Sir Herbert Read was a British art historian, poet, and critic. He held academic posts at several universities, including Cambridge and Harvard. His book of poetry, Naked Warriors (1919), reflected his own experiences in World War I. In the following viewpoint, written as a review of a half-dozen war books, he discusses why, ten years after the end of the war, people had so much interest in war literature. He also discusses why there was a dearth of good material of this sort, and he names All Quiet as one of the best, a true work of art.
by Herbert Read
Ten years after the war, we find ourselves overtaken by a spate of war-books. There are several interesting questions connected with this phenomenon. Why, in the first place, have we had to wait ten years? For the explanation of that fact we must turn, not only to the soldiers themselves, but to the reading public. It must have been the experience of many men, when the war was over and they came back with minds seared with the things they had seen, to find a civilian public weary and indifferent, and positively unwilling to listen to them. The public was, indeed, suffering from a war- neurosis far worse than any the active soldier had contracted. There were many reasons why they should not want to listen to the soldier’s tale. For example: (1) we are always jealous of the other man’s experience when it might have been our own, even, and perhaps especially, if it was a tragic experience; (2) to encourage soldiers to speak and to reveal the enormity of the war would mean revealing the enormity of those who had instigated it and acquiesced in its continuance. The soldiers had one word before all others to express their views: Futility. How could any public, conscious of millions of dead and a nightmare of destruction, allow this word to become current? For every man who did not fight in the war or against the war, fought for it. This applies in particular to the politicians and journalists, who had so debauched the public with their base and windy rhetoric as to make the bare truth treacherous. . . .
The Public Wants to Understand the Experience
Ten years have passed, and the public is asking for war books. It is cured of its shame-neurosis, and feels that it would like to know more about that great historic event through which it was fated to live. Or is the cause of this new interest the presence among us of a new generation that did not experience the war, but is curious to know what this great noise was that disturbed their infant slumbers? In any case, there appear to be a few soldiers ready to take advantage of the situation.
But can they? Potentially, yes. The number of those who took part in the war and who survive, and who had experiences of any value, is only a very small proportion of those who can claim war service. But even so, there must be tens of thousands, among the various combatant nations, with a story to tell. Among these there must be several hundreds technically capable of telling a story, if they had the will to do so. But for the majority there is no will, no way. Rudolf Binding tries to explain why. He has been writing bitterly and caustically about the wonderful stories related by war correspondents; he goes on to contrast the attitude of the true soldier:
‘When I come to think of ourselves I notice many strangely silent folk amongst us. These are the men who have taken part in attacks and have lain under fire for hours and days—not like those who write about it in the newspapers. One meets a little dried-up Captain with a kindly nose, rather too large for him, and grey-blue eyes that seize and hold objects like those of a sparhawk. He sits in silence, seems to be cold, and sticks his hands together in his sleeves as in a muff. He is one of those who have been under fire in deadly earnest; and when he is warm at last and throws open his coat you may see that he wears the Iron Cross, First Class, on his breast, beneath his heart. If you are in luck and he happens to be in the mood you may hear something. How he lay right up forward with his company—nothing to the left, nothing to the right, nothing behind them. Yet they had orders to hold the trench. Then came the shells. Slowly searching they came, until one got the range; and there was no longer any trench in that spot, only a ragged crater. This was on the outer flank. Then came shell after shell, eating their way nearer and nearer. The men had to lie down; they had their orders that the trench must be held. Yet another ragged crater, not far from the first one. He sent back a message: ‘Is no support coming up, to the right or the left, or behind me?’ No support came; the reserves had been used up. But a fresh order came that the line was to be held at all costs. So they lay still.
“‘Can’t we retire, Herr Hauptmann?”’ asked one of them who had never in his life made such a request before.
‘And so they lay there, waiting for the next shell; calculating that their trench was getting shorter and shorter, and that they would soon be without any cover at all; but there they lay—lay until the night came. There was not much left of the trench; but there was a chance to breathe. Then came another day—with the searching shells; then another night; and then—reliefs.
‘The little Captain said nothing about the casualties. 1 could see that a picture inside his mind was keeping him from speaking. After a while he spoke again:
‘ “Heavy shells fly so slowly. One can hear them coming— a long way off. We had to keep lying down.”
‘That was all he had to say about the fire of heavy artillery. And once again I realized that experience makes one silent, or, at least, sparing of words.
‘The history of this war will never be written. Those who ean write it will remain silent. Those who write have not experienced it.’
Experience makes one silent. The history of this war will never be written. Those who could write it will remain silent. These words are worth repeating, and worth remembering.
Only the Poet Can Truly Share the Experience
That silence is only broken by exception. The exception is the poet. The poet is by definition a man who has the capacity to convert his spiritual experiences into words. The history of the war may never be written; but if it is written, it will be written by the poets who took part in it. That we may state as a general presupposition. But then their books will be of very different kinds. Broadly speaking, there are two possible categories. The first is the plain narrative—the journal or diary of day-to-day experiences. There is really no reason why this kind of narrative should not be written by any man with the habit of making notes, or with a memory as good as a notebook. But such men arc the exception, and since the value and interest of a diary depends on the diarist possessing an eye for significant detail, we are reduced to our poets again, for this is another definition of die poet—a man with an eye for significant detail.
The second category is made up of those books in which the narrative has been arranged for imaginative or persuasive effect. No detail is false; the perspective is true. But the result is not a diary, but a work of art. This type of war-book is very rare, because normally the events are too violent to be easily subdued for the purposes of art. They are a hard kind of rock to hew into shape.
To the first category belongs the interesting series of reprints published by Peter Davies (Soldiers’ Tales, edited by Sir John Fortescue), and the fact that such volumes have to be dug up out of oblivion shows how little permanent impression they have made. The soldier’s diary ends by interesting only the soldier, and perhaps a few historians. Why? The Notebooks of Captain Coignet is a good example of its kind: it is full of incident, of movement, of adventure; it throws vivid sidelights on great events. But it is all rather like an old newspaper—interesting if you have the ant-eating sort of mind, devouring little dead facts, but lifeless because formless. . . .
All Quiet Speaks for a Generation
The more important type of war-book is [the artistic work of fiction]. Herr Remarque . . . speaks for a generation rather than for an individual. His book is alone. It makes all other war books seem unnecessary. It achieves that which Binding says is impossible—the communication of experience. It is experience translated directly into terms of art and made universal. It deals with all the most terrible aspects of war, but we read it with tragic enjoyment. It is the greatest war-book that has yet appeared because it is the simplest, the starkest, and yet the most beautiful. Every significant phase of an infantryman’s life at the Front is there, but not cast at the reader in the raw disorder of a diary, but subtly arranged to give the sense of reality without the sense of a limited point of view. It is not a pacifist book; it is not a humanitarian book; it is the truth, and to read it is to become filled with a passion for universal goodwill.
SOURCE: Herbert Read, “Books of the Quarter,” Criterion, April 1929.