Posts Tagged ‘Strange Meeting’

Stefan Brijs: Post for Mrs Bromley

October 10, 2018

51E9jdRvQIL._AC_US218_This is an astonishing new novel set during the First World War, but sadly not yet available in English, though there is a sample here. At first, I wondered when I read ‘translated from the Dutch’ on the cover, but then I actually realised Brijs is a Flemish writer, and all fell into place, Flanders, the Western Front and everything: a writer from the area, fascinated by what happened there a century ago. And the final sections are set in Poperinghe and feature Talbot House, which I visited earlier this year…

It’s interesting because it’s a novel about Britain at the very start of the war, and its early days, a time of confusion and bewilderment as well as growing patriotism and propaganda, a time before the horrors with which we are all familiar became widely known. This is an aspect I haven’t met in other fiction, to the same degree. The first part is set in the working-class areas of the East End of London, and to me Brijs seems to create a very detailed and convincing picture of life there, with very credible characters and settings. It centres on two ‘milk brothers’ (i.e. one was wet-nursed by the mother of the other): their backgrounds and aspirations are very different, however, and they grow apart, one a true and patriotic proletarian who wants to join up at the outset, thought too young and undernourished and therefore having to resort to subterfuge, the other – John – more questioning, academic, and by his own eventual admission, more cowardly. His father is a bookaholic postman, and it’s through his experiences delivering official letters and messages that the awful truth about the war gradually emerges; he feels increasingly like an angel of death, and begins to conceal rather than deliver official mail.

John chooses to go to university to study literature rather than join up, and makes a very good friend who is finishing a degree in German, and who questions everything he hears about the war.

As the story develops we encounter a powerful portrayal of how the tentacles of support for the war spread, gradually affecting more and more people; we see the hero’s attitudes and emotions changing as he reflects and questions his own stance and behaviour, in response to other people as well as to events. Particularly well described is the terror of the early Zeppelin raids on London and how these crystallised anti-German feeling; equally we see the effect of atrocity propaganda. Ultimately, as a result of events as well as reflection on his apparent cowardice, our hero signs up, and eventually ends up at the front, in the Somme region towards the end of 1916, in quest of the truth about his childhood ‘brother’, who he knows is dead.

His experiences as orderly to a lieutenant who has clearly been badly mentally affected by his experiences is very sensitively and thoughtfully developed, and I was reminded at various times of the characters in Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting. John is loyal to his officer, both sensitive to and horrified by his affliction. We are not spared the suddenness and meaninglessness of death at the front. Brijs manages to bring to life men who are utterly trapped by their circumstances, their sense of duty, mentally deranged by their experiences in so many different ways, small and large. At times I wasn’t totally convinced by the levels of deceit John resorts to in his quest for truth, but realised that in the enormity of the chaos surrounding him, anything was possible: all are suffering in a true hell that spares no-one. Without giving anything away, I can truthfully say that I found the denouement very powerful indeed.

So here was a novel about Britain and the British Army during the Great War, written in Flemish, translated into French and German so far, but not English: what’s going on?

Poetry: Wilfred Owen

December 14, 2014

Perhaps one is pre-disposed to warm to Wilfred Owen‘s poetry by his own tragic story: killed in action a mere week before the Armistice (but then, when you get to thinking about this, it is even crueller to realise that someone had to be the last person killed) and his parents receiving the telegram a week later, whilst everyone around finally celebrated the end…

Owen’s poetry has survived, and will, for a number of reasons. He writes about war in ways which others – equally effectively – do not: his best poems, it has always seemed to me, are especially powerful because they personalise the dreadfulness of war by zeroing in on a single individual and his fate: the blinded soldier in The Sentry, the dying man in Dulce et Decorum Est, or, most powerfully for me, the survivor in Disabled. When he focuses in close-up on the horrors, he comes from an unusual angle – the survivors in Mental Cases are unforgettable, and again, these are survivors. And in some way, these poems are filmic: a series of shots, from different angles, they link in for me with the grainy old monochrome newsreel shots of a century ago.

Owen is also capable of great cleverness in developing an idea, almost in the metaphysical sense of ‘wit’. The Parable of the Old Man and the Young is my favourite example of this: the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac and the sacrifice develops gradually, becoming subtly more and more warped and surreal as the location and the language mutates, from the deserts of Mesopotamia to the trenches of Flanders, and then blasphemous as the clever men of Europe defy God’s final command to show mercy.

But what is specifically poetic about Owen? Briefly and powerfully he draws us as far as we (safely at home) can be drawn into the horrors and shows us, through visual imagery and through his use of language, as much as we can ever know. The strangeness, the eeriness he creates through his subtle and persistent use of half-rhyme in poems such as Exposure and Strange Meeting are meant to haunt us, creating places we can see and feel and yet never understand, feelings we can imagine, perhaps, but never really know. Perhaps that is his greatest achievement: he takes us as close as we can be taken to the world he lived and died in, and in a way that no other poet of his time manages to do so forcefully.

And: if you are familiar with Owen’s poetry, next time you read Sebastian FaulksBirdsong, look out for how many very carefully and subtly woven-in back-references there are to Owen’s poems (and Sassoon’s too)…

Wilfred Owen

September 19, 2013

the cellarDSC_0154Today I carried out the last duty I’d set myself as an English teacher (ret’d) when I finally visited Owen’s grave. It’s in a godforsaken village in northeastern France – Ors, on the Sambre Canal, where he was killed a week before the end of the First World War as he and his men attempted to build a bridge across the canal. He is buried in a military annexe in the local communal cemetery; all bar one of the men buried there were killed on the same day; there are two VCs among them. It’s all very ordinary, just like the dozens of other war cemeteries in this part of France. I looked at the canal: how you’d build a bridge across it under gunfire beats me. Pat Barker imagines it graphically in the final volume of her trilogy, The Ghost Road.

A couple of miles away is the Maison Forestiere, which is the house from the cellar of which Owen wrote his last letter to his mother. It’s been turned into what I can best call a poetry installation: painted white, inside in darkness Owen’s poems are projected onto glass panels and read aloud (some of them) by Kenneth Branagh. Some have been translated into French and read aloud, too: finally French readers are meeting Owen’s poems and France realises that she has one of England’s greatest twentieth-century poets buried here.

Listening to the poems was moving; there were the usual well-known ones, some early fragments and some I hadn’t met before. The translations into French were interesting: sometimes the translator had succeeded in capturing some of the alliteration, assonance and especially half-rhyme that characterise Owen’s greatest work (Exposure, Strange Meeting) but very often s/he hadn’t, for it was impossible, and somehow this underlined for me just how good his poetry is.

The cellar is empty, cleaned out and is the same space where Owen wrote his last letter: you can sit there and hear it, in English and French, and be still with your thoughts.

It’s a fitting memorial, I felt, and worth a detour, as Michelin puts it. There are details on the tourism website of Le Cateau Cambresis, the nearest large town.

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