Romance in a Paris Cinema – a feelgood recipe for success?

The Secret Paris Cinema Club by Nicholas Barreau

untitledAlthough I rarely read full-on romance novels, I couldn’t resist this one. It has all the feelgood ingredients one could ask for – an old cinema, a beautiful woman in a red coat, a classic boy meets girl/loses girl/finds girl (one hopes) romance – and it is set in Paris. Will this be a recipe for success?  Or just too cheesy?

Alain Bonnard is an old, but young romantic. He is the owner of a small arthouse cinema in Paris that he inherited from his beloved uncle. Working there is a labour of love, but Alain does love the Cinéma Paradis. He runs it as a traditional picturehouse showing no Hollywood blockbusters, there is no popcorn either.

Every Wednesday evening he shows a classic film about love – Les Amour au Paradis as he calls this slot in the cinema’s programme. Each week a beautiful woman in a red coat comes to watch the romantic movie and always sits in row 17.

Alain is talking about her with his best friend Robert…

“You mean to tell me that this girl you fancy so much has been coming to the cinema for four months and you still haven’t even spoken to her?” …
… I nodded again and thought back to the time the girl with the red coat had first appeared at the box office. I always called her ‘the girl,’ but in fact she was a young woman, somewhere around twenty-five to twenty-eight, with shoulder-length caramel hair, which she parted at the side, a delicate heart-shaped face with a scattering of freckles, and shiny dark eyes. To me, she always seemed a little lost – in her thoughts, or in the world – and had a habit of nervously tucking her hair behind her ear with her right hand as she waited for me to tear a ticket off for her. But when she smiled the whole place seemed to fill with light, and her expression became a bit roguish. And yes, she had a lovely mouth and wonderful teeth.

Eventually Alain plucks up courage, and he and Mélanie go out for a late supper after the film one night. At the end he walks her home and they kiss and agree to meet next week. Alain is head over heels in love, and it seems the feeling is reciprocated. In the classic romantic plot, Alain must now lose Mélanie and find her again after much angst and searching.

This is where the American indie film director Allan Wood (yes, you read it right, and yes, this is a very thinly disguised character based upon the celebrated American film director) comes in with the star of his next film, Solange Avril. They are looking for a location to film some cinema scenes. Solange used to come to the Cinéma Paradis as a girl, and Alain, once approached can only say yes – it’ll be a huge financial boost for him.

He finds himself invited to dinner with Wood and Solange, and whilst having a post-prandial cigarette outside with the actress who is ‘available’ – he turns her down – she does a Gallic shrug and puts her arm through his, when Flash! the paparazzi are there, and he finds himself on the front pages of the tabloids touted as Solange’s new boyfriend. Naturally Mélanie doesn’t turn up the next week. What is Alain to do?

There will be complications and twists aplenty for Alain in his journey to regain his new love, aided and abetted by Wood and Solange.

I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book – and yes it was incredibly cheesy – which rather added to its allure.  The character of Allan Wood was funny and irritating in his transparent characterisation at the same time – but he spouted plenty of Allen-esque lines that made me smile…  Solange and Mélanie were just too good to be true, but you did want the lovelorn Alain to win her back. It was the perfect light-hearted palate-cleanser after getting stuck into the heavyweight literary novels I’d been reading before.

Then I went to look up the author, as he has written another novel – The Ingredients of Love, and the mystery deepens. Nicholas Barreau, so the blurb goes, is an acclaimed Parisian writer of mixed parentage who went to the Sorbonne, and worked in a bookshop on the Rive Gauche – but his name is a pseudonym and his identity is known only by his editor.

Another reclusive author like Elena Ferrante…  but, it seems, the truth is not so romantic – and it has put me off wanting to read the other book. Outed in Germany, Barreau is apparently a collective pseudonym for a series of authors writing romances to order to meet market preferences – just like the Daisy Meadows fairy books for little girls.

I must admit that I feel a bit cheated by that discovery, but it hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for this particular book – whomever its real author is – it was great page-turning fun! (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you!

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Secret Paris Cinema Clubby Nicholas Barreau, pub September 2014 by Quercus, 336 pages, paperback original.

A Walk Among the Tombstones: Book v Film

The recently released movie A Walk Among the Tombstones starring Liam Neeson is based upon the 10th in the series of Matt Scudder books by Lawrence Block. I’ve read the first twelve – and have enjoyed them all, with a few more still to read one of these days. I read this back in 2006, and my capsule review from my master spreadsheet reads thus …

Scudder 10This is the tenth in the series of Matt Scudder novels from Block, and they keep on getting better. The subsidiary characters are starting to have lives of their own, and Scudder, the ex-police, ex-drunk, maverick detective is getting more complex a personality with each novel. This one sees him finally establishing a firm relationship with ex-hooker Elaine, which makes a good sub-plot. The main story this time is the hunt for a particularly gruesome kidnapper and serial killer whose latest victim is the wife of a rich drug dealer. The dealer pays the ransom demand, and his wife is returned to him – dismembered! He can’t go to the police, so persuades Scudder to take up the chase to avenge his wife’s death. Absolutely gripping. (9/10)

Naturally I was keen to see the film…

The critics have been divided over it – I’ve seen reviews giving it 4/5, Mark Kermode only gave it 1, describing it as ‘head-bangingly dull’!

a walk among film poster

There has only been one previous outing for Scudder on screen – Jeff Bridges played him in a 1986 film based on the fifth novel in the series. I’ve not seen it, but IMDb suggests it’s not brilliant.

If you except Neeson’s dodgy American accent (and wig in the flashback), I felt he fitted the role rather well, inhabiting Scudder’s melancholy, downbeat style with the right amount of world-weariness.

The film starts with a flashback shoot-out – we have to set Scudder up for why he’s no longer a cop. He gets the bad guys, but a riccochet kills a bystander – a young girl. He was drunk – he left the force.

Cut to several years later, and what I didn’t mention above, was that there is a pair of sicko sadistic killers who are preying on the wives and girlfriends of drug dealers – the one Scudder takes the case for turns out to be the latest in a series…  In these days when the internet was only just starting to take off, and cell-phones were not ubiquitous – the investigation means shoe-leather and pay-phones for Scudder. You know they’ll get the guys in the end.

However, and this is where the critics probably were split – all the way through the film, Scudder goes to his AA meetings – they keep him on the straight and narrow. It’s character-building, but doesn’t provide action – and lately, of course, Neeson has primarily been seen in action roles. Anyone who has read any of the novels will realise that AA is an important part of the sober-Scudder’s make-up.

A_Walk_Among_the_Tombstones_1I can’t remember exactly which of the Scudder books he first appears in, but he often gets some help from a smart street-kid called T.J. – particularly when confronted with technology. However T.J. wants to be a detective and always ends up getting involved – indeed without his help, they wouldn’t have tracked the bad guys down so quickly. He’s played by Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley, and although it gives Scudder the chance to play Dad when T.J. has a sickle-cell episode, it does hold up the plot.

A_Walk_Among_the_Tombstones_3The film definitely shows the grubbier side of New York – Carrier bags stuck in a chain-link fence of a dis-used lot. This contrasts with the nice pads of all the dealers whose wives have been targeted. Dan Stevens, (yes, Matthew from Downton Abbey) plays Danny Kristo the dealer whose case Scudder takes. He may have dark hair and a moustache here, but you can’t mistake those eyes.

One big thing that’s missing from this film is women in any major roles other than as victims or fellow alcoholics at meetings. There’s no girlfriend Elaine for Scudder – he lives on his own in a small appartment. Apparently, Scudder’s policeman friend Joe was changed into a woman cop for the film – but all her scenes were cut to keep the hardboiled noir feel. This is mens’ work. It may be wrong not to feature any strong women’s roles, but it does emphasise the brotherhood aspects. There isn’t enough time to give any of the guys a real home-life unlike in the books.

The violence, particularly against the victims is nasty, in book and film.  If you can stand the gore, Neeson is a suitably haunted and thoughtful PI, and I’d rather like to see more of him as Scudder.  (Film 7/10)

This will work either way – book then film, or film then book. I’d seriously recommend the books though…

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To explore the Matt Scudder books on Amazon UK, start here:
Sins of the Fathers (Matt Scudder #1)
A Walk Among The Tombstones (Matt Scudder #10)

My Fantasy Book Group

Eric over at Lonesome Reader recently posted his fantasy book group – “people who aren’t authors themselves but individuals in the media who are known to have a serious intellectual side to them.”  Several of Eric’s choice have written books, but aren’t necessarily best known for that – so there’s flexibility there.  I couldn’t resist thinking about which five living celebs I would invite to join my own fantasy book group … Feel free to join in this one, and do let Eric know.

Annabel’s Fantasy Book Group

George-Clooney-headshotGeorge Clooney

I can hear you all going ‘how predictable!’ but although he is the best-looking man on the planet, he does have serious intellectual chops. He has been nominated for an Oscar in six different categories in front and behind the camera and won two of them. He is politically active and does much humanitarian work. Combine that with his sense of humour, and he’d be an ideal member – as long as he reads too.

Emma Thompson

Emma Thompson

I did have to make a decision over whether in invite Em or Ken to my book group. Although Ken is one of my heroes, I need more balance in my group.  ET is an inspirational woman, and I would have her play me in the film of my life.

There is no doubting that ET is a serious reader, given the subjects she’s also written about. I think I could rely on her to have an opinion on anything we’d discuss, and we’d have such fun with her sense of humour.


Michael Mosleymosley_1810279c

Mosley is a doctor by profession, turned science TV presenter, and is author of books accompanying his series, plus the 5:2 diet book which he pioneered on the box.

A self-deprecating self-experimenter, he has swallowed cameras to film inside his guts, given himself a tape-worm or three, done all kinds of things in the name of science.  His programmes are always fascinating and provide much food for thought. Another good sense of humour (can you sense a trend here?).  I’m pretty sure he’ll be a reader…

Claudia Winkleman

She’s so much more than being the long-fringed, kohl-eyed co-host of Strictly Come Dancing. Our Claud has also hosted BBC2’s Film Programme for several years, taking over from Jonathan Ross, and now hosts The Great Sewing Bee.

She’s the daughter of legendary Fleet Street editor Eve Pollard and went to Cambridge to study History of Art. She is obviously more fun than Tess Daly. Kooky and a GSOH, she can be serious too and I’ve heard her recommend books on some programme or other – so in she goes.

Michael Palinss-hme-007

I wanted to include a Python in my book group – they have been so influential to me over the years. But which one?  I love them all in one way or another. In the end it had to be Palin … He edged it because of this: Palin’s Travels: A Traveller’s Reading List. – a list of all the reading he does around his programmes and while travelling. The nicest man in Britain is, of course, also very funny.

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So that’s the five celebrities I’d invite to my fantasy book group. There were plenty who didn’t make the cut, apart from Ken Branagh and the other Pythons. Although well known in the media, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Clive James are just too writerly. Mick Jagger is well-read, but I don’t think he’d sit still. I nearly chose Dr Alice Roberts as my scientist, but have a soft spot for Mosley so he won the vote – and made it (if you include me) three men, three women.  I hope we’d all get along famously!

Who would you choose?

Now We Are Six…

As much as I’d like to tell you this post is about A.A.Milne’s charming book of poetry for children – it isn’t! It’s about something much closer to my heart, for it was six years ago today that I dipped my toe into the book-blogging world. It’s gone so quickly! (On other days I might question has it only been six years, mind.)

There are treats at the bottom of this post, but first I’d like to tell you about my blogging year so far…

I can’t deny that finding out at the beginning of July that my blog was inexplicably top of the literature blog rankings at e-buzzing in June was a huge thrill, and finding it still there a month later made me snort with laughter – I had truly expected it to be for strictly one month only. (It was only two though – down in August – Ed). High rankings are nice, but I will be happier not to be up there, especially now some bloggers who’ve had a break recently like Kim are back. Stats are definitely not what’s at the heart of book-blogging, so I won’t mention them again; it should be about sharing thoughts about reading with you lot of course.

Thank you for visiting, commenting, sharing – everything basically.

P1020045 compressedThe other more important blogging milestone I’ve achieved this year is of course to have set up Shiny New Books with my friends Victoria, Harriet and Simon. The four of us have become even firmer friends through this enterprise, and we’re delighted to have been able to involve so many of you too to review for us. (And we’re still recruiting… do drop us a line )

This has also meant that I’ve become a more disciplined reader, but with Shiny’s ethos based upon book recommendations, I’ve read some really good books to feature there. Then I’ve been reading for this blog too, so am reading more than ever before which is rather brilliant. Of course my year-end stats will be skewed even further towards new publications than they usually are, but that doesn’t matter one iota because I am loving it!


GBP_Packaging_STICKERS_DU_ROMANTICS1-500x345I always like to share my blog-birthday and have found some gorgeous bookish things to give away this year …

Galley Beggar Press are based in Norwich in the UK – they are a tiny independent publisher and were responsible for discovering prize-winning debut author Eimear McBride.  They have also produced three lovely sets of postcards. Each set contains 6 dress-up doll postcards of authors:

GBP_Packaging_STICKERS_DU_LOSTGEN-500x345The Romantics has John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley.

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The Lost Generation comprises Hemingway, Anais Nin, F Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Henry Miller and Gertrude Stein.

GBP_Packaging_STICKERS_DU_BEATS1-500x345The Beats contains Carolyn Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Joan Vollmer, Luanne Henderson, Neal Cassady and William Burroughs in the set.

Just say which set you’d prefer in a comment and I’ll pick three names from the hat in about a week’s time. Open worldwide.


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I made a little film of some books…

Such fun!

A Comic Caper of Camelot and Cross-purposes…

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips

the-table-of-less-valued-knights-187x300I read Marie Phillips first novel, Gods Behaving Badly, an hilarious story of the Greek gods and goddesses living out their lives in modern day North London, pre-blog, and I loved it – I can remember that without having to go back to my records.

These bickering deities, living in domestic squalor and trying to make ends meet while struggling to find a meaning to their lives in a world where few know about them were a delight. Aphrodite did phone sex, another god was a dog-walker; they were wonderfully raunchy and non-PC.

We’ve had to wait seven years for Phillips’ second novel – this time she gives us a comic take on Arthurian legend – was it worth the wait?

Imagine King Arthur’s court with the Round Table where Arthur sat with Lancelot, Gawain and the other famous knights. To his right is an empty chair, the Siege Perilous, ‘said to bring instant death to anyone who sat in it, though this was rumoured to be a lie invented by Sir Kay so that he’d have somewhere to put his coat.’ Further down the Great Hall of Camelot are two more tables: The Table of Errant Companions – which mostly seats those on their way up the Camelot hierarchy, and further away still is the lop-sided Table of Less Valued Knights, where those knights who are on their way down through being elderly, infirm, cowardly and not forgetting the disgraced sit.

Sir Humphrey du Val is a less-valued knight; relegated when a quest went wrong which we’ll find out about later. Being the only one left in the hall after the Pentecost feast, he surreptitiously accepts a quest when a late petitioner arrives needing help. The fiancé of Lady Elaine du Mont, from Tuft, was kidnapped from the tournée he should have won for Elaine’s hand in marriage, she wants him found asap. Sir Humphrey is not allowed to go on a quest, but doing this successfully could get him back up the greasy pole at Camelot. They set off, together with squire Conrad. Conrad, a teenaged half-giant by the way, rides an elephant, being too big for a horse.

Running parallel to Sir Humphrey’s quest, is the story of Martha, the new young Queen of Puddock, another neighbouring kingdom. She has been forced to marry Edwin, younger brother of King Leo of Tuft – and decides to run away on her wedding night, disguised as a young man. She meets the locum Lady of the Lake (Nimue is off with Merlin), who gives her an enchanted sword which will help her find her elder brother Jasper, who was presumed dead, but is still alive.

So we have a good set-up for a comedy of mistaken identity, feisty ladies and plenty of ‘Bob‘ moments (cf Blackadder) especially once the two stories collide, and then it charges on to the ending which sorts everyone out but was not quite as one might expect!

This book was great fun to read; it had some great moments and some really good gags, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Although there was a sprinkling of earthy language, it wasn’t as raunchy as GBB in particular. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of Arthurian and other dark-ages or medieval comedies, like Fool by Christopher Moore and The Food Taster by Peter Elbling. Monty Python & the Holy Grail and other films like A Knight’s Tale have a lot to answer for too, plus the aforementioned Blackadder. The result is that so much of it is familiar. However, Phillips, by giving her two ladies the lead for a large part of the novel does give the this Arthurian comedy an original and modern touch without introducing anachronisms.

It may not have been quite as funny as GBB, but it was so light-hearted I couldn’t help but enjoy it, and I hope we won’t have to wait so long for a third novel from Phillips. (7.5/10)

P.S. The Tables of Errant Companions and Less Valued Knights did ‘exist’ – they are mentioned in the post-Vulgate Merlin continuation of the 13thC French romances that are the source of much Arthurian legend.

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Table Of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips. Pub Aug 2014 by Jonathan Cape, hardback, 320 pages.
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips (2007) paperback.


Mothers and Daughters again…

Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel

Layout 1The relationships between mothers and daughters, or daughters and their mothers – whichever way around you want to put it, is obviously something that fascinates Meike Ziervogel.

Her first novella, published away from her own Peirene publishing house was also about a mother and daughter, and the daughter’s own daughter. Magda, based on the life of that Magda – Goebbels that is – is an immensely powerful novella that looked hard at the dysfunctional relationship between the Nazi wife and her own mother, (read my review here).

Ziervogel’s second novella, Clara’s Daughter is a contemporary story set in leafy North London and may not have a famous protagonist, but is none the less powerful for that. Michele is a successful businesswoman, yet feels defined by her relationship with her ageing mother as Clara’s Daughter. Michele’s own children are grown-up and have flown the nest and now her job and her mother taking over again from her childrens’ needs have put Michele’s marriage under a terrible strain. Michele feels increasingly trapped – something will have to give, but Michele can’t let it be her.

Then Jim betrays her with a younger woman, and she starts to snap…

I take a pencil and snap it in half, just because I have to do something. I can’t sit here and do nothing. Then I am still, and the house is still, and I know it wasn’t enough simply to break a pencil. I want to do more. So I take the metal pen holder, turn slightly on my chair and throw it straight through the open door across the balcony and into the garden. The clattering noise as it hits the patio tells me I have achieved my aim. I get to my feet and pick up the two cushions from the chair and fling them into the garden too.

Having bagged up his clothes and got the need to throw things out of her system, Michele retaliates by phoning the builder and commissioning the conversion of their basement into a granny flat, something Jim hadn’t wanted (after having a fall, they had planned to move her mother into a retirement home). Her sister Hilary will be delighted with Michele taking on their mother…

This all unfolds within the first twenty pages of this novella. We really do get to feel Michele’s anger. Later we’ll see other sides of her, especially once her mother is installed. Clara, naturally enough, resents being moved out of her own home and her growing confusion with having to face new things is scarily real.  I have to say that the author absolutely nails it again – they all love each other, but find living together even more of a strain.

Reading about this unhappy family does make you stop and think about your own situation. It’s not an easy read; there are many elements in this story that undoubtedly will have happened, or may happen later to any of us. Meike successfully makes us sympathise with and understand both mother and daughter’s points of view right through to the story’s moving conclusion.

If mothers and daughters are something of an obsession for the author, the novella form is another. As many of you will know, Ziervogel is the founder of Peirene Press which publishes novellas in translation, in addition to those she writes herself. I’m a big fan of novellas and short novels, they allow a story to be told in full without diversions getting in the way of the arc and, for me, they are more satisfying than short stories. I’ll stick my neck out and christen Meike ‘Queen of the Novella’. I hope to read many more, whether written by her or published by her. Meanwhile I’d highly recommend that you get your hands on Clara’s Daughter. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel. Salt Publishing, September 15th 2014, paperback original.

Getting all bound up…

Crowd-funding is beginning to really take off in the world of publishing…

The wonderful indie publisher And Other Stories have sort of been doing it for ages based upon a subscription model. You subscribe and get your name printed in the back of the books produced over your subscription period, plus a copy of the book. It works, and I’ve been a subscriber as the books are rather brilliant.

KingsnorthUnbound is doing it book by book, and has been elevated into the spotlight recently with the selection of The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth in the Man Booker longlist for 2014.

Their model is a true crowd-funding approach – authors pitch books and ask for pledges towards producing them. When Unbound gets enough pledges, the author can start writing (if they haven’t done so already), Unbound will publish the book and depending what level you pledged at you get an e-book, tree-book, signed tree-book, invite to the launch party too etc., plus your name in the back.

I’ve now pledged to two books…

lists of noteThe first is the sequel to Letters of Note (which I mentioned in my Quirky Christmas Gift Guide last year. Letters of Note was one of the first Unbound successes, and Shaun Usher’s sequel is Lists of Note. It includes Newton’s list of sins he’d already committed, Michaelangelo’s shopping list and Chrissy Hynde’s advice for girl rockers amongst many others. Lists of Note is now fully funded and will, I hope, be due out for Christmas. If it’s as beautifully produced as Letters, it’ll be a volume to treasure.

The second is a novel by David Quantick to be called The Mule (click here for info). Quantick is primarily a comedy writer and has worked on many top TV and radio shows including The Thick of It, Mitchell & Webb, Brass Eye, and The Day Today – so the lure of a comic novel from him seemed irresistible, especially after I’d watched his video pitch. Here’s hoping that The Mule will make it!

There is a huge variety of books seeking sponsors – from memoirs to poetry to cookery to novels. It’s rather fascinating and every potential author has a pitch on their page…

To celebrate reaching £1,000,000 worth of pledges, Unbound have offered all their pledgers free e-books of any (or all) of the books they’ve published so far, which is absolutely lovely (and I’ve availed myself of that to download The Wake and several others!).

If you’re interested in Unbound – you can get £10 off your first pledge by quoting the code ‘newcomer’ when you check out.

Very telling – a DNF

I still don’t like it when I give up on a book, but it’s finally getting home to me that even though I have taken hundreds of books to charity shops this summer, I’ll never get through the remaining books I have, let alone all the new ones I keep acquiring. I’m starting to be able to let go on books that aren’t engaging me for whatever reason.

towerOne such recently was The Tower by Alessandro Gallenzi.

It’s a dual narrative tale: the contemporary strand is a thriller about a manuscript theft from a high tech organisation based in Jordan that aims to scan everything of note ever written; the historical part is about the author of said manuscripts – Giordano Bruno, a philosopher of the late Renaissance who has a photographic memory and is on the run from the inquisition.

The Latin and history experts drafted in by the mysterious Biblia organisation to work out what was so special about the missing papers (which were stolen by a Jesuit priest who was subsequently murdered) are the stereotypical laid-back Brit, Peter Simms and an intense Italian, Giulia. This pair, thrust together are chalk and cheese, and I couldn’t see any chemistry between them. The moment I gave up was when I read this paragraph on page 115:

‘Giulia, I’ve got the message. But how did his system work? – I mean, if it’s not too complicated and it’s not going to take you until tomorrow to explain.’

The blurb championed the novel’s meticulous research, but it was oh so visible. This was a shame as I had liked the idea of the parallels between Bruno and Biblia both scanning all they read. What I read of the historic strand was much more interesting though than the cliché-ridden present day one. DNF

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
The Tower by Alessandro Gallenzi, pub 15 Sept by Alma Books. Trade paperback, 300 pages.



They were soldiers…

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Translated by Brian Murdoch

all-quiet-on-the-western-front This remarkable novel about young German soldiers in WWI was our book group’s read for August; I had pushed strongly for a WWI-related choice for the month of the 100th anniversary of the war’s start. Several of us had already read some of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, but none had read this book. Indeed, despite having owned a copy for years, I don’t think I would ever have got around to reading it – now, I am so glad I did.

All Quiet (as I shall abbreviate it to) was published in 1929. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they denounced and burned copies of it as being anti-German. Remarque went to Switzerland, and in 1938 the Nazis withdrew his German citizenship. In 1939, with help from Marlene Dietrich, he got a US visa just before war broke out in Europe again and, ending up in Hollywood a film was made of the novel just a few years after that.

Remarque was sixteen when WWI started and was called up two years later. He survived Passchendaele and was later wounded, spending the rest of the war in hospital, then serving there. It is fair to assume that All Quiet reflects many of his own experiences as a young soldier for it is remarkable in its honesty.

The novel starts with a band of young soldiers getting a belly full of food for a change. We soon read that they had been sent up the line with 150 men but less than 80 returned – so they got double rations. These young men are already hardened survivors.

It moves on to tell us how a group of young students, barely nineteen years old had signed up in a romantic fit of nationalism, urged on by their tutor:

We went down to the local recruiting office, still a class of twenty young men, and then we marched off en masse, full of ourselves, to get a shave at the barber’s – some of us for the first time – before we set on a parade-ground. We had no real plans for the future and only very few of us had thoughts of careers or jobs that were firm enough to be meaningful in practical terms. On the other hand, our heads were full of nebulous ideas which cast an idealized, almost romantic glow over life and even the war for us.

We all now know what happened, and how the lives of millions of young men were wasted in WWI. There are scenes of real horror in the novel: a memorable one is where Paul, the narrator, is hiding in a cemetery under bombardment, surrounded by flying bits of already dead bodies, an arm hangs from a tree. Then there are the scenes in the hospital, where the surgeons couldn’t cope and any serious wound or large dose of gas became a death sentence.

The irony of the book’s title (originally Im Western nichts neues – In the West, nothing is new) is renewed afresh with each bombardment and slaughter. There is one scene where the soldiers acknowledge that surely the French feel the same way about their country, and they wonder why are they doing this. The soldiers in All Quiet could have been from any of the nations involved – all their experiences were similar.

As you’d expect, the cameraderie that grows between the soldiers is touching, but at the front there has to be an element of self-preservation in order to survive. This may mean killing the opposition, or escaping being mown down oneself. As Paul says:

We set out as soldiers, and we might be grumbling or we might be cheerful – we reach the zone where the front line begins, and we have turned into human animals.

Yet amongst all the sturm und drang there are some moments of pure comedy – the soldiers pull their latrines round in a circle so they can play cards in the middle, and this which must have inspired Black Adder…

The recruit pulls a face. ‘Bread made out of turnips for breakfast, turnips for lunch and turnip cutlets with turnip salad in the evening.’

Baldrick!  And that neatly brings me to the one point that several of our book group made in our discussions – Since we (or some of us) had read Birdsong or The Regeneration Trilogy, and seen Black Adder Goes Forth, it felt as if this novel was just another war novel, even not quite as good – but of course it is the original that inspired all the others!

Personally, this was another Moby Dick book for me – i.e. a classic that I’m so glad I finally read and saw how it has inspired and been referenced in so many other places; All Quiet is much more readable than Moby though. As the first great anti-war novel it is a compulsive read – I thoroughly enjoyed it as did our book group – it also generated some excellent discussion. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Pub 1929. Vintage paperback translated by Brian Murdoch, 224 pages.