I was surprised when my daughter, Laura, told me she was reading All Quiet on the Western Front at school. Erich Maria Remarque's great war novel from 1929 seemed a curious choice for children of her age. It's a long time since I've read it, but my memory of the story wouldn't make me rush to share it with ten and eleven year olds. This impression of unsuitability was confirmed when--spurred by Laura's news--I dug out my old copy. It's no collector's first edition, just a battered Mayflower paperback from 1963, translated from the German by A.W. Wheen. The cover illustration shows soldiers' bodies--I counted seven--strewn in the mud of a trench that's topped with coils of barbed wire. Below the title and the author's name, the picture centres on a corpse's outstretched hand. It's shown in close-up and seems almost to be reaching towards the reader, as if to pull them in. Nearly touching the fingers there's a butterfly. The artist has portrayed it in mid-flutter, undecided whether to alight on the hand or on a nearby strand of wire. The sky is blue with just a few white wisps of cloud. Standing head down, by itself, reins trailing, there's a horse a little way beyond the lip of the trench. It looks uninjured, if dejected, but it made me remember an incident in the book where horses are horribly wounded in a bombardment. Their screaming unnerves the men more than the cries of their fallen comrades. One horse, its belly ripped open by shrapnel, gets entangled in its own unravelling innards, trips on them and falls.
The cover illustration on my copy, and the memories it brought back, fuelled my concern that All Quiet on the Western Front was the wrong choice of reading for my daughter's class. The less gruesome livery in which Laura's book was clad did little to allay my worries. Her edition--published by Vintage for World Book Night 2011 (in Brian Murdoch's 1993 translation)--isn't visually disturbing in the least. Its cover only features an artful image of a poppy. But what about the text within? Was it as shocking as I remembered? I resolved to read the book again before making a final judgment.
This intention to reread Remarque might never have been realized and I might just have forgotten about the whole thing, had I not received an unexpected prompt. Laura is a keen musician and practice is a daily part of her routine, She's learning violin, oboe and piano and tends to alternate between them in terms of having a favourite instrument. No doubt her interest will fix eventually on one. At the time of reading All Quiet on the Western Front the oboe is in the ascendant. One evening after she's finished playing and is kneeling on the floor, disassembling her instrument, she asks me:
'What's a bayonet, Dad?'
It's not so much that she doesn't know at all; more that she wants clarification for the hazy picture that's formed already in her mind. Reading All Quiet on the Western Front has resulted in regular word-lists for homework, with pupils charged to find the meanings for a cluster of unfamiliar terms: mess-tin; Verey light; munitions; barrage; sniper; shrapnel; haemorrhage; gangrene; amputation; annihilation. 'Bayonet' has already featured on one of these lists.
I try to provide as straightforward an answer to her question as I can:
'It's a long knife fitted to the end of a rifle.'
'Almost as long as your oboe.'
I know how hard it is to build up from words alone the full concretion of an object. How many in her class have seen, let alone held, a rifle or a revolver, felt the weight of an infantryman's weaponry? How many have heard live gunfire, handled a gasmask, tried on a metal helmet? So, remembering the old bayonet that I have, I ask (not without misgivings):
'Would you like to see one?'
After some rummaging I find it. It's something I bought years ago in an antique/junk shop, obedient to that common impulse--a kind of dark magnetism of blood which draws so many boys to weapons. …