All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Although it’s far too well known in the English-speaking world by its translated title, Remarque’s original German title, Im Westen nichts Neues, means something more like “Nothing New on the Western Front”. While the English title conjures up a deceptive lull before the storm, the original German is an ironic comment on the death of yet another soldier, and perhaps a whole generation, being nothing sufficiently new to be worth reporting.

The novel was first serialised at the end of 1928, then published in book form in January 1929. It became an instant bestseller. By the end of that year more than thirty translations had appeared, followed in 1930 by an Academy Award-winning Hollywood film directed by Lewis Milestone (and produced by Carl Laemmle Jr., of Universal Horror fame). When the film reached Germany, the National Socialists, newly voted into being the second largest political party in the country, campaigned to have it banned for its supposed negative take on the “reputation of the German soldier”. They saw their success on this front as their first major victory over democratic Weimar Germany. (When they achieved full power in 1933, Remarque’s novel was one of the first books to be publicly burned.)

As a novel, All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t really have a story. (The very lack of anything by way of a change in the narrator’s fortunes — a way out of his Hell — let alone one due to his own actions, could well be part of the point.) There’s nothing he can do but go where he’s told to go and try to survive. Rather, the novel does its best to present us with all the basic types of situation a WWI foot-soldier might have found himself in: initial training in bootcamp, waiting for orders near the front, at the front and under fire, on leave and unable to adjust, on duty guarding POWs, back at the front and stuck in no-man’s-land, one-on-one combat with an enemy in a bomb crater, in hospital watching fellow patients being taken one by one to the Death Room, then back at the front once more…

US HB cover by Paul Wenck

From the start, it feels like a sourcebook of all those telling moments you find in so many subsequent novels, films, and TV shows, which illustrate the brutality and horror of modern warfare in a single image. One after another, like a series of trump cards being laid down, you get them in single-paragraph snapshots: helplessly listening to screaming, wounded horses; watching a beloved friend dying in a hospital and wondering who will get his boots (“For us, it is only the facts that count. And good boots are hard to come by.”); the young recruit the narrator takes under his wing, telling him all the tricks on how to survive at the front, only for a random chance to blow him away; the wounded comrade the narrator carries back singlehandedly for medical help, only to find, on arrival, he’s been dead for some time…

What will quickly become clichés of modern warfare fiction are all there: the comrade who, despite the privations of the front-line, can always get hold of those little luxuries; the ultra-strict training officer who goes over the top in breaking his charges; the old men at home who know all about how the war should be fought; the dead enemy soldier with the photo of his wife and child in his wallet… But there are also so many scenes you don’t get in subsequent films and fiction, and which must have really been shocking to those first readers — those who hadn’t witnessed such scenes themselves — for instance, when the narrator and a fellow soldier pass an all-but denuded forest, and speculate idly on why the corpses hanging in the trees are all naked. It’s because they’ve been blown out of their uniforms, it’s just a thing that happens.

Poster for the 1930 film

What probably seemed among its most notable qualities back then — and certainly one that riled the Nazis — is it’s not pro- or anti-German. It takes no real political sides at all. As the translator of the edition I read, Brian Murdoch, points out in his afterword, Remarque’s narrator almost never uses the word “enemy”. The soldiers are all too aware that the people they’re fighting are simply recruits like themselves:

“‘It’s funny when you think about it,’ continues Krop. ‘We’re out here defending our homeland. And yet the French are there defending their homeland as well. Which of us is right?’”

To these foot-soldiers, the war’s no longer a thing to win or lose, it’s a thing to endure and survive — and survive at the most basic level:

“We set out as soldiers… we reach the zone where the front line begins, and we have turned into human animals.”

Remarque’s main point, though, is how the war was harshest on one specific generation:

“Things are particularly confused for us twenty-year-olds… The older men still have firm ties to their earlier lives—they have property, wives, children, jobs and interests, and these bonds are all so strong that the war can’t break them. But for us twenty-year-olds there are only our parents, and for some of us a girlfriend.”

This is a generation that went straight from school to the front line, egged on by ultra-patriotic schoolmasters preaching heroism and a greater Germany, and who had no chance to experience anything like the life they’d been brought up to expect. Suddenly, once the shells started falling, they find it has all been a lie, and none of them has had the chance to build up any experience to the contrary:

“They [our teachers] were supposed to be the ones who would help us eighteen-year-olds to make the transition, who would guide us into adult life, into a world of work, of responsibilities, of civilised behaviour and progress—into the future… But the first dead man that we saw shattered this conviction. We were forced to recognise that our generation was more honourable than theirs…”

Education suddenly means nothing, because it had all been preparation for a completely different world:

“Nobody taught us at school how to light a cigarette in a rainstorm, or how it is still possible to make a fire even with soaking wet wood—or that the best place to stick a bayonet is into the belly, because it can’t get jammed in there, the way it can in the ribs.”

Something underlined most poignantly by another comrade’s death:

“Bertinck has been hit in the chest… After a few minutes he sinks down like a rubber tyre when the air escapes. What use is it to him now that he was so good at mathematics at school?”

Remarque in 1929

Erich Maria Remarque (1898–1970) had written one previous novel, published in 1920, under his birth name Erich Remark. He changed the spelling of his surname to the older Remarque (his grandfather’s name) to distance himself from that first novel, Die Traumbude, which he’d begun before the war. It has, apparently, never been translated. (The middle name “Maria” he changed — his original being Paul — in tribute to his mother.)

After having his writing banned by the Nazis, he moved to Switzerland, then to America, and then back to Switzerland in 1948, where in 1958 he married ex-Mrs Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard. He published a kind-of sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, The Road Back, in 1931.

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The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

1983 cover by Yvonne Gilbert

Without planning to, I’ve been working through some Carnegie Medal winners recently, starting with Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows, then Margaret Mahy’s The Haunting. I’ve written about Penelope Lively’s teen fiction before, but this is her Carnegie Medal winner, from 1973. (And just as both Westall and Mahy were the only writers to have won the Carnegie twice, Lively is the only writer to have won both the Carnegie and the Booker Prize.)

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe has been described (by Colin Manlove, in From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England) as “the best of Lively’s books in the fantastical vein”. Manlove goes on to say it’s “possibly indebted to Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man” as it “deals with an unnatural survival from the past”, though Lively’s previous YA books also dealt with an “unnatural survival from the past” — and I’ve heard that her adult fiction does too, though in a non-supernatural way — so no influence from Amis is necessary.

In Kempe, James Harrison and his family have just moved into East End Cottage in Ledsham, Oxfordshire, a small town that seems to encapsulate Lively’s picture of the world as a place whose heart belongs to the past, but which is slowly being crowded out by modernity:

“It was a very old place, half way between a village and a small town, and had, somehow, the air of being dwarfed by the present. New housing estates were mushrooming now on two sides of it, but the centre remained as it must always have been…”

1992 cover by Richard Jones

Just before James takes residence in his new attic bedroom, it, too, has been modernised, by builders who found (and broke) a small sealed bottle in the wall by the window. Unwittingly, they’ve released the ghost of Thomas Kempe Esq., who died in 1629. A restless, poltergeist-like spirit, Kempe is itching to get back to his old ways of making himself rather bullyingly useful to the people of Ledsham, offering such services as “Sorcerie, Astrologie, Geomancie, Alchemie, Recoverie of Goodes Lost, Physicke”. He decides James is to be his apprentice (and representative), and begins posting notices around the town to let it be known that “I doe once more practise my arte and cunninge in this house.”

But nobody wants “Sorcerie, Astrologie, Geomancie”, etc., nowadays, so Kempe starts attacking what he sees as his modern rivals. He trashes the local GP’s office (“Physicke”), causes havoc in an archaeological dig (“Recoverie of Goodes Lost”), interferes with the TV whenever it shows a weather forecast (that, too, being one of his services), and generally gives the police, the vicar, and an elderly neighbour, Mrs Verity, who Kempe decides is a witch, a hard time.

2006 cover

The trouble is, because Kempe cannot be seen, and because he mentions James’s name as his apprentice in several of his notices — and because most of his activity takes place in the Harrison household, around James — James gets the blame. James was a bit of a troublemaker beforehand, but quickly comes to resent being blamed for (for instance) pulling the chair out from under the vicar the moment before he sits down, or altering a pharmacy prescription for his sister’s cough to something more herbalistic. He certainly resents the suggestion he might have thrown a brick through someone’s window or chalked insults on Mrs Verity’s wall.

But James is caught between two intolerables. He doesn’t want to be Kempe’s apprentice (which would be just encouraging the self-important old so-and-so, and trapping himself into doing all sorts of things he doesn’t want to do, like having to tell the archaeologists to stop their work, or convincing the people of Ledsham Mrs Verity is a witch, and probably having to learn Latin, too), but if he resists, the poltergeist activity kicks off, and his parents simply blame him for all the breakages and nasty tricks. When he says it’s a ghost, they take that to be one more desperate attempt at the “it wasn’t me” defence. His sister, used to being at odds with him, won’t listen. Even his new friend, bespectacled Simon, never wholly believes. As James says:

“Nobody believes in him except me… And I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to.”

1973 HB cover

If The Ghost of Thomas Kempe wasn’t basically humorous, it could easily be awful for James, considering how harassed and isolated he becomes. It’s not like Lively’s previous go at the theme of a sorcerous personage from the past being summoned into the present (The Whispering Knights) where it’s three children who summon a witch, so at least there’s three of them to share the burden — and it’s definitely their fault. Nor is it quite like William Mayne’s It, another book on the same theme, whose protagonist finds herself singled out for the unwanted devotions of a witch’s familiar, because in her case she’s believed when she talks to an adult about it, it’s just that the adult can’t do anything to help. In fact, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe has close ties with both the other Carnegie winners I’ve reviewed recently, as they’re all about children having to deal with troublesome supernatural incursions while being blamed for their ill-effects, with varying degrees of isolation and distress. (Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows is the one whose protagonist is most responsible for the supernatural incursion, but only because he has the most emotional baggage to deal with anyway.)

One theme that pops up in Kempe but doesn’t get fully developed is when James starts to become aware of his own childhood as just one more aspect of the flow of history. He’s startled, for instance, to find old Mrs Verity telling tales of how naughtily she behaved as a girl, and so comes to see her as still partly a child. And the historical Arnold Luckett (a boy of James’s age who dealt with a bout of Kempe disturbances in the previous century, who James reads about), pops up as an old man in a portrait in the local school. In both cases, we see childhood put in its context as a stage of life that leads to adulthood, but also never quite goes away.

1976 cover

Perhaps we’re supposed to see Thomas Kempe’s selfish insistence the world returns to his idea of how it should be as a form of childishness? Certainly, his poltergeist tantrums are. And the inverse of that idea — the idea that being a child is like being a ghost — comes out in James’s realisation that “as far as most grown-ups were concerned, children were invisible”, therefore ghost-like, but also likely to cause poltergeist-like trouble.

Among Lively’s YA books, I still prefer The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, perhaps because of its slightly more serious tone and folk-horror feel of dealing with things pagan, primal and dangerous, but as far as Lively’s “unnatural survival from the past” theme goes, I think The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is more successful than her other two YA books I’ve covered, Astercote and The Whispering Knights (though it doesn’t have as adventurous a conclusion as either).

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe was read by Ronald Pickup on Jackanory in December 1977, and adapted into a US TV movie in 1979, which sets the action in a modern-looking house in the USA, thereby immediately compromising the influence-from-the-past theme. I haven’t watched the whole thing, though (the one version on YouTube has a weirdly warping picture), so it may improve.

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The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien

The thing that stuck with me from my first reading of The Hobbit (nearly forty years ago, now), was Mirkwood. A place of darkness, where so little sunlight filters through from above it’s a shock when Bilbo climbs a tree and gets a reminder of what daylight looks like (plus a glimpse of Mirkwood’s weird, black butterflies). It’s as much a psychological gloom as a lack of light, with Bilbo and the dwarves having for the first time to do without Gandalf (who so far has been the one to rescue them from trolls, goblins, wolves, and hunger), and soon finding themselves helplessly lost in an unforgiving and almost alien environment, where even the water is dangerous. Mirkwood has its roots pretty clearly in classic fairy tales, but for me it’s the moment when Tolkien’s particularly Tolkien-ish invention kicks in. As he himself wrote in a letter to Stanley Unwin in 1937, the year the book was first published:

“Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it [i.e., his Silmarillion mythology] — so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge.”

Even before the spiders appear, Mirkwood feels like a ramping up of peril for Bilbo and the dwarves. But it’s not yet the sort of peril — the quality that leant its name to Tolkien’s term for Faërie, “the Perilous Realm” — that you find in The Lord of the Rings, which combines mortal danger with an addictive draw, and whose physical threat is secondary to its moral, psychological, or even spiritual danger. In The Lord of the Rings it’s embodied in the One Ring, but in The Hobbit, you feel it most around treasure, and in particular gold “upon which a dragon has long brooded”.

As I found out when recording The Adventure Film Podcast with my brother, gold pops up with surprising frequency in adventure stories, and almost always with the same result: it lures you on the adventure, but once you’ve acquired it, a whole new set of troubles begin. Adventure-gold has the uncanny ability to bring out the worst in people. (As in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or The Man Who Would Be King.)

Tolkien’s treasures come with an added dimension, though, as we find out when Bilbo & co. discover a cache of valuables acquired by the trolls. Casually lying there in a wayside cave are two legendary swords, Orcrist and Glamdring. Elrond, who identifies them, suggests how they might have ended up in such a lowly hoard:

“…one may guess that your trolls had plundered other plunderers, or come on the remnants of old robberies in some hold of the mountains.”

Treasure, in Tolkien, does not just have monetary value, it comes laden with historical associations, and in a world like Middle Earth, where old songs and stories are constantly being retold — often by long-lived beings who themselves witnessed them, or have family ties to their protagonists — historical weight can be just as compelling as monetary value, and can take on both deeply personal and highly political ramifications.

The basic effect is initially the same. Just as the One Ring makes you paranoid, secretive, and ashamed, so treasure, in The Hobbit, isolates, makes you selfish and suspicious. Gollum is the first example of this we see, a creature debased by “endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering”. Smaug is a dragon, therefore solitary and vengeful by nature, but he dwells in the heart of a place called the Lonely Mountain, just to underline the point. It’s when the “dragon-sickness” takes grip of Thorin we really see this effect at work. Thorin and company think of Smaug’s treasure as having been plundered from them, and so rightfully theirs, but as Bard points out, the dragon added to his horde over the years, so if they’re genuinely interested in restitution, some of it belongs to the descendants of Dale. It’s at this point Thorin starts calling everyone a thief:

“But none of our gold shall thieves take or the violent carry off while we are alive.”

The question of theft — of how treasure is acquired — is a complex one in The Hobbit. Every treasure has a history, of being discovered in its raw state (mined by dwarves or goblins), of being formed into objects of beauty by craftsmen, of being given or bought, of being used in heroic deeds, of being honoured in songs and stories. To whom does it belong? Is not all ownership — of treasure, at least — the result of theft, in Middle Earth? (Except for things freely given, such as Bilbo’s mithril shirt.)

Tolkien, though, finds a shade of difference. Dragons, for instance, are nothing but rapacious thieves:

“Dragons steal gold and jewels, you know, from men and elves and dwarves, wherever they can find them; and they guard their plunder as long as they live (which is practically for ever unless they are killed), and never enjoy a brass ring of it. Indeed they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the current market value; and they can’t make a thing for themselves, not even mend a little loose scale of their armour.”

Cover art by Tove Jansson

Bilbo is several times called a thief, and in some cases (Gollum’s ring, for instance), may be acting as one, but he comes to think of himself as a burglar, and though it’s only a nicety that works in the fairy-tale world of Middle Earth, a burglar, here, is one who acquires treasure through a modicum of craft or skill, and perhaps bravery, and certainly through deeds around which a story might be told. This isn’t to say Bilbo doesn’t feel the “dragon-sickness” at times — as when he first sees the Arkenstone and is “drawn by its enchantment” (and how literally does Tolkien mean that “enchantment”?) — but crucially, he doesn’t give way to it when it comes to losing friendships or causing strife.

After all, Bilbo has no heroic notions about himself. All he wants, once the adventure is underway, is to get back home to his comfortable hobbit-hole, with perhaps a new tale or two to tell, and a nice-looking memento on the mantlepiece to dust off and reminisce about. He has no intention of installing himself as a king somewhere, and knows he has no chance of transporting a fourteenth-load of dragon’s gold all the way back to the Shire on his own, so he can’t see himself as a legendary hero. He knows he’s vulnerable, and still needs to rely on others. And this despite the fact that, once Gandalf leaves the dwarves, Bilbo is the one who takes over the heroic role, by saving the party every time they’re in danger. But whereas Gandalf saved them thanks to his magical power and wide-reaching knowledge, Bilbo does it through “some wits, as well as luck and a magic ring — and all three are very useful possessions”. Bilbo saves the dwarves not through Gandalf-style confrontations, but through using his wits, wits honed by knowing how helpless and unheroic he is, and so in full knowledge that only burglar-style tactics (or “sneaking”, as Gollum might put it) will work.

It’s almost impossible to read The Hobbit without feeling the weight of The Lord of the Rings bearing down on it. But it’s a fun book, and a neat little adventure which really starts to warm up once the dwarves and Bilbo get to Mirkwood, and then again once Smaug is dead and the Battle of the Five Armies draws near. It may be a toe-dip in the worlds of corruption and power that saturate the later trilogy, but I think that was all it was ever meant to be — there and back again, in time for tea.

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