Last week I discussed the Literary Arts’ Delve Readers Seminar This is War!, and how the exhibit at the Portland Art Museum incorporated the novels we were reading. This week, I’ll move into the literature portion of what our group discussed. Over the course of the six-week seminar we read and discussed Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a timeless novel. Remarque conceals the character’s position of rank and loyalties, but as the reader continues along, it's revealed that the narrator and main character, Paul, is a lower ranking German solider. Remarque by choosing to do this, is positioning Paul as a human being, garnering sympathy for the main character and his compatriots first. When I imagine an Englishman reading this novel fresh from the war, and finding themselves sympathizing with the enemy, I think this ability to do is a valuable trait to have. For instance, in the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the backlash towards the Muslim population of France. Putting a human face on our enemies is a lasting way to question one's resolve, and to question who the real antagonists are.
The beauty and tragedy in the novel unfolds in the lives of these soldiers, which have been formatted by conflict. The soldiers, with little life experience prior to the war, It’s understood in the book that if they were to survive, their youth would have been spent in pain, misery, and mortality. They would return home to learn that they could not function in society. As Remarque mentions in the book, the soldier's “knowledge of life is limited to death” (p. 264).
In Remarque’s novel there is a scene where Paul and another soldier are admiring a color poster of a beautiful woman. It is striking to them to see beauty in their torn apart world. It is also important to note that the admiration of the poster is one of the very few positive portrayals of women in the novel, largely relaying them as sexual props or feeble family members. Even, in the case of the poster, it is an idolization and not a reality. When I visited the Portland Art Museum for Delve, I was able to view the works of Otto Dix, Robert Bonfils, Kathe Kollwitz, and more. I read the novel, read the scene, and know what the style of the poster must have looked like in real life because of the Delve Readers Seminar field trips to the Portland Art Museum.
A Farewell to Arms is a war novel like All Quiet on the Western Front in that it follows a soldier in various struggles and through some usual encounters of war – battle, recovery, temptation – but unlike Remarque, Hemingway’s main character is largely disinterested and emotionally removed from the war. Most of the action happens to the side characters, with the main character almost seeming to play an ambivalent witness to the events surrounding him.
Despite Hemingway’s uncomplicated protagonist, the novel does complicate and challenge the idea of what a hero is and even what an anti-hero might be. He does this by shrouding the main character of Henry in a love story. As opposed to the women of the brothels and fraternal love between the soldiers in Remarque’s novel, Hemingway introduces a delightfully morose and complex female nurse by the name of Catherine, who quickly becomes Henry’s only concern in life besides alcohol. I won’t ruin the ending, but the development of their relationship is a wonderful foreground to the spoils of war. It is an attempt to stay human and connected to those around you when too many are dying and suffering, while concurrently becoming numb to those affects.
I truly enjoyed the experience of reading these novels in a setting surrounded by art that was inspired by the war, much the same way the novels were inspired. It was a unique experience to picture the war torn environments, and to see them in realistic and exaggerated portrayals in the museum. These artists survived tragedy and created lasting memories for us to view long after they are gone, and for that I am thankful.