Review: A Farewell to Arms

Review: A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to ArmsA Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.

If Voltaire had read Hemingway’s famous war novel, I’d wager that he would pronounce that it is neither about war nor a novel. Compared to All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, the descriptions of war in this book are ludicrously tame. The vast majority of the time the narrator is not even at the front; and when he is, he is far behind the front lines, driving an ambulance. The bulk of the book is taken up, instead, by a love story. The war forms the backdrop—though admittedly a very conspicuous backdrop—and is not the main thread of the book.

What of the novel? Hemingway is a writer of conspicuous strengths and weaknesses; and the longer the book, the more apparent his shortcomings. Though the novel is slim, it still feels padded. Hemingway, for whatever reason, considered it dramatically necessary to narrate every time his characters ate or drank. Aside from telling us that his characters drank a lot (even while pregnant) and appreciated good wines, we learn very little from these frequent repasts, and the ultimate effect is to make the reader hungry.

The conversations, too, are repetitive—especially between the narrator and Catherine Barkley, his wartime sweetheart. While strikingly tender and frank, especially for Hemingway, the relationship between these two never sparkles with the interplay of personality. There is none of the mutual discovery we find in, say, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. Instead, the two of them talk to each other the way people talk to their dogs—asking cutesie rhetorical questions never meant to be answered.

These two examples are just part of a larger fault: Hemingway’s tendency to get carried away into nostalgic, atmospheric descriptions. At his best moments, admittedly, he creates that wistful, bittersweet, melancholic tone that he is known for, and that forms such a beautiful part of his work. But too often the book becomes pointlessly autobiographical. Hemingway is, after all, one of the strongest proponents of the “write what you know” school of fiction. Though wise advice, there is a danger to this method: Since everyone’s life is interesting to themselves, it can be difficult to know which parts may be interesting to other people. This book definitely suffers in this way.

Of course there are many strong bits. Some scenes are unforgettable—the narrator’s injury, the long retreat, rowing across the Swiss Lake, among others. I also really loved the conversations between the narrator and Rinanldi. Unlike the love story, that friendship has true chemistry. Indeed many episodes, taken by themselves, are remarkable. But do they add up to a coherent book?

I ask this specifically in regards to the ending. Since I had just read A.C. Bradley’s book on tragedy, in which he insisted that tragedy requires that a hero create his own downfall, I was struck by how un-tragic was the end of this book. The fatal stroke is not the inevitable result of any personal flaw or a misguided decision, but pure misfortune. The final effect, therefore, is not tragic, but pathetic. In Hemingway’s novel, the universe itself is malevolent, even sadistic, and humans just confused defenseless creatures caught in its maw.

Thus I am a bit perplexed that some people see this as an anti-war novel. The narrator’s crushing blow is not caused by the war; indeed it is something that could have happened to anyone. You can argue that the novel’s bleak atmosphere reflects the fatalism and the pessimism engendered by the war: a nihilistic perspective that is carried over into every phase of life—even love. Yet the narrator himself is not pessimistic—at least not most of the time; if he were, he would not have embarked on his love-affair. It is neither his perspective nor the war, therefore, that dooms the narrator, but some mysterious malevolency of the world itself that makes lasting happiness impossible, in war or in peace.

Thus, aside from a few explicitly anti-war passages in the book, the general tenor has little to do with pacifism or any other political reflection. Instead, to paraphrase the book’s most famous passage, the final message is: Everyone gets broken in the end no matter what. And I don’t think this notion has any truth or value.

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Review: A World Undone

Review: A World Undone

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. Meyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

G. J. Meyer set out to write this book to fill a gap in the available literature on the First World War: a popular, holistic account that covered every phase and every front, without presupposing much knowledge from the reader. In this, he was undeniably successful. A World Undone begins at the beginning, with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and ends at the end, with the Treaty of Versailles—signed five years to the day of the assassination of the infamous archduke.

Meyer’s scheme is simple but effective: interspersing “background” chapters between his main, military account of the war. These background chapters were inevitably more interesting for me, and provided much-needed relief from the seemingly endless string of battles, divisions, battalions, generals, troop movements, and so on that composed the military history. In these auxiliary sections, Meyer introduces us to war literature, major personalities, political traditions, economic crises, military technology, shell shock, and much else. The wealth of both historical backdrop and military history makes this book an ideal, if somewhat long, introduction to the “Great War.”

Meyer himself is an able and diligent writer, who steers a middle course between rhetorical excess and crass simplicity, keeping his prose lean and tasteful. He has the quintessential skills of the popularizer: the ability to compress information into a tight space, and to explain complex phenomenon without overwhelming the reader. He also wisely avoids speculation himself, leaving the analysis to the reader or the historian, keeping his eye focused on the surface-level events—which is desirable in an introductory text, I believe.

Even with a guide as competent as Meyer, however, the Great War is depressing and deadening. Meyer’s account, perhaps unintentionally, confirmed many stereotypes I had previously imbibed. In his telling, the beginning of the war was due to a combination of poor planning and reckless and incompetent advisors. That Germany could not mobilize its forces without invading Belgium, for example, or that Russia could not choose to mobilize only half of its troops, thus unintentionally threatening Germany—consequences of carefully-drawn plans, an arrangement that virtually guaranteed war—is difficult to believe or forgive.

As for the fighting, the impression one is left with is of remarkably courageous troops heedlessly wasted by monomaniacal generals. Offensive after ineffective offensive, with general after general trying the same tactics and achieving the same failures—leading to endless butchery. One quickly draws the conclusion that the leaders of Europe in this epoch were dim and shortsighted men.

It is this dreary and dreadful aspect that partially accounts for the First World War being overshadowed by its younger brother. The conflict was strikingly non-ideological. There are no Nazis, no Communists, no Fascists, no racial purges (except in Armenia), no freedom fighters, no Resistance—only obsolete Empires fighting for spheres of influence. The fighting, too, has none of the cinematic drama of the Second World War: only interminable shelling campaigns, repeated advances and retreats through no-man’s land, stagnant stalemates and antiquated tactics—there is nothing even vaguely romantic about the bloodshed, despite what Ernst Jünger may have thought.

But even if it is less compelling to learn about than the Second World War, the First World War arguably has even more valuable lessons to teach us. The logic of naked power confrontation is, after all, more historically common than ideological conflict. The comparatively colorless, and often incompetent, quality of the war’s leadership invites us to see the conflict in all its bare, barbaric brutality, without the distorting effects of charismatic chiefs. The manufactured hatred of whole populaces for one another—engineered through strict censorship, outright lies, and strident propaganda—is a case-study in how patriotism can be exploited for deeply cynical ends.

And most important, unlike the Second World War—a sad story that at least ends with the defeat of a genocidal maniac—the First World War has no silver lining, no comforting achievement to offset the millions of lives lost. As the vindictiveness of the victors proved, the winning side wasn’t on a clearly higher moral level than the losers; and in any case, the war didn’t even achieve a resolution to the conflicts brewing within Europe, only a partial deferment. In sum, the First World War is worth learning about because it was a calamitous, unnecessary tragedy that stubbornly resists romanticization or justification—and that is war.

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Review: Storm of Steel

Review: Storm of Steel

The Storm of SteelThe Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

War means the destruction of the enemy without scruple and by any means. War is the harshest of all trades, and the masters of it can only entertain humane feelings so long as they do no harm.

Ernst Jünger was a born soldier:neither risk-averse nor foolhardy, able to command the loyalty of others and to follow orders without question, able to fight without malice and kill without scruple. These are his captivating memoirs of fighting during the First World War.

The consensus of posterity regarding this war is that it was bloody, tragic, and ultimately inconclusive—the exemplar of a brutal, pointless war. Erich Maria Remarque, who fought on the same side and on the same front as Jünger—albeit far more briefly—writes of his experience with trauma and disgust. Yet Jünger’s memoirs, equally as bloody as All Quiet on the Western Front, are strangely warm and cheery. A born soldier, he felt right at home.

As regards the basic experiences of the war, Jünger’s memoirs cover all the bases: bloody hand-to-hand combat, endless artillery shelling, taking cover in shell-holes and scrambling to put on one’s gas-mask, swarms of flying shrapnel and bullets, and death forever prowling. But out of this basic fabric of experiences Jünger weaves a heroic and even jaunty tale, a battle narrative of gallantry and daring. Each soldier, in Jünger’s archaizing eyes, is a knight locked in a gentlemanly joust with an enemy, motivated by duty and honor. I often wondered whether this quaint way of viewing the war was some kind of subtle psychological defense mechanism, shutting out its horrors with a chivalrous fantasy; but Jünger seems to have carried this perspective with him before the fight even began.

In many ways Jünger reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Both war heroes, both adrenaline junkies, both of a seemingly inexhaustible vitality—Leigh Fermor lived to 96, Jünger to 104—and both obscenely well-educated, these two authors tend to see life as a legend. Jünger’s prose has little of that cinematographic immediacy as has Remarque’s. By comparison his writing is highly stylized, like a Byzantine mosaic or Homeric verse. Admittedly, this is more true of the first half than the second, which becomes quite thrilling. In any case it takes a special kind of person to compare an artillery bombardment to “a witch’s cauldron,” or to motivate oneself in battle by quoting a verse from Ariosto.

The ending of the book contains, in brief, some of Jünger’s thoughts on the significance of the war. Clausewitz’s famous aphorism, that war is “politics by other means,” seems to have been lost on Jünger. For him the war’s value was not in accomplishing any concrete objective—which was, in any case, foiled for Germany—but in hardening the fighting men. You might say that, for Jünger, the war was valuable for its own sake. The extreme circumstances of war roused in the soldiers an equally extreme dedication to an ideal beyond themselves, the ability to yield themselves completely to their Fatherland; and he thought that future generations would look on the soldiers much as saints:

And so, strange as it may sound, I learned from this very four years of schooling in force and in all the fantastic extravagance of material warfare, that life has no depth of meaning except when it is pledged for an ideal, and that there are ideals in comparison with which the life of an individual and even of a people has no weight.

Personally I find this view disturbing, as I’m sure many do. The nationalistic dreams of Kaisers are nothing in comparison with even one life. In any case I think history has amply proven Jünger mistaken; the very hardening anvil of war he praised led, in just a few years, to another, even more deadly war—under a regime which Jünger himself despised. And whatever we may think of the heroism displayed by individual soldiers, it is outweighed by the sheer horror of it all. I also must say that I am incredulous that someone who lost so many friends and comrades—and who himself narrowly escaped death, getting wounded 14 times—could talk in such fanciful, romantic, and vague terms about the lessons of the war—and again I wonder, was this some kind of defense mechanism?

In sum, this must be one of the oddest war memoirs ever published, equal parts exciting, off-putting, and exacerbating. For those interested in the First World War, certainly it is required reading.

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Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western FrontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All Quiet on the Western Front is an extraordinary war novel. It has everything you would expect from a book about World War I: the mixture of boredom and fear; the constant specter of gore; the unrelenting threat of death from every direction; the strong bonds between fellow soldiers and the hatred of superior officers; the reduction of life to its most basic elements; the depersonalization of oneself and one’s enemies; the feeling of apathy and pointlessness; and the difficulty in re-adjusting to civilian life. This, by and large, is the common image of the First World War nowadays, so it is surprising to me that this novel sparked controversy when it was first published. The Nazis eventually burned Remarque’s books, and later decapitated Remarque’s sister.

I have never been in battle, thank heavens, and I hope never to be. Thus the conditions described by Remarque, though doubtless true enough, often struck me as unreal—ghoulish nightmares rather than reality. Indeed, the First World War in general is hard for me to wrap my mind around. That so much carnage could result from such petty causes—it makes my stomach tie itself into a knot the more I think about it. And then there is the, for me, strange collision of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries: Kaisers and the aristocracy, cavalry charges, bayonets, juxtaposed with gas bombs, land mines, and heavy artillery. Technologically, it seems that defensive weapons far outpaced offensive ones. There were heavy artillery and machine guns, but neither were portable and so of limited use in an attack. Thus the endless trench warfare and the pointless offensives, as both sides could beat each other back but neither could win a decisive victory.

The final effect for the soldier, if he escaped with his body intact, was trauma. This was a world before PTSD; back then it was called “shell shock,” and poorly understood. But as Remarque describes the conditions on the front line, it is no wonder that recruits were traumatized; rather it would be a wonder if they weren’t. The carnage—bodies stabbed, shot, blown to bits, and wounded in every other imaginable way—was ever-present and horrific. Added to that is the constant fear—of artillery, snipers, landmines, electrified barbed wire, or merely getting separated from your fellows and lost in no-man’s land. And then the soldier must endure the loss of his friends—his fellow soldiers, with whom he forms bonds of terrific strength—as the war takes more and more men.

The worst part, perhaps, is that after enduring all this, the soldier cannot easily return to civilian life. In war, life is reduced to its bare essentials: the search for food, warmth, safety. Every moment, even those of rest, is part of a struggle to survive. Thus the soldier is shocked when he returns to his home. Civilian life, though enviably safe and comfortable, also seems terribly artificial, oriented towards goals that, to a soldier accustomed to struggling for bare survival, can seem superficial and even despicable. Remarque portrays this brilliantly, as the returning Narrator finds himself unable to communicate his experiences when he goes home on leave. After reading Proust’s novel set during the First World War, which focuses on the ridiculous pontifications of the socialites far behind the front lines, treating the war as just another topic for gossip, I can see why returning soldiers could feel disgusted.

Just thinking of how young these soldiers were—just eighteen when they began fighting—one realizes that a whole generation of men spent some of their most formative years in the most brutal conditions imaginable. It is no wonder they considered themselves the Lost Generation. And what was it for? Although admittedly the propaganda seems to have been quite effective in whipping up anti-German, -French, or -English sentiment, many soldiers must have felt like Stefan Zweig did—that the conflict was pointless. Remarque captures the absurdity of the situation: powerful men in ornate rooms, signing pieces of paper that result in thousands of young men fighting and killing thousands of other young men, not because any of them have any grievance against one another, but for the sake of the Fatherland.

Remarque conveys all this with a gripping immediacy. The story moves forward at lightning pace; and yet there is nuance and depth, too, in this short novel. Even though this is hardly a story of adventure, you realize that merely to keep on going required a kind of daily heroism—an unglamorous, grueling, thankless heroism—the loyalty to one’s fellows and the determination not to succumb to despair. War brings out both sides of the human character: our enormous capacity for violence and destruction, and our capacity for selfless devotion and extraordinary endurance. This is why war has formed one of the most popular themes of literature, going all the way back to Homer. But between those two extremes we often forget that war is long, boring, and terrifying, and that many people lose everything. It is this daily horror, and the daily heroism required to live through it, that Remarque captures.

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