 

My second criticism would be Eilis’ treatment of the man, Tony, whom she falls in love with and marries before returning to Ireland. In America, she questions her relations with this man, uncertain in her love for him. Understandably she is nervous and frightened, but she does not object to his sexual advances and his postulations of love though they often make her uncomfortable. Her courtship arises out of a need for companionship and a desire for love, but her marriage seems to be out of his fear of losing her and his insistence on them remaining together. Upon returning to Ireland, Eilis’ confusion is made apparent in her conduct with Jim, a young man from her childhood. Eilis’ affections are quickly turned to this new man as her husband remains in America. Her actions are quick and seem thoughtless and confused. She is a character who is obviously unsure in her decisions and is easily swayed by the persuasions of the men in her life. Again, this is where I find unlikeliness in her character. Hardly any time passes before her affections are transferred to another, but she seems to feel her emotions with such intensity with each man. In this, I find her somewhat insincere. 

Finally, the book ends with Eilis’ abrupt return to America and the implication that news of her affair has spread throughout her small Irish town however the story doesn’t progress beyond the boat. I would have enjoyed reading about her return home to Tony and how she dealt with the knowledge of her affair abroad. This would have nicely rounded out the novel for me. 

I did enjoy this novel immensely. I would read it again for sure. 

A Great Read to Kick off the Holidays

I was immediately drawn into V. S. Naipaul’s Half a Life. Naipaul’s narrative style is smooth and comforting. It sucked me into the story from page one and it’s been a long time since I’ve picked up a book with an author that has the same skill. This book was most DEFINITELY needed at this time of year. Exams are over and it’s holiday time, so back to the books. I’m glad I chose this one.

This story is tragic and the protagonist, unredeemable. I felt no sympathy for him whatsoever, but I was compelled to know more about his life. Willie Chandran is the son of a Brahmin man and his low caste, “backwards” wife. He is the son of a defiant and self-loathing father. This self-loathing is something that we see is transferred from father to son. Although Willie loathes his father and everything his father is in life, he himself cannot escape these very qualities: self-loathing, hollowness, emptiness.

At first I found myself striving for Willie to succeed, to raise himself from his poverty and to succeed in England. But Willie lives a completely unsatisfying life. He is not satisfied with his career, with his schooling, with his social life, and most prominently, with his sexual endeavours. He notices sexuality in other men: Percy’s well-dressed physical presentation, the muscular thighs of a worker in Africa, Anna’s half-brother sensually stroking his thigh. I would equate his attention to the power and prowess of the men around him to the noticeable lack of such qualities in himself. Time after time Willie leaves his encounters with women completely unsatisfied. He is unable to move beyond a basic physical relationship to connect on a deeper, more meaningful level. Gracia, the one woman with who he feels the greatest and most passionate connection, is the one women he cannot have as both she and he are married to others.

His actions are self-sabotaging. He seeks what he cannot attain and brings about his own destruction, but Willie never seems to realize that it is he that is the source of his own downfall. Perhaps that is why he has such a compelling tale. He encompasses the nature of human vice. He stands for desire, torment, longing, shallowness, emptiness. Willie is what most people fear. Although he makes attempts at success (studying abroad, writing a novel, moving amongst the elite), he remains attached to his past. His is unable to move–at least mentally– past the caste of his father. In his mind and his being, he remains trapped by the failures of his family. He lacks ambition and motivations and moves through life on the backs of others. It is for these reasons I say he is an unredeemable character. It is because he never seems to truly desire to better himself and never provides a reason for his misdemeanours and transgressions.

This book was an excellent read. I could hardly put it down and when I did, I couldn’t wait to return to the story. And now that it’s the Christmas break, it’s time to power on to the next novel!