Posts Tagged ‘literature of the Great War’

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.

Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life

August 11, 2021

     Literature set in the Great War is fairly well-known and accessible; literature set in the aftermath, exploring attempts to come to terms with that horror rather less so. And the more I’ve gradually discovered and read, the more powerful it seems, and the more I realise the extent of the trauma of the survivors.

Wiechert wrote this novel after the Nazis released him from what was basically a warning imprisonment in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. What is the former naval captain, who commanded a ship at Jutland, to do with himself? What can his life mean now? Well-meant advice from a priest suggests meaning comes through work. He abandons wife and son and home and treks into the depths of the forests of East Prussia (Wiechert’s homeland), returning to earth and nature as manager of an estate fishery and living in a hut on a small island. He is joined by his former first mate, who saved his life during the naval mutiny at the end of the war.

His life becomes a cleansing, redemptive, un-religious though spiritual experience; withdrawal from the world leads him to an almost timeless, contemplative state, and we come to understand how devastating the war must have been for so many people. I was often reminded of the French author Jean Giono, who lived, experienced and wrote at the same time, and remembered studying his novel Regain for A-level: it’s also about forsaking the world to bury oneself deep in nature…I must track it down and re-read it.

I’m really not sure how good a novel it is; it’s flawed in some ways. The idyllic simplicity seems at times too good to be true, and the relationship with the granddaughter of the retired general on whose estate the fishery lies, feels ever so slightly creepy in our post-Lolita days, though it’s never a sexual one, and that possibility is clearly ruled out.

There is the mutual incomprehension of father and son, the perennial difference between generations, and the son and his peers imagine that they will regain the glory of the German navy through their efforts.

It’s also a novel about the end of an era, with things never the same again – echoes for me of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, certainly – the Prussian aristocracy is dying out, and for us there is the added hindsight: Hitler’s war is to come, and East Prussia ceases to exist in 1945, divided between Poland and the Soviet Union, the German population extirpated.

I’ve now read this novel four times; it’s one of my all-time favourites. How it speaks to me has changed over the quarter century since I first read it. Sadly, it’s a novel very much of its time, and consequently will probably vanish into obscurity. It’s a novel about ageing, growing older, and what that means for a thinking person (remember Socrates’ dictum, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’!) It’s about acceptance of oneself, who one is and who one has become, coming to terms with one’s lot, one’s life and one’s achievements. It’s about the hope, the wish for contentment and a sense of achievement. I think it’s marvellous. And the theme is haunting: from Psalm 90 ‘Swift as a breath our lives pass away.’

La Grande Guerre des Ecrivains

December 15, 2017

5156FKt5BOL._AC_US218_I have spent a lot of time reading literature of the Great War, in French as well as English; sometimes it has felt almost like an obsession. I’m searching for something – understanding? To make sense of it all? And I’ve visited quite a few of the key sites on the Western Front. I have come to realise how differently the French inevitably viewed that war, a war which invaded and destroyed their territory. This anthology has been very interesting in a number of ways.

There’s an excellent introductory survey by Antoine Compagnon – an academic essay, really – from a French perspective, naturally, and which remind me of Paul Fussell’s writings on the war. He presents a full survey of literature on and about the war from then up to the present day, taking in poetry, prose and drama, including writing from a wide range of different countries, too. In French, novels and short stories were the primary literature of the war, whereas in English literature we have stunning and powerful poetry and a wide array of memoirs. After reaching the end of the collection, my feeling was that the range of writing in English is richer than in French.

Although I have used various – shorter – school examination anthologies, I’ve not come across a similar, wide-ranging (over 800 pages) anthology in English, and I think that’s a pity.

The editor is a translator too, and I was astonished to read some of his excellent translations of the most well-known English poems of the war; his translation of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier outshines the original in one respect, with a fortuitous but wonderfully effective internal rhyme in the final line, which isn’t there in the original… there are stunning translations of Owen and Sassoon too, faithful to the original metre as well as the meaning and sense.

What does the collection add to what I’ve read before? The unspeakable vileness of conditions in the trenches conveyed even more graphically; the nature of fear and what you do, what it makes you do, and what it teaches you; how rats set about devouring a corpse – Giono is grimmer than any other wirter I’ve ever read; Hemingway on the decomposition of corpses and how bodies are blown to bits; a chilling piece by Barbusse – author of the grim novel Le Feu/ Under Fire (1915); a story by Jules Romains on a day in the life of a general, which draws out what Sassoon succinctly conveys in his poem of that name.

I also became aware of how a number of French war heroes and writers were later drawn into extreme nationalism and anti-semitism in the ugliness of the nineteen-thirties, and sometimes into collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War; in fact several of the writers anthologised were executed for that offence…

I came to realise too, that whereas now we read memoirs of the Great War or novels set at the time, the war had a much more pervasive effect on literature in the years immediately afterwards, as writers struggled to come to terms with what Europe had done to itself, alongside their fellow-citizens living with its consequences: effects of the war and its victims and survivors crop up as characters in a wide range of novels and stories that would in no way be classified as war novels.

It was a gruelling read and a useful one, although not all the extracts spoke to me.

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