Archive for the 'First World War' Category

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front

October 1, 2022

     My former students will know, and if you search this blog you will discover, that I have a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of literature from the Great War. This novel, which I’ve read several times now, still moves me to tears at the end, and, I would argue, is probably the most powerful novel written about those hellish places and times. And, for the first time, I was struck by the parallel between the end of the novel and the final moments of the epic film O What A Lovely War.

Written in 1929 and the first novel (and film) the Nazis banned on coming to power, it clearly gains from the sense of immediacy – only a decade after the events it recalls. The writer lived through those times; it shows in a way in which no modern novel, no matter how well-researched, can do, and that is not to disparage contemporary writers like Pat Barker or Sebastian Faulks. It’s different from novels which present the British or French perspective; in particular the serious privations of both the men at the front and their folk at home are emphasised.

Remarque’s techniques stand up to scrutiny. The tone of the narrative is matter-of-fact throughout: the message is that you will get used to anything, eventually: the horrors are not dwelt on in gory detail. The tone makes the novel, laconic, the hero old and wise before his time, with a sense of doom ever-present in the back of his mind (just as in Wilfred Owen’s poem Anthem for Doomed Youth, I feel). The language enhances the effect, with the constant feeling that there just aren’t the words available to describe what he and his comrades experience. And there’s also the feeling that insanity is never that far away; even the hero notices and remarks on this. There is that memorable scene in the 1930 film when the men are under endless bombardment, which I still cannot forget even after many years. (Incidentally, why remake the film, as I learn has been done?)

There is a sense of timelessness; home and past are now and forever unreal. I have always found the section where Paul goes home on leave one of the most poignant in the novel. He can have none of that old life back, ever. I realised how much more effectively this is portrayed here, than in more recent fiction, too. Remarque’s style is obviously not contemporary; it takes us back in time in a different way. I found myself trying to work out why, for me, writing from that time is so much more effective, and I think it comes down to the fact that I’m not seduced by plot or story here; there is just warfare; there are just incidents; characters come and go (they are killed)…

This timelessness is enhanced by the wide use of the present tense in the narrative: here it works to convey the sense that there is only now for these men; that technique is gratuitously overused to no effect in much contemporary fiction. What will happen, what can happen for these men if they survive, and when the war is over? There is no future for them; their minds and hopes are already destroyed. The sadness about the love and the sex they will never enjoy is hinted at, just as in Owen’s Disability, which for my money is one of the most powerful poems ever written about that or any war. And Remarque did write a sequel, about what happened to those who made their way back, and in its own way, it’s as grim as this novel.

I remain of the opinion I formed half a century ago: war serves no purpose, war is evil. Some vile people derive power and profit from it: most people suffer. Re-reading this novel, and contemplating current events confirm my feeling.

Siegfried Sassoon: Reconciliation

August 2, 2022

When you are standing at your hero’s grave,
Or near some homeless village where he died,
Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.

I only came across this poem recently: what a powerful one it is, in the light of some of his others, and its theme. After the war, there is peace, and a coming to terms with what happened before, however difficult that may be.

Sassoon creates a situation that would have been familiar to his readers; British relatives would have to travel to France or Belgium to visit either the grave of a loved one, if a grave existed, or to see the dead soldier commemorated somewhere like the Menin Gate in Ypres, or the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme. People are still making such visits today, seeking the last resting-place of an ancestor.

Is your hero in that first line innocent, or ironic, or both? (link to poem) What, exactly, is a homeless village? Do we imagine ruins, one of the lost villages of the Somme which were wiped from the face of the earth and never rebuilt? Sassoon allows the visitor, and the reader, a sense of pride in the sacrifice of a life, though he never alludes to the purpose of that sacrifice, or the meaning of that death.

The challenge is in the fourth line: think of the other side, the former enemy, too. And this is hard. I recall that in my innocent childhood days, our local parish priest had fought in the Great War and lost a leg; it was replaced by a tin prosthesis, and occasionally, if someone looked sceptical – though he walked with a limp – they would be invited to tap the leg, which sounded hollow and metallic. But what impressed me most profoundly about him was that on Remembrance Sunday he always solemnly reminded the congregation to pray for the dead Germans too. Those men also did their duty, were brave or cowardly, and died for their country as well.

The fifth line sums up the savagery of that war in a single line: humans behaving inhumanly, doing things that they no longer wish to remember. Listen to the leaden-sounding monosyllables of that line, interrupted only by the emphasis in the three-syllable hideous.

And then the judgement in the next line, directly addressed again – you – the juxtaposition of nourished and hatred, the alliteration of hatred/harsh, the lapidary blind at the end of the line: no escaping here. Yet the judgement is only implied; there is a hint that the poet understands such feelings. But we have also to remember: he was there, he saw.

The final two lines must be wrestled with. The Golgotha reference – ‘place of the skull’ in Hebrew, I think, from the gospel account of the crucifixion of Christ. Perhaps you’ll find – and perhaps only now do we reflect on the gender of the visitor Sassoon is addressing: is she female? A mother, a sister, a wife, a lover? What are those (German) mothers doing? (see Sassoon’s poem Glory of Women) Are they on the same errand? And if all are in the same situation, then the overarching humanity is surely emphasised, and we are brought back to the title of the poem.

Sassoon’s experiences in the trenches, his anger at what he saw, and the apparent indifference or lack of understanding on the part of those back home, gave him the right to challenge, to question, to confront. But what words would you use to describe the tone of this poem? For it surely is not an angry poem. Solemn? Reflective?

Think about the metre and the rhythm of the verse. Iambic pentameters, solemn; rhyming ABBA ABBA which slows down the pace of the poem as you must wait longer for the final rhyme. Only two stanzas; nothing too complex is being presented or explored here: it’s a very simple poem in a lot of ways, but the feelings and the emotions are rather harder to deal with. For me, it’s another example of Sassoon at his best.

Siegfried Sassoon: Does It Matter?

June 24, 2022

Does it matter? – losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.


Does it matter? – losing your sight?
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.


Do they matter-those dreams in the pit?
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they know that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

Another poem from Sassoon designed to shock readers back home, more than anything else, I feel. Let’s start with the jaunty rhythm, the metre forcing you to sound jolly and cheerful as you read the poem aloud, even as the words themselves hint at real horror: such a mis-match between metre and subect-matter is both deliberate and very effective.

Three stanzas, and a repeated first line (more or less): repetition used to dramatic effect. Sassoon moves from the physical disability of being confined to a wheelchair to the arguably, for most of us, worse condition of blindness, onto the unseen mental horrors of shell-shock, nowadays hidden by the initials PTSD, which nobody thinks to unpick as they hear the letters.

The poem is about survivors – in a similar way to Owen’s Disabled, though the subject is treated in a totally different way. And the response of those around them is outlined in the shocking couplet that is the second and third lines of each stanza, the repetition in the second and third stanzas of the vague phrase people will always be kind. You need to stop and think: who are these people, and what does being kind mean, for a young person faced with the rest of their life in such a condition? The survivor’s life is then contrasted with the so very different lives of those back home, unaffected, in the final two lines of each stanza. Look particularly at the sadness implied in the last line of the second stanza, or the horrible effect of rhyming glad and mad in the final stanza.

Sassoon attacks the notion of patriotism in the final two lines, implying that the words fought for your country mean everything, while then implying that people soon forget.

It’s another very simple poem, in terms of language used: none of the complex and sometimes deliberately archaic language that Owen often uses, none of Owen’s very effective poetic devices either. It’s all done through suggestion and shock: the treatment of such a serious subject in such a casual and offhand manner stops the reader short; we are forced to reflect more deeply on the implications of what the poet is saying, of what lies behind the words. We are in the later years of the war here, and the early illusions everyone had at the outset have gone, only to be replaced by others,,,

Siegfried Sassoon: The General

June 23, 2022

Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
……
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

 

If Wilfred Owen is ‘in your face’ through his use of graphic detail in many of his war poems, Siegfried Sassoon is often brutally out to shock by saying a different kind of unspeakable thing. We see it here in a very short but vicious poem which goes straight to the heart of an issue that historians still argue about today: the competence or incompetence of the high command, those who ran the war and took the decisions that led to the deaths of millions of ordinary men on all sides.

There’s no specific form to identify, and the rhyme scheme is very simple; the hiatus between lines 6 and 7 is deliberate, and the final point is amplified by the third occurrence of the ‘-ack’ rhyme.

The metre is inescapably jaunty, jolly even, nursery rhyme-like, as becomes evident when you read the poem aloud, and the jolliness is designed to clash with the power and seriousness of the underlying message. It helps to visualise the scene: the general walking through a long line of soldiers at attention, with a repeated lively ‘Good-morning!’ every few yards. Sincerity? No.

The language is informal, casual, the language of squaddies among themselves, with slang thrown in. The third line is delivered in an almost throwaway manner, and the fourth line continues this feeling; the scene is personalised in the fifth and sixth lines when it’s narrowed down to two soldiers, being talked about by the anonymous speaker of the poem; their names are commonplace, Harry and Jack. They grunt to each other, they slog up the line with their kit.

And then the shock of their deaths – they were cheerful and alive last week, remember – is delivered in the same offhand way: he did for them both. The incompetence referred to in the fourth line has its results in a plan of attack. Interesting to notice that incompetent is the only complex word in the entire poem.

Effect? Well, I find it shocking in the manner in which Sassoon delivers such a simple tale, and one which must have been repeated countless times. And I also try and imagine the effect of such verse at the time of the Great War, when many people would have found the idea of speaking about death so casually extremely shocking, and the idea that the generals and other senior officers didn’t really have much of a clue what they were doing was also very shocking. We all have a tendency (perhaps not so much nowadays) to trust that those in power and control, above us, know what they’re doing…

Wilfred Owen: Anthem For Doomed Youth

June 21, 2022

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Form, first of all: this one is obviously a sonnet. Sonnets were traditionally love poems above all else, so what is Owen doing here? Is he sending up the idea of love poetry, using the sonnet in an opposite way (war=hate)? Or is he expressing a sense of love for those who are lost, killed in war? Or both, perhaps? Why not? It’s a Petrarchan, rather than a Shakespearean sonnet. Notice the rhyme scheme, and the shift in mood after the eighth line.

What is it about? Funerals. Except that Owen is drawing out a distinction, all the way through the poem, between the traditional religious funeral rituals of peacetime, and the total absence of anything like that when someone is killed at the front line. And it’s also interesting to think about the fact that Owen originally called his poem Anthem for Dead Youth, rather than Anthem for Doomed Youth. Is that significant, and is his final choice of title more effective? There’s a finality about dead, whereas doomed sounds more ominous, because the person is alive but not for much longer… And if you are interested in how Owen changed and revised his poems, then you can find drafts and revisions to look at online.

You need to pay full attention to how Owen uses language, and all the poetic devices that he crams into his poems; this one is no exception. Although I shall mention many of them, you may well find more.

The passing bells are those that would toll slowly at the church where a funeral was about to take place. They sounded very solemn and everyone would know what they signified. On the battlefield, the only sound is that of gunfire: look at how Owen presents this. The men die as cattle; contrast the lengthy vowel sounds early in the line with the short a of cattle, which brings us up short, as does the image of cattle, which conjures up the image of a slaughterhouse. The heavy two syllables of monstrous echo artillery fire, whilst the onomatopoeia of the stuttering rifles, and the alliteration (rifles, rapid, rattle) echoes machine-gun fire. This continues with the half rhyme in the next line (rattle, patter).

Orison is an archaic word for a prayer, a crucial part of any church funeral service. On the battlefield these are hasty – as if there would be any time at all for praying over someone killed there. Patter is remarkable in a number of ways. Firstly there is the echo of rattle I just noted above. Then there is the meaning of the word, in the sense of words used quickly without any real focus on their meaning, like the patter of a salesperson. Finally there would be, for readers in Owen’s time, the reminder of the Lord’s Prayer (which begins Pater Noster in Latin).

Into the second quatrain: such ritual would be a mockery on the battlefield. No prayers or bells then; no choirs such as would sing hymns and anthems (back to the poem’s title) at a funeral in church. Instead, the poet likens the sound of approaching shells before they explode; the word demented emphasises the utter craziness of it all. The bugles recall the training camps before the men were sent to the front (look at Owen’s poem The Send-Off) and the alliteration of sad shires reminds us of all the different local regiments which the men volunteered for, or were conscripted into. These ‘pals battalions’ often meant that entire communities of men were wiped out together in a single day’s fighting; there are monuments all along the Western Front to such battalions.

The noise and anger of the octave gives way to a calmer, more peaceful, sad and mournful mood in the sestet. Candles are an obvious part of a church service; in days gone by, special candles made from unbleached wax were often used to add solemnity (and gloom) to a funeral service. No alter servers or choirboys will be carrying these to funerals at the front. We need to remember that often there would be no physical remains after a death on the battlefield, as well as the government decision that all the war dead would be buried where they fell rather than brought back home. So the grief is internalised. The rhyming of eyes and goodbyes is very effective, very moving, as is the idea of holy glimmers.

A pall is the heavy embroidered cloth which was used to cover the coffin while it rested in church during a funeral; none of these at the front, obviously; and yet the idea of the pall is prefigured in the pallor of girls’ brows. Who are the girls? Girlfriends? Daughters? No flowers at the front either, although we may be reminded of the poppies of Flanders’ fields. And look at how the pace of the poem gradually slows down as the sestet develops, through longer vowel sounds until we reach the poignant alliteration of the final line: dusk/drawing/down/blinds. This is a reference to how blinds or curtains would be shut in a house from which a funeral set off.

It’s a powerful poem, which pays reading aloud, with attention to how the poet uses sounds and repetitions to create a solemn mood, a sad mood. We are reminded how serious a business a funeral was a century and more ago. If you need to compare this poem with another, you can do worse than pair it with another sonnet, Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier. Contrast the tone and mood of the two poems, and remember that one was written in the early days of the war, and the other when the war was part of everyone’s lives, and its awful reality had sunk in on the people of England.

Rebecca West: The Return of the Soldier

February 15, 2022

     An early start with the book group choice for next month, and what an astonishing book this first novel by Rebecca West, published in 1918, was. As First World War literature was one of the topics I specialised in teaching towards the end of my career, I was surprised never to have encountered this short novel, but since the Great War is only incidental to its plot, perhaps this is not surprising.

An officer suffers from shellshock, and all memories of fifteen years of his life have vanished; he has no recollection of his wife, the death of their small son, any of the changes which have taken place at his home. His memories are stuck on the idyllic happiness of his first love years back, and the first message from the field hospital contacts her… you can imagine the complexities West has set up here.

You are quite shockingly thrown in at the deep end, and West’s style is brief, sparse, and yet very tightly focused in terms of close observation of characters’ movements, gestures; it felt cinematographic in many ways. I was struck by how she developed a complex, moving and ultimately tragic plot in fewer than a hundred pages, and mentally imagined how a contemporary writer might have wittered through several hundred more without any improvement… Equally, I realised the immediacy West achieved, a quality I’ve encountered in other writings from the war itself and its immediate aftermath, where the horrors are well-known and widely known, as opposed to today’s writers who have to weave in so much contextual information and background a century and more later.

The flaw for me, and obviously it’s a reflection of the time when West wrote, was the simplistic use of Freudian psychology as a trigger for the denouement; it’s a minor flaw as it’s merely a trigger and the ending itself is brief enough and tragic enough to overshadow it.

Although the story is ostensibly about the return of the soldier – and the multiple meanings of the title have only just leapt out to me – actually the main interest is the complex and evolving relationship between the three women, the soldier’s wife, his first love, and the cousin who is the narrator but also deeply involved with the events as they unfold.

From the time itself, all those years ago, the story seems to express a longing, a nostalgia for the time before, the world before, the innocence before the horrors, at the same time as perhaps unconsciously recognising that those times are gone forever, that you cannot rewind. It’s a very powerful, well-written and extremely moving novel.

First World War poetry: more for students

December 14, 2021

 

If you’re going to write intelligently about poetry and the First World War, you need to know and understand something about that war, to be able to judge how it affected the many writers who fought and were killed during those four and a half appalling years. You don’t need to read a history book, but you do need an outline that you understand of what led up to the war, the major battles, the aftermath, and the effects on those who survived. This link takes you to a short-ish account I wrote as an outline for my students. I’m not a historian; it doesn’t set out to be impartial, but to make you think, and if you are seriously interested, then you can search for more to read. I’ve also prepared a list of all sorts of reference material and other texts you might at least like to consider looking up.

Maybe you, or someone in your family, has visited some of the sites of battles in Flanders or France, perhaps in search of a relative who was killed. Ask them about their impressions of those places.

If you like listening to stuff, then this website – librivox – has a number of different accounts by people who took part in the war in many different ways, read by volunteers as audiobooks into the public domain (ie they’re free). Do a search.

Do some thinking about form. Why were there so many poets, or so much poetry written during that war? Far more, and it seems, far better than came out of the Second World War. Easier to scribble a few lines in a dugout or a trench, into a notebook? You can hardly write a novel or a play in an underground bunker. What can you do with in a poem, that you cannot do so easily in a novel or in a play? Equally, consider what you can do well in a play, or in a novel? If you’re sitting down to write something longer, having survived where your mates haven’t, then you have the time to look back, to think about and reflect on what you went through… What are the advantages of each of these literary forms? If you’re thinking at this level, and able to explain some of your ideas, then you are heading into the highest grade territory, not that that’s the only reason for doing it…

Take your thoughts to another level, and realise that there were many countries involved in what was a world war, and not only the British wrote about it: find out something about what the French, or the Germans wrote from their perspective. Think about the fact that although hundreds of thousands of British soldiers were killed, Britain wasn’t overrun and occupied by the Germans, whereas all of Belgium and large parts of France were. What difference might that have made?

Finally for this piece, do not be afraid of your own opinions and reactions: be ready to express them, as clearly as you can. As long as you can support your comments with evidence from the text you’re writing about, what you have to say is valid and worthy of credit. You can like something, or not like it, it’s doesn’t matter as long as you can explain and show why you feel like that.

On fellow-bloggers…

December 14, 2021

I found myself thinking about fellow-bloggers. Lots of you out there, some of whom I follow. And apart from one friend who occasionally posts usually on workers co-operatives and related matters, those I follow are because I like what you write about; I don’t know you personally, though images of you emerge from the ways you write and the things you write about, and over the decade or so I’ve been blogging I’ve come to feel part of a community of kindred spirits, as it were.

So, there’s a blogger in Italy who teaches English and writes about her classroom experiences, taking me back to my past as an English teacher and bringing back memories of the joys (and frustrations) of those days. It’s not only in England that education policy seems bonkers. And there’s a classics teacher and avid reader in the US whom I like to read because she takes me back to my schooldays and my love of Latin literature, reminding me that I can actually, 50+ years later, still understand a lot of it. Not many know that I almost ended up studying Classics instead of English at university: where would I, and my life, have ended up if I’d followed that road in the wood, instead of the one I actually chose? And she does some lovely translations of Latin verse.

One who has disappeared from the web lived only a dozen or so miles away, it eventually transpired, and we shared an interest in Wilfred Owen’s life story and love of his poetry. And then there’s someone who I think lives in Australia, who’s a wood-turner and who writes occasional, reflective pieces on spiritual matters which often coincide with what I’ve been thinking about and where I’m currently at in my own journey.

I follow a number of others who write about literature and science fiction; our tastes overlap at times, I sometimes like and sometimes comment. Many of them are much more structured and assiduous in their approach than I am…

And these strangers enrich my life and my thinking, and make me realise that despite all the dreadful things we regularly hear about the internet and social media, it is also a wonderful thing in the way it creates connections. I always enjoy it when people interact with what I’ve written.

It’s also become clear over the last couple of years that I’ve become something of a go-to site for students who are reading First World War literature and especially poetry; they make up a large proportion of my total visits, but sadly never comment on (or like!) what I’ve written. One day I’ll get around to adding my commentaries on a few more poems.

I write because I enjoy it, and because I have the freedom to say what I like; I write about everything I read, and so far I’ve never had to delete a comment or response. I hope to have many more years doing this. One day, I’ll perhaps even choose a slightly more interesting and attractive theme for these posts…

Jean Giono: Regain

September 11, 2021

     Correction: I made a mistake in my last post about Jean Giono’s Le Grand Troupeau: being sent back to my school and university notes (no longer in a crate but scanned onto my laptop) by a reference in Regain, I discovered that it hadn’t in fact been one of my A Level French texts, but one from my first undergraduate year.

I really enjoyed coming back to Regain. The language is a challenge, just as it was in the previous book, because there’s so much particular vocabulary, from the Provence landscape and the agriculture of a century ago, as well as the idiom in which the characters speak… having a dictionary on your phone alongside you as you read isn’t always enough with a text like this: Le Petit Robert came down off the shelves a number of times.

Giono writes of the slowly emptying and abandoned villages in his region of France, as people moved away for an easier life, and the elderly died off. There’s a feeling of great sadness about it all; the villages are lovingly described in their decay, and the sense of loss, even of a very hard living, is palpable. There’s something important about people being connected to and rooted in their land, that Giono manages to convey with great power.

And the life is hard: there are no aspects or elements of 20th century civilisation in evidence in the villages; even money seems a curiosity. How to bring it all back to life? This novel is part of the Pan trilogy, and Panurge, the final inhabitant of his village, needs a woman to help him, to be a companion and co-worker. The old woman who has left, saying she will send him one, is almost a witch-like figure, or an earth-mother/goddess as we might probably say now. And the last man is finally joined by a woman, and they start to change things…

Arsule had been someone else’s woman, and he had used her as a beast of burden. We now see her coming into her own as a person, with ideas, an equal part of the enterprise. Primitive instincts or basic human urges may have drawn her and Panurge together initially, and this seems right, in the greater context. The transformation of home-making and the woman’s influence may strike one nowadays as very traditional, but the over-riding victory is of the return of life to the village of Aubignane. Their farming is eventually a success and there is a very real and simple joy in it; they are eventually joined by another family with children who move into the village, and at the end of the novel, Arsule is pregnant.

At one level simple and predictable, naive even? A nostalgic view of peasants’ mutual self-help? A romanticised vision of rural France? Possibly, but I’m not sure. There’s a harsh realism as well as a lyricism in the description of the landscape, the weather and the harsh life of the very poor peasants in the ruined villages, and there’s hope. If you add in the return to the simple life of the past as a reaction to the vile horrors of the Great War (read my previous post) then it makes a kind of sense. And Giono really knew the land, the area, and all this is reflected in his lovingly detailed and sensuous descriptions. It’s an excellent read.

Jean Giono: Le Grand Troupeau

August 21, 2021

     I first came across the French writer Jean Giono as a student of A Level French literature half a century ago, with his novel Regain, which was about the gradual rebirth of an abandoned rural village. Not idyllic, not hippified, but bloody hard work done by people who loved the land and understood its importance. I have made a mental note to track it down and re-read it.

This novel (translated into English as To The Slaughterhouse) is about the devastating effects of the Great War on French rural society, on villages hundreds of miles from the front lines. Who is to manage the countryside, the land and the beasts, once the men have gone off to war, many killed and many others mutilated so that even though they return, they cannot work the land? The troupeau (herd) in the French title is both the abandoned or requisitioned animals and the men gathered into battalions for the slaughter. The peasants who find themselves armed and at the front lines in short order are completely lost, disoriented, often wounded and left to die.

It’s an incredibly powerful novel, impressionistic in many ways, disjointed and at times understated, yet clear in its focus on rural life and the organic connections between people. The war is brutal and vile, yet at the same time backgrounded as alien to the positive forces Giono is interested in. Women are forced to be stronger than they can be; we see the devastating effects of the news of deaths on women and the older men back at home in the faraway villages. One truly heart-wrenching scene is the rural mourning ritual for an absent corpse. Nor does Giono ignore the sexual longings and desires of the women deprived of their menfolk, either. An account of trying to bring about an abortion a century ago was quite graphic. And when he wants to shock, Giono spares nothing: there is a truly obscene and detailed description of swarms of rats and how they start eating fresh corpses; then crows arrive and do their bit too… Some soldiers go mad, haunted by visions of their dead comrades.

I found the novel quite hard to read in French: there is much slang and rural vocabulary and idiom from over a century ago, and dictionaries were not often much help. The overall effect is quite different from English fiction about that war, with a much more powerful sense of utter waste, and the total futility of it all. The times come across as deranged, insane.

In the end, I found it rather too disjointed and hallucinatory, perhaps because it was just so utterly alien from my experience, even though I have considerable familiarity with the literature of this period. It recalled Henri Barbusse’s famous Le Feu, which was also a very challenging read a number of years ago. Giono had been there, and his vision of the solidity and solidarity of the ordinary people, the peasantry of France and its potential for renewal of society, was at least partly a reaction to those four years of mayhem: he does leave us with glimmers of hope at the end.

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