Posts Tagged ‘Siegfried Sassoon’

Literature and the two world wars

November 7, 2018

I’ve often wondered why there seems to be so much more literature from the Great War than from the Second World War. That’s an impression I have, rather than any carefully calculated conclusion. I also have the feeling, that I think many readers would probably agree with, that the literature from the earlier war is more powerful, and more effective. And no, I’m not forgetting Second World War classics like Catch-22 and Life and Fate

Thinking about this a little more deeply: there was poetry written during the Second World War; I have an anthology (which I don’t dip into very often, I’m afraid) and a few poems collected loose-leaf over the years, but I’ve rarely used any of them in my teaching. They are so different, so much more low-key, with almost an aura of, ‘well, here we are again’ about them, rather than the shock, anger and outrage of the likes of Owen and Sassoon, whose power could not be equalled.

I have read fewer memoirs of the Second World War, although I found Keith DouglasAlamein to Zem-Zem as interesting as those of Sassoon, Graves et al. There is much more humour – novels such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms trilogy spring to mind, and again I know of no parallels from the earlier war; Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk is much more slapstick, although as brilliant in its own subversive way as is Heller, I feel. And there is good drama set in the Great War – Hamp, and Journey’s End for starters, but no plays leap to mind from the later war.

And yet, when you turn to look at both wars from a historical perspective, 1939-45 makes 1914-18 pale into insignificance in so many ways: the genocide of the Jews, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the vastly greater casualty figures, especially among civilians, the vileness of Nazism per se…

In many ways the Great War seems to have been so unnecessary, a self-inflicted wound that Europe drifted into, not quite out of boredom, a war that came to an unresolved conclusion out of attrition and left unfinished business that led to the next war a generation later. Recently, I have been reading about how the ending of that war came as such a shock to the Germans: lack of a sense of defeat of their armies made it easier for the Nazis and others to perpetrate the myth of the stab in th eback and the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles…

Reading the literature, what comes across most strongly to me is the utter shock of what the Great War became, the pointless hell of trench warfare in the West, with images that still cannot fail to appal, where the destruction, annihilation even, is actually far greater than that at Hiroshima: look at photographs of what (doesn’t) remain of some of the villages on the Somme or Passchendaele and you will see what I mean. And of course the determination that this should never happen again meant (after 1939) blitzkrieg, swift occupation and plunder of nations, the ability to plan extermination of whole races and peoples. And the weariness and the absolute necessity of putting an end to Hitler and Nazism led to a different kind of war, all-encompassing and far more destructive.

It is so wrong, and so unhelpful to the future of the world, that in the West we do not realise, cannot comprehend, what that war did in the east. If you have stomach, watch Elem Klimov’s film Go and See. I saw it once, over 30 years ago and still cannot face seeing it again. Read Svetlana Alexievich on The Unwomanly Face of War, or the interviews in Last Witnesses if you can. The Second World War cost Britain a great deal, but we got off oh so lightly compared with almost every other nation, and we still behave in a cavalier fashion towards our near neighbours who have striven to ensure that should be the last war on our continent…

In memoriam

November 4, 2018

2013-09-19 10.17.45 sommeWilfred Owen is etched on the collective British memory of the Great War in a way that no other poet is. I first came across Anthem For Doomed Youth and Dulce Et Decorum Est in the fourth form at school, in the late 1960s, long before I met any other poetry from that time. So what is it that makes Owen stand out, and is he better than the others?

His own tragic story adds poignancy to his legacy; certainly he was not the only poet to be killed in the war, but the story of his death in battle only a week before the Armistice, and the receipt of the dreaded telegram by his parents in Shrewsbury on Armistice day as the rest of the townsfolk celebrated the end of four and a half years of insanity cannot fail to move us. He died a hero, and he died young; who know what he may have become had he survived? There is a chilling moment near the end of the film O What a Lovely War, which I also met in the late 1960s when it was first released: we encounter the last soldier to die in the war. He is asked, ‘Are you the last?’ and a shot is heard. The shock is our realisation that someonehad to be be last one, and the horror of being killed at 10.59am, just before the armistice takes effect, is more chilling than any of the other deaths…why?

He suffered alongside his men; letters home attest to that, and he suffered shell-shock and was treated at the well-known hospital for officers at Craiglockhart near Edinburgh, where he met Siegfried Sassoon, a poet who encouraged a fellow-poet to give words to his experiences. The building is still there, now part of the Napier University campus, and there is a small exhibition well worth a visit if you are passing. I feel a connection with Owen because he spent his last weeks before his return to France attached to the enormous army camp on the outskirts of Ripon, where I used to live and teach. He rented a room in a small cottage in the city and made the last revisions to his poems while there. I was present at the inauguration of a memorial plaque at the cottage about twenty years ago. I also have family connections with Shrewsbury, where Owen grew up. His name appears on the enormous memorial tablet of the Manchester Regiment in the Abbey Church there, and there is an austere modern sculpture in the grounds commemorating his death on the Sambre Canal near Ors on 4 November, 1918.

And of course, I have visited the battlefields where he fought, the Maison Forestière near Le Cateau where he spent his last days, now converted into a splendid museum and installation of his poetry, the French having recognised his greatness too. The municipal graveyard in Ors houses a section of Commonwealth war graves, almost all of them killed on the same day as Owen. A place to reflect and remember.

Owen’s time at the front, at Craiglockhart and at his death on the Sambre Canal is movingly imagined in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy.

And Owen the poet: what of his work? He gives words to the incomprehensible, the inexpressible, which our more fortunate generations have not had to experience. We cannot tell if he exaggerated for effect; we can feel his anger, at the way he felt the suffering of the men at the front was not understood by those at home, the fact that the agonies and deaths and mutilations were unnecessary. And yet he never shied from his duty, never protested publicly in the way that Sassoon did, for instance. The power of his poetry resides both in his choice of words to express his feelings, and his stunning use of the English language in ways he made his own: I’m thinking particularly of his muted use of rhyme, half-rhyme and part-rhyme, and assonance and alliteration in lesser-known poems such as Exposure, for example, which puts across the sense of forlornness and being forgotten while doing one’s duty, and in Strange Meeting, among others. The Great War produced an immense and varied wealth of literature, poetry in particular, and I cannot imagine that Owen’s powerful voice will ever be forgotten.

Wilfred Owen: Futility

October 22, 2018

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

I think Owen gets pretty close to despair in this poem, which reflects on the corpse of a soldier, presumably a villager, a rural fellow, newly killed: what is the point of the human species’ existence at all? It is pretty grim.

The sun frames the poem, both stanzas. In the first it is a kindly force, in the second almost a stupid one, and this personification shocks through its incongruity. The first stanza is hushed, as we often are in the presence of death, with the gentleness of being awoken by the rising sun, wherever you are, until you are dead and this cannot happen any more. Look at Owen’s use of the mournful-sounding long ‘o’ sounds in awoke, home, sown, and the way those sounds frame the third line, as well as ending so many lines in that first stanza. Notice also how Owen has used consonants which are quiet and soft-sounding; nothing harsh at all until the final couplet where the shock of the plosives in fatuous and break emphasise the poet’s anger.

Owen’s use of imperfect rhyme often contributes to creating a slightly unnerving or uneasy effect, and I think it works well in this poem: look at line endings sun/sown, once/France, seeds/sides, star/stir, tall/toil. Devices like this are so easily overlooked because they do not impinge as evidently as full rhyme, but that subtlety does not mean that they have no effect, just that the effect is less consciously received.

Owen’s knowledge of planetary formation as shown in the opening of the second stanza, with the idea of the sun warming a cold planet and thus generating life, is obviously completely wrong, but that’s not the point here. The poet is focused on the sun’s life-giving properties which are due to radiated heat, germinating seeds in the springtime – an idea that our dead soldier from his rural background would surely have been familiar with – and the idea that the sun might be able, via its warmth, to revive the body not yet gone cold, briefly calls to Owen. Were humans, formed from the dust of the ground according to Genesis, created to be killed like this?

Thus the despairing cry that rises from that final couplet: the long ‘o’ sound again, the fatuous sunbeams – what an idea, as jarring as Sassoon’s glum heroes – the sun is foolish or silly to have bothered bringing forth life on the planet in the first place… And by the time this poem was written, I can see why someone with Owen’s experience of the Western Front would think like this. Indeed, with the state of our world today, I quite often experience the same feeling…

Siegfried Sassoon: Base Details

October 1, 2018

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say — “I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.

Sassoon is at his angry best here, and here is another war poem that begins with ‘if’. Hmm. Looking at the title again, I’m struck by the multiplicity of possible meanings in ‘base’ as in military base, or base as in morally low; ‘details’ as in military punishment detail, or minor aspects as in unimportant?

Why are the Majors ‘scarlet’ – a reference to medals and uniforms or the ruddiness of complexion that comes from high-living? ‘Speed’: does this mean to hurry up, as in the conveyor-belt of young men shipped off to be slaughtered at the front, or do we imagine it as part of the phrase ‘God speed’ a wish of good luck? And, what is a ‘glum’ hero? That’s a marvellous oxymoronic phrase that I’ve always wondered about whenever I return to this poem. Surely our picture of a hero is of someone contentedly, patriotically doing his duty.‘Glum’ suggests reluctance, as if the men have been told they’re heroes, and don’t actually want this role, this label. Sassoon certainly tuned in to the multiplicity of meanings our language offers in this poem.

Look at the mockery of the top brass emphasised by the alliteration of ‘puffy petulant’ and ‘guzzling and gulping’, and then the officer’s patronising tone when talking about the ‘poor young chap’ – somehow ‘chap’ seems far too informal and dismissive, especially coming from a man who doesn’t actually know the dead soldier, only his father long ago – perhaps at public school? And to refer to a bloody battle as a ‘scrap’ shocks as well. Then there’s the final, jaunty rhyming couplet, with ‘done’ before the caesura somehow adding more weight to ‘dead’ at the end of the line… and the childishness of ‘toddle’ which takes us back to the overeating of the early lines of the poem: perhaps the major is so obese that he must walk that way?

Base Details is one of a number of similar poems in which Sassoon expresses his anger about what the war is doing to men, along with The General, The Hero, Does it Matter? Glory of Women and Memorial Tablet, to name a few.

Sassoon and Owen both, though in very different ways, highlight the indifference of both military high-ups and those at home to the death and suffering endured by the ordinary soldiers at the front, an indifference that seems to grow as time passes: only those directly affected by the death of a loved one perhaps shocked out of that indifference? A century later, it is hard to know for certain, but I think both poets are keenly aware that it is old men who start wars and send the young off to be killed and maimed. And though I find it even harder to understand, I have nothing but respect for two poets who nevertheless continued to do their duty, as they understood it.

Charles Hamilton Sorley: When you see millions

June 20, 2018
When you see millions of the mouthless dead 
Across your dreams in pale battalions go, 
Say not soft things as other men have said, 
That you'll remember. For you need not so. 
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know 
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head? 
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow. 
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead. 
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto, 
Yet many a better one has died before.' 
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you 
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore, 
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew. 
Great death has made all his for evermore. 

A grim Petrarchan sonnet, this one. The alliteration in the open line shocks, with the enormous number, as well as the idea that the dead cannot speak; pale suggests ghostliness, too. Say not soft things: are these the whispered words of condolence, uttered out of embarrassment? Things hints at the speaker lost for what is appropriate to say in the circumstances, rather like the man in Owen’s Disabled who thanks the boy and enquires about his soul… Or is there a hint of the colloquial meaning of soft, as stupid? The poem will carry both. And anyway, the words you utter are for you, not those who are dead, and that is the point the poet is now going to hammer home: it’s too late now for you to do or say anything that will do any good or make any difference: this is the entire force of the octave.

They do not need praise; they are unable to distinguish it from curse; neither do they need tears, or honour – perhaps reminding us of Falstaff’s famous speech about honour in Henry IV Part 2: honour is just a word. Notice too, how Sorley has the dead first mouthless, then deaf and finally blind too; there is a sense of helplessness as well as being beyond help: it is easy to be dead. This was surely very true in the Great War.

Things shift slightly in the sestet: at first they are still a mass, indistinguishable, a crowd, until the hearer spots one that s/he loved heretofore. This is always the way to make the reader think, to narrow down and personalise, and explains why so many of the most memorable poems that came out of that war are focused on the fate of a single individual: look at any of Sassoon‘s or Owen’s most well-known and well-liked poems. It is a spook. Those four monosyllables, with added effect from their place at the start of the line, bring us up short, as perhaps also does the unexpected word spook – a ghost, a spirit, something that shocks or frightens. Though the hearer recognises the dead man, at the same time, it is not the person he knew. And the final line, all monosyllables until the final word, hammers the message home: death is final and forever. Sorley uses the caesura very effectively four times in the poem, too: a pause for thought after a brief sentence at the beginning of a line.

Re-reading this poem as I write this post, I’m struck at how many of the words are monosyllables, emphasising to me the simplicity and the finality of its message.

Siegfried Sassoon: Glory of Women

June 2, 2018

You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,

Or wounded in a mentionable place.

You worship decorations; you believe

That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.

You make us shells. You listen with delight,

By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.

You crown our distant ardours while we fight,

And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.

You can’t believe that British troops “retire”

When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,

Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.

   O German mother dreaming by the fire,

   While you are knitting socks to send your son

   His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

A Petrarchan sonnet – oh the irony! – written to women about their attitudes towards menfolk at the front. The alliteration of heroes, home seems to set the tone: the man has to have done something worth talking about to validate himself; what about the mentionable place? Are you allowed to say what part of the front he’s been fighting on, or is it the other kind of mentionable? You can tell your neighbours your husband was wounded in the arm, but every part of the body is equally vulnerable, and talking about emasculation isn’t quite so easy…

There’s a softness in the sounds: worship, chivalry that nudges us towards the superficial, and the idea of redeems seems to legitimise what’s going on: it’s worthwhile, a balance, a pay-off.

And then the entire first quatrain is undermined by the monosyllabic half-line that hits you at the start of the fifth line. It’s a statement of fact, direct, linking home and front with you and us. What about that word shells? Another double meaning – the artillery munitions, obviously, as the womenfolk make their contribution to the war-effort, each side’s women making the weaponry that kills the other side’s menfolk, but what about man as an empty shell, unable to communicate or deal with his experiences in the lines? What is he to do with himself, and those feelings? But after that brief interruption we’re back to the jauntiness again – delight rhymes with fight, life in the trenches is mere dirt and danger, and the women are fondly thrilled. They hear tales; we’re linked to childhood, innocence and fairy tales. Fondly is a lovely word, the affectionate meaning married with the Yorkshire meaning foolish… We’re almost back in mediaeval times with ideas like ardour, and laurelled memories. Sassoon was frequently enraged by the attitudes of those back home who didn’t know or care to contemplate the reality of what he and his comrades were going through, and we can see this anger seeping through every line of the poem.

Things shift quite seriously as we move into the sestet. We’re with the military-speak now, the word retire in inverted commas because you never use the real r-word about your own side, of course, but Sassoon forces his home-front reader to face a little of the truth through the triple alliteration of hell’s…horror, trampling…terrible, blind…blood. There’s a half-rhyme, too in that last pair.

And then, for the final tercet, another camera angle: shift to Germany. Why? All in this together, mate? A lovely peaceful image, reinforced by the assonance German, mother, dreaming, behaving in exactly the same way as her British counterpart Sassoon has been excoriating, knitting socks for her son (how powerful are the simple tools of alliteration and assonance!) demolished by the utter brutality of the image in that final line.

Whilst Owen is often angry, there is a bitterness about Sassoon that bleeds through into his anger, a cynicism (perhaps?); anyway I can see why he threw his medal into the Mersey in disgust. There is a public side to war and warfare, to which all are party, and there is a quieter, darker, private aspect which, if we are fortunate, we do not have to share.

Frank Richards: Old Soldiers Never Die

January 14, 2018

Certainly one of the most interesting memoirs from the Great War I’ve read so far, because of the different perspective: this one isn’t by a well-spoken, articulate and reflective officer, but by a private, a Welsh miner who gets on with what is expected of him, without thinking too much about it. He grumbles a good deal, certainly, but the most astonishing thing is he survives the entire war, a large part of it as a signaller, which was one of the most dangerous jobs of all. A reservist, he returns to the ranks the morning after war is declared, serves in Flanders and on the Somme, and is there at the Armistice…

So here we have a genuine, working-class voice, straight-spoken and calling a spade a spade. He passes judgements on many of the officers he encounters, most of which seem accurate; he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and this probably contributed to his survival. The book, however, is rather chaotic at times, and often slides into a vaguely connected series of anecdotes, often wryly humorous, and certainly painting a picture of the total chaos in the early days of the war. The book abounds in rather annoying typos, some of which may be due to the writer’s level of education, but it could certainly have done with a better editor and proof-reader.

Richards is often in the very thick of the action in different places on the front. His tone is rather even, unvaried, which can make for some monotony in places, but it’s his perspective that ultimately makes it a successful and worthwhile read: his outlook may be narrower that that of other memoirs from the likes of Graves and Sassoon (both of whom he obviously met whilst at the front, for he name-drops them along with many other officers he encounters) but it feels genuinely true-to-life. He’s not a philosopher, he doesn’t really reflect on things, but he is very touching in the way he accepts the deaths of many pals in his stride: there’s a genuine affection and comradeship that comes across along with the fatalism.

As the war progresses, between the lines the utter charnel-house of trench warfare emerges clearly, and I could understand precisely why the strategy wasn’t repeated in the next war, and hasn’t been since. Richards is highly critical of the recruiting and lack of proper training given to conscripts in the later stages of the war – they really do come across as mere cannon-fodder – as well as the increasing numbers of men who sought cushy numbers behind the lines; he understands fully why they would, and we can sense the unfairness he feels as a man doing a decent job and accepting of the likelihood of death at any instant…

Overall, this was a man I warmed to as the book progressed, and I was outraged by the disgraceful treatment of real soldiers in terms of disability payments and pensions once the conflict was over; no surprises there, really, as that always seems to be the way that powerful states treat those who have fought and suffered in their armed forces.

If you only read one account of time in the trenches this year, I’d suggest it ought to be this one.

Bernard Adams: Nothing of Importance

January 4, 2018

51yxyb3Bv0L._AC_US218_A couple of months ago I finally watched a documentary on poets and writers of the Great War which I’d recorded a couple of years ago (!). And, despite having taught the literature of that time to sixth-formers for many years, several writers who I’d never come across were mentioned. Tracking down texts wasn’t difficult and I’m catching up on some literature of those times.

What far better-know title does Nothing of Importance remind you of? Bernard Adams‘ book is nothing like the great Erich Maria Remarque‘s masterpiece, though. Whereas Remarque’s novel gives the lie to its title, being full of violence, mayhem and chaos, much of Adams’ memoir is of what comes across as a very quiet time at the front. He spent time first in Flanders, before being transferred to the Somme for the four months leading up to the great July 1916 offensive.

What struck me first of all was how ordinary he made it all seem: his matter-of-fact tone meant that nothing surprised him, nothing really shocked or horrified him. Shelling, squalor, the occasional death or wound, everything quite easily became normal, routine. And although he is aware of this, it doesn’t move him much.

He’s very good at explaining all sorts of technical details to the ordinary reader through careful pencil diagrams which pepper the text, and his maps also clarify a lot of the details of the safeties and dangers of being in the trenches; his approach made issues of topography a good deal clearer to me. He was absolutely fascinating on mines and countermines, and I realised where some of the more recent writers like Sebastian Faulks might have got some of the knowledge they used in their fictions.

There are blow-by-blow accounts of things like patrols into no man’s land which again fascinate because a century later a reader finds it hard to imagine the fine details. We share his exhilaration, even though we also find ourselves asking, ‘yes, but what, exactly, was the point of that?’ And because, although we know exactly where he is on the front lines, his experiences are not linked to the greater sweep of the war itself, are in isolation, really, it’s impossible to understand the significance of anything that he sees or does… It’s clear he was regarded as an effective and efficient soldier and officer, by his men, his peers and his superiors.

The book, and his tone, become a good deal more serious, though, when a number of his fellow officers are killed: the suddenness and meaninglessness of it hits him hard, and is thereby so much more powerful in its effect on the reader. The real horrors do seem to begin to shake his sanity, though the language of a century ago conceals this somewhat. He is pleased to receive a ‘blighty’ wound towards the end of June 1916, when everyone can see that something big is in the offing; we experience his shock, and as he gradually convalesces, his anti-war sentiments come out more strongly. He’s not outspoken in a Sassoon sort of way, but comes over more as a decent sort who can make points effectively.

He obviously wrote his book while convalescing, for after recuperation he went back to the front, and was killed there in 1917. It’s a good read, because very much of its time, and is available as a free download on the Internet Archive website.

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.

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

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