Reading All Quiet on the Western Front made me not only appreciate our (more or less) peaceful present here in Europe, but it also made me wonder about WW1 in general. Although I am from Austria, the country which had a finger in both World War pies, I have to admit, that I am frightfully uninformed about this section of history. In school we somehow tend to briefly mention that WW1 happened because of the assassination of the Habsburg heir in order to focus the rest of our history classes almost exclusively on WW2.
After reading what Remarque had to say about the Western Front, I wanted to know what the other side of the story looked like in the French trenches straight across No Man’s Land, because when it comes to history, nothing is worse than a one-sided view. Since Barbusse’ novel Under Fire appeared in 1916, it was one of the first non-propaganda books about WW1 and although Barbusse and Remarque had similar aims and viewpoints, their novels differ considerably.
Under Fire basically tells the reader about the common soldiers’ everyday life in the French army, therefore not focusing so much on fighting action, but mainly on hopes and dreams, boredom, physical strains, angst and chaos. It is at the same time more humane and universal than Remarque’s novel, but in comparison doesn’t do such a good job at conveying the deep personal struggles of the protagonists.
Although Under Fire was a huge-ass success when it was published, I can now understand why All Quiet on the Western Front is completely overshadowing it. Barbusse’ writing style is something to get used to – it is partly realistic, yet extremely expressionistic and overly symbolic. Also, the many episodes of the novel are somewhat disconnected from each other in terms of time as well as space (=setting) and it as hard as it is annoying to try to follow the disjointed snippets of different conversations which are interrupting and overlying each other all the time.