Revisiting: “Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.”

poppylogoOn Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.


Robert Nichols, a fellow English war poet, wrote an introduction to Siegfried Sassoon’s 1918 collection Counter-Attack and Other Poems that is reprinted in my Dover Edition of the War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon. In it, Nichols recounts a conversation he once had with Sassoon, on the topic of “certain exalté poems in [Nichols's] Ardours and Endeavours.” Sassoon likes the poems, and says:

“War has made me. I think I am a man now as well as a poet. You have said the things well enough. Now let us nevermore say another word of whatever litlte may be good in war for the individual who has a heart to be steeled.”

I remember I nodded, for further acquaintance with war inclines me to his opinion.

“Let no one ever,” he continued, “from henceforth say a word in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell and those who institute it are criminals. Were there anything to say for it, it should not be said for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages.”

War poems are, in some sense, a kind of Remembrance. Many are about individual fallen comrades; many more refer to the unnamed dead. Ghosts are everywhere, and dying men are everywhere, suffering and taking their last breaths. The poems are a record of horror and calamity, and many are also accusations.

How then does one read the poems without thinking of the “hardship of soul” Sassoon gained by the war? It was the war that allowed him to see and understand these things, and the war that allowed him to develop into the poet he did. His poems could only have been written by someone who had just those spiritual advantages war does offer—and as such, there is always the subtext: you were not there, you cannot Remember the way we can. Is it possible to read Sassoon’s work while following his instruction never to “say a word in any way countenancing war”?

I think the answer to that question is yes, but it’s one that I think will dog me throughout the Great War project.

Revisiting: “What silly beggars they are to blunder in/And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame”

poppylogoOn Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.


On Tuesday, one of the poems I wrote about, “To Any Dead Officer,” ends very bluntly, as I noted: “I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.” This kind of bluntness is characteristic, especially as a sort of epigrammatic last line to Sassoon’s poems. “Trench Duty” ends, “I’m wide awake; and some chap’s dead.” “The General,” one of Sassoon’s turns at the vulgarly humorous side of war poetry, finishes abruptly and unfunnily for our two comic actors: “But he did for them both by his plan of attack.” “The One Legged Man” last “thought: ‘Thank God they had to amputate!’”

One of the most powerful uses of this blunt instrument is in “Repressions of War Experience,” a poem about a demobbed soldier who is badly shell-shocked. The poem is off-putting in many ways. Sassoon abandons his usual clear if somewhat irregular stanzas for a more open form, and the narrator seems to drift through this open form just as his consciousness, troubled as it is, drifts illogically from one topic to the next (“And you’re right as rain…./Why won’t it rain?…”) Like “To Any Dead Officer,” this poem deals with Sassoon’s view of the afterlife, and like many of his war poems has a strong hint of nature about it.

There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,—
Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,—
But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died
Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.

There is very little logic to this former soldier’s thoughts, but there is a logic to ghosts, for him: they are here, but not the ones he knew—those ones are back where they died, of course.

The narrator’s mind continues to wander as he complains about constantly hearing guns, and here Sassoon hits us with his final line: “I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.” The guns no longer exist, realize; it’s just that “quite soft…they never cease.”

The end of this poem is angry; the beginning is bitter. The narrator’s thoughts turn to the war on his seeing moths drawn to a flame—he just can’t resist the mental metaphor. But he scolds himself,

—it’s bad to think of war,
When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it’s been proved that soldiers don’t go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts

This is where I would say Sassoon’s bitterness most comes out—when he’s talking about how “it’s bad” and “it’s been proved,” things decided by some official yet foreign body, just as when he’s saying he wished “they’d” killed you in a decent show—the generals, who “did for them” all by their plans of attack. Also the civilian leadership back home, and civilian supporters. The calamity itself doesn’t induce as much bitterness as those who drive it along and often profit by it. In terms of Great War literature, this is a theme I first discovered in Parade’s End. Or so I thought—I’d actually encountered it long before, in “Blackadder Goes Forth” (which I saw as much, much darker after reading that tetralogy). In The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer discusses the play “Oh What a Lovely War, filmed by Richard Attenborough in 1969, which sometimes tends toward “crude caricature”:

Writers may have resorted to irony, but the soldiers here rely on its more humane equivalent: the piss-take.

Appropriately and perfectly, the play ends with a song which, like that defining passage in Barbusse, looks ahead to the impossibility of conveying what happened in the trenches:

And when they ask us, and they’re certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn’t win the Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we’ll never tell them, oh, we’ll never tell them
There was a front, but damned if we knew where.

Blackadder’s snide remarks on General Haig’s latest “gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin” are coming from the same general place, I think, and are, similarly, just as powerful as many more “literary” attempts to describe the war. Lieutenant Blackadder asking, just as he and his troops must finally (really this time) go over the top, with classic sarcasm, “I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?” seems to arrive, by way of the vulgar piss-take school, straight down the line from the likes of Sassoon—and by 1989, it may be cliché, but like I said, I find the show extremely dark. And I find Sassoon extremely effective.

Revisiting: More on Siegfried Sassoon, bitter and sweet

poppylogoOn Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.


Yesterday I ended with a question about Sassoon’s bitterness. Today I want to discuss a theme in many of Sassoon’s poems that is often treated more sweetly than you might expect: death. I mean here the state of death, the afterlife in the most literal sense possible—what happens after life ends.

Sassoon speculates often on what death is like, and though he has several reuseable phrases at hand to euphemise it—“gone out patrolling in the dark”, “beyond the wire”, “gone West”—even these are poignant and not (yet?) cliché. Sassoon’s attitute toward death is one of curiosity and interest; that curiosity may be tinged with sadness but it’s motivated by the care and love he feels for his dead comrades. Here, in “To Any Dead Officer,” he begins:

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day,
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

Elsewhere these attitudes toward death verge on the playful. In “The Investitute,” a soldier makes his way through the pearly gates, where “God says something kind because you’re dead,/And homesick, discontented with your fate.”

If I were there we’d snowball Death with skulls;
Or ride away to hunt in Devil’s Wood
With ghosts of puppies that we walked of old.
But you’re alone; and solitude annuls
Our earthly jokes; and strangely wise and good
You roam forlorn along the streets of gold.

These lines, like the ones I quoted yesterday, are a good example of Sassoon’s frequent use of juxtaposition: skull snowballs and puppy ghosts. The puppy ghosts are almost a double juxtaposition; just as the sad ghost conflicts with the cute puppy, the resultant creepy image of ghost-puppies conflicts with what Sassoon is really talking about here, beloved old friends. On the scale of the stanza there is a larger juxtaposition: the first half is the joke, the second half rejects jokes now that “you’re alone; and solitude annuls” them. The final juxtaposition—the dead man “forlorn” among “streets of gold,” could be a taste of the bitterness. I don’t think so, actually, I think it’s more acceptingness.

The bitterness undoubtedly shows up at the end of the poem previously quoted, however, “To Any Dead Officer.” Here, Sassoon is scathing, describing how the eponymous dead officer was listed on the “bloody Roll of Honour” as

“Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
*****
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
and tell Him that our Politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
Under the Heel of England….Are you there?…
Yes…and the War won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men….I’m blind with tears,
Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

And that is where he packs his punch. It feels almost unlicensed to actually feel so much from it—isn’t everything just ironic now, or something?—but Sassoon’s biting style does not seem cheap to me, but really powerful.

“Robert Ross was no Hitler. That was his problem.”

poppylogoRohan noted in a comment the other day that The Wars is sometimes a little pat—but still affecting. This was my exact experience of the book. I’ll admit it was a bit strange.

The most “pat” parts are, I think, in the framing story. It’s the present day (i.e., somewhere around 1977, when the novel was published), and two old ladies are the ones to pronounce on all the poor, nice young men whose lives they saw go by. The first is Marian Turner, “a nurse in the Great World War [who] remembered Robert vividly”—for you see, the frame is a setup to tell Robert Ross’s story. Marian Turner “has given (on tape) the only first-hand account of him we have aside from that of Lady Juliet d’Orsey.”

Miss Turner veers from gushing about Robert, to lamenting the war, to relating a fact here and there.

My opinion was—he was a hero. …You see, he did the thing that no one else would even dare to think of doing. And that to me’s as good a definition of ‘hero’ as you’ll get. Even when the thing that’s done is something of which you disapprove. …Well. It was the war that was crazy, I guess. Not Robert Ross or what he did. You’ll say that’s trite, of course. But is it? Looking back, I hardly believe what happened.

She emphasizes that, living through so much of “this extraordinary century,” she’s learned that it’s the ordinary people who really make history: “[m]onstrous, complacent, and mad.”

Remember that. Even if I do sound a moralizing fool, I’ll risk it. After all—I’m pretty old. (LAUGHTER) I could be gone tomorrow! There may not be anybody else who’ll say this to you. Everyone’s so sophisticated these days they can’t stand the hot lights. Eh? Well—I saw both wars. And I’m here to tell you the passions involved were as ordinary as me and my sister Bessie fighting over who’s going to cook the dinner. And who won’t! (LAUGHTER) Those people in the park—you—me—every one—the greatest mistake we made was to imagine something magical separated us from Ludendorff and Kitchener and Foch. Our leaders, you see. Well—Churchill and Hitler, for that matter! (LAUGHTER) Why, such men are just the butcher and the grocer—selling us meat and potatoes across the counter. That’s what binds us together. They appeal to our basest instincts. The lowest common denominator. And then we turn around and call them extraordinary!

Lady Juliet, who knew Robert Ross when she was a girl, provides the other set of present-day narratives, reading in part from her diary, and commenting in part on the past. While Miss Turner focused, in her moment of frankness about the war, on what made it possible—the mad belief in leadership as meaningful rather than venal—Lady Juliet turns at one point to a different part of the war experience: the death and horror.

You cannot know these things. You live when you live. No one else can ever live your life and no one else will ever know what you know. That was then. Unique. And how does one explain? You had a war. Every generation has a war—except this one. …Siegfried said a marvellous thing—’(Sassoon)—‘He was taking his troops to the front and they were walking along a road that had been shelled and he saw a soldier lying dead by the road whose head had been smashed. It was an awful shock. The first dead man he’d seen, I think. And he said that after a while you saw them everywhere and you sort of accepted it. But the acceptance made him mad and he said this marvellous thing: I still maintain that an ordinary human being has a right to be horrified by a mangled body seen on an afternoon walk. So what it was we were denied was to be ordinary. …There was so much death. No one can imagine. These were not accidents—or the quiet, expected deaths of the old. These were murders. By the thousands. All your friends were…murdered. (PAUSE) …[D]ay after day—week after week—month after month—year after year. Every day another friend. And what I hate these days is the people who weren’t there and they look back and say we got used to it! God—that makes me so angry! No.

She shares an important quality with Miss Turner: both women are aware their opinions are no longer fashionable, and, even worse, cliché. But they’re old, and they’re telling their stories, and they’re not going to leave this part out.

What effect did the experience of all that death have, according to Lady Juliet?

Everything was sharp. Immediate. Men and women like Robert and Barbara—Harris and Taffler…you met and you saw so clearly and cut so sharply into one another’s lives. So there wasn’t any rubbish. You lived without the rubbish of intrigue and the long-drawn-out propriety of romance and you simply touched the other person with your life. Sometimes to the quick.

And of course, it’s just another cliché to say that’s what makes many of these narratives compelling. But that doesn’t make it untrue.

“Robert could hardly move in his panic but he knew that he had to show his nerve and his ability as an officer.”

poppylogoThe Wars is, briefly, the story of 19-year-old Robert Ross, Canadian artillery officer on his way to, and at, the Ypres Salient in 1915–1916.

That was briefer than I expected, and accurate. Especially the “on his way to”—a significant part of the novel occurs before Ross arrives in Europe, and even more before he arrives in France. One of the major Great War tropes of The Wars (there’s more, after all, than just mud) is that of the Unprepared Officer, Sensitive Young Man edition. Ross is unprepared in some practical ways, as well; his parents have sent him with a revolver instead of a semiautomatic pistol as his sidearm. But the extent to which he is out of his depth is perhaps further than for other stories I’ve read, and becomes apparent on the ship over from Canada.

After a fellow officer, Harris, falls ill with pneumonia, Ross is assigned to take care of the horses travelling in the troop ship. This is not, apparently, normal—“’Those damn beasts shouldn’t even be on this ship!’ [the Battalion C.O.] wheezed. …’And when we get to England—I mean to have my say about that. Transporting men and animals in the same vessel! Barbarous! Barbarous!’” But Ross takes to it, despite the filth and the flies. And just outside Plymouth harbor, his trusty Battalion Sergeant-Major (another important trope: the Competent Noncom) has some very bad news: one of the horses has broken its leg. Ross must go shoot it—the officers “were the only ones with guns.”

The B.S.M. waited at attention while Robert went to the bathroom. The door had no lock and it banged and banged and banged all the time Robert was in there. His mind took up its rhythm: stop, stop—forward&mash;stop. He had never squeezed a trigger against a living creature in the whole of his life.

He stood there with his trousers open—leaning in above the toilet with his hand against the bulkhead. Nothing happened. His bladder, like his mouth, dried up. Robert thought desperately for ways of avoiding what had to be done. Why couldn’t Battery Sergeant-Major Joyce do this? Hadn’t he been in the army all his life? He was a marksman—famous within the Battalion. He must have killed a hundred times or more—men and rats and horses‐whatever it was you killed in wars. Robert’s brain began its stammering.

‘Are you all right, sir?’ ‘Yes,’ said Robert. ‘I just felt ill for a moment.’ He turned around and came out of the cabinet doing up his buttons. ‘I been ill myself on several such occasions,’ the B.S.M. said. ‘Dry-ill, you know—when nothing will come up.’ Robert could see him in the moonlight that came through the portholes and reflected in the mirrors. He thought no one could have thought to say a more decent thing at that moment. ‘Thank you,’ he said.

That long quote should serve several purposes. First, the Competent Noncom: obviously. Later, in the passage where Ross shoots the horse, which is brutal, his competence is even more important. And his decency.

Then there’s Ross’s incompetence. Oh, that’s not fair. He’s been trained—dealt with “endless parades.” He may not know exactly how to do the things he has to do, but he knows he has to do them, and he will. But he’s not, fundamentally, ready for his duty. Another trope magnified in the following scene, where he shoots the horse.

And this gives a good flavor of the main parts of the narrative of The Wars—the novel has a few other elements that are different stylistically, but this is what Ross’s story sounds like. The narrator veers everywhere from stream-of-consciousness, most common when Ross is undergoing something traumatic, to traditional omniscience, such as in the first scene of Ross in the trenches. He’s showing around the newest officer:

The 21st was a Monday; Robert’s week of convoy duty was over on the 26th. On the 27th—a high blue, cloudless Sunday—he and Levitt went to take over the guns at the 18th Battery. Specifically, Robert had charge of the mortars. This was Levitt’s ‘maiden voyage’ as they said. The light was so good they were able to see some very interesting sights behind the German lines from the Observation Post. Robert was proud to be able to show Levitt just how real the enemy was.

Shortly after Robert shows him “just how real,” Ross and Levitt reach their own dugout, where a third officer is also temporarily holed up. Later, the area is bombarded. Both Ross and the third officer, Rodwell, lose every single one of their men in this round of shelling—the first the reader witnesses. Just like that. And the Ross that was dry-sick at the idea of shooting a lamed horse seems awfully far behind.

Revisiting: “The Kiss” by (and more on) Siegfried Sassoon

poppylogoOn Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.


Why not have a week on Siegfried Sassoon? I mean to say, on his war poems. I can name a few good reasons: I’m not even really supposed to have read them yet; I probably ought to be writing about a lot of other things first; should one shortish book of poetry really make up a week? But as Tom suggested, these war poets make good guinea pigs for poetry-blogging, and Sassoon seems a good place to start.

Anthony recently posted on one of the problems with reading and writing history, quoting a review in the TLS by Joanna Bourke that states that ”it is noticeable that elaborate recitations on the horrors of war do not necessarily translate into a politics of non-violence.”

Geoff Dyer is fairly quick to point this out in The Missing of the Somme.

For all their abhorrence of war the poets of protest like Owen, Sassoon and Graves continued—for very different reasons—to wage it. Dominic Hibberd has pointed out how the official citation for Owen’s Military Cross refers to his having ‘personally manipulated a captured enemy M[achine] G[un]…and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy’; in the Collected Letters Owen’s family offer a milder rewrite of the citation, in which he ‘personally captured an enemy Machine Gun…and took a number of prisoners’. Sassoon seems to have oscillated between bouts of frenzied violence and bitter loathing of the war that unleased this strain in him. Graves recalls that he ‘had never seen such a fire-eater as [Sassoon]—the number of Germans whom I killed or caused to be killed could hardly be compared with his wholesale slaughter’.

Wholesale slaughter. And this a war poet—a protest poet, that is, who wrote beautifully, heartbreakingly beautifully, on the calamity he witnessed—and perpetrated. Something we should always make sure to include in our “Remembrance,” and which I hope to deal with more as the Great War project develops. And do see Sassoon’s Wikipedia page on his war service, so crazy brave he was known as “Mad Jack,” evidently.

One of Sassoon’s poems delves into this idea that, as Dyer suggests, the war itself “unleashed this strain [of extreme violence] in him.” “The Kiss”:

To these I turn, in these I trust;
Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
To his blind power I make appeal;
I guard her beauty clean from rust.

He spins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glitters naked, cold and fair.

Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this:
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.

His truest fellows in arms are his arms themselves; bullet and bayonet-outfitted-rifle are Sassoon’s greatest intimates. His calling them “Brother” and “Sister” mirrors how he treats them as family, protecting the female sibling and watching the male one show off. He begs a favor of his “sister,” just as any solder might—but this favor isn’t a regular letter, or a fresh pair of socks, but death—and a violent death. This violent death through a “sweet” gesture, a “kiss.” I note also that here, in the last stanza, it is no longer “I” but “your soldier” who speaks, and “your soldier” demands “fury.”

The surface of the poem, meanwhile, is all sweetness and light. The short stanzas scan easily, and the rhyme scheme pulls you right along. Just as the form contrasts with the content, the words themselves contrast with each other. Brother bullet “burns and loves,” “loves…and splits a skull.”

Is this the sort of thing that makes people call Sassoon “bitter”? I think I’ve read bitterer poems by him myself, but I wonder if others would count something like this among that number. I don’t think I would.

“All the great armies of modern history have passed this way and through this mud.”

poppylogoIn the Wall Street Journal article I mentioned Monday (found!), “Publishing’s Battle to Win the Great War” even a Real Historian laments. “‘The American public has very little understanding or knowledge of WWI,’ says historian David McCullough, the author of ‘John Adams’ and ’1776.’ ‘When I talk at colleges and universities, many of them have no idea when it happened, and know nothing about it, and seem to have very little interest in it.’”

Findley Timothy WarsAnd who am I to argue? I’m sure he is right. I’m 30 now, so get off my lawn, you kids, and listen: “David Reynolds, professor of international history at Cambridge University, says World War I lays the groundwork for America’s later role as a superpower. …Mr. Reynolds calls WWI ‘the forgotten conflict of America’s war-torn 20th century. Forgotten yet also essential.’” The war “‘helped “define the country’s self-image across the whole twentieth century.’”

But wait, who cares about all that anyway? Sure, the article may be about the US publishing industry, but this blog isn’t. Complaints about how difficult it is to slap an evocative cover on a book about a war that killed millions of people and basically created modernity slash set the stage for the other war, the one you are somehow able to evoke with magical effectiveness, do not impress me all that much.

And why do I care about a centenary anyway? Well, because it led to that daft article (and a whole raft of others I’ve read since then), and I like reading books about the Great War, and I think it’s a shame—just a sad state of affairs—that a woman who wrote a book about the war could say, “‘Quite often it is simplified to the horror of the trenches and going over the top and being blown to bits. …And really, who wants to talk about that?’”

Now I am enough of an appreciationist not just to care about trenches, but even about mud—what could be more boring?—a central feature of much Great War writing. I’m hoping to cover it as a whole topic in itself, but look at this wonderful passage from Timothy Findley’s The Wars (speaking of crying shames, this book’s being out of print in the US is certainly one):

The mud. There are no good similes. Mud must be a Flemish word. Mud was invented here. Mudland might have been its name. The ground is the colour of steele. Over most of the plain there isn’t a trace of topsoil: only sand and clay. The Belgians call them ‘clyttes,’ these fields, and the further you go towards the sea, the worse the clyttes become. In them, the water is reached by the plough at an average depth of eighteen inches. When it rains (which is almost constantly from early September through to March, except when it snows) the water rises at you out of the ground. It rises from your footprints—and an army marching over a field can cause a flood. In 1916, it was said that you ‘waded to the front.’ Men and horses sank from sight. They drowned in mud. Their graves, it seemed, just dug themselves and pulled them down.

Houses, trees and fields of flax once flourished here. Summers had been blue with flowers. Now it was a shallow sea of stinking clay from end to end. And this is where you fought the war.

It just depresses me, the lack of—what, creativity, imagination?—that finds this boring, that finds no evil here. It makes me wonder whether the real lesson of the centenary isn’t just the one that Lady Juliet D’Orsey deplores later in The Wars:

And what I hate these days is the people who weren’t there and they look back and say we became inured. Your heart froze over—yes. But to say we got used to it! God—that makes me so angry! No.

But I don’t think Lady Juliet has the problem of some contemporary authors. “These were not accidents,” she tells her interviewer. “These were murders. By the thousands. All your friends were…murdered.”

New Beginnings: The Great War Project

poppylogoLast week, I contributed a further edition of Genre Kryptonite to BookRiot: WWI literature. Longtime readers of bibliographing will not be surprised by my interest in the subject; it’s one of my many abandoned projects. But abandoned it shall be no longer!

As I mention in the BookRiot post, the First World War does not resonate for many Americans the way it does for other around the world, especially in France, Belgium, the UK and the Commonwealh countries. As an American who lived for years in one such country, I quickly became used to the seriousness—and quiet dignity—of Remembrance Day, and wore my poppy with, frequently, every other human being in sight.

These days, to my mind, never came close to glorifying either World War, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me to read several pieces in The Guardian—published, like my own piece, ahead of the centenary of the tragedy in Sarajevo—implying that the commemorations planned in the UK for the coming years were tasteless displays of jingoism, offensive to Germans, and so forth. Not that I can speak to the plans of Mr. Cameron’s government, but glorification has never seemed top of mind for much that came out of the Great War.

Indeed, just at the same time, Bill Kristol was writing in America’s own mirror-universe version of the same narrative: “the commemorations of 1914 will tend to take [Wilfred Owen's] rejection of piety and patriotism for granted” as he laments, “do we dare take our bearings not from Owen’s bitter despair but from Francis Scott Key’s bold hope?”

The jingoism and/or bitterness is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.

But what actually got me revved up to really complete a Great War project was an earlier story in the Wall Street Journal, sadly no longer available for me to even reference (this is what I get for putting off posting for weeks). Citing several new and upcoming titles that involve the war, being released to coincide with its anniversary, the article makes the inane implication that Americans just don’t care about WWI because there aren’t any obvious “good” and “bad” guys—you know, because with Nazis, you know just who to hate. One author—and though I may cover some in more detail, I have to say these seem like rather light fiction to me so far—went so far as to say a novel about the trenches was boring! No wonder people like her can’t find a bad guy. He is, so so often, terribly boring.

“[Y]ou will forgive me if I do not take your tale for something whole”

I ended my last post on The Luminaries lamenting the way a cascade of seemingly small details shook my faith in the novel. To be more precise, it shook my willing suspension of disbelief, and that’s a real problem.

Aside from what I’ve already discussed, it left me confused about how to regard certain characters and events. Walter Moody, the original focus of the action—he inserts himself accidentally into a meeting of a dozen men who eventually let him in on their mystery—plays a familiar role. More Hercule Poirot than Peter Wimsey, Moody presides over the group. And as they are beginning to think they are putting things together, he puts them off:

“I am wondering whether I trust Mr. Lauderback’s intentions, in referencing the name of that goldfield so casually to Mr. Balfour this morning.”

“What do you mean by that, Mr. Moody?”

“Don’t you trust him—Lauderback, I mean?”

“It would be most irrational if I mistrusted Mr. Lauderback,” Moody said, “seeing as I have never met the man in my life. I am very conscious of the fact that the pertinent facts of this tale are being relayed to me second-hand—and, in some cases, third-hand. Take the mention of the Dunstan goldfield, for example. Francis Carver apparently mentioned the name of that field to Mr. Lauderback, who in turn narrated that encounter to Mr. Balfour, who in turn relayed that conversation to me, tonight! You will all agree that I would be a fool to take Mr. Balfour’s words to be true.”

But Moody had misjudged his audience, in questioning so sensitive a subject as the truth. There was an explosion of indignation around the room.

“What—you don’t trust a man to tell his own story?”

Surely a man as intelligent as Walter Moody has a better way of explaining the game of “telephone” to a group of grown men than by requiring them to parse out the difference between the rationality of mistrusting a stranger and the irrationality of trusting the tale of a stranger.

In any case, his role is familiar. Circumspectly assemble the puzzle pieces and, of course, surprise everyone in the room while doing it with information only you possessed. Hold forth on the nature of truth—that’s a favorite in mysteries, too. Engineer plans to test hypotheses. All around, Catton has written us a very nice mystery. But The Luminaries is itself not genre, and what do we think of Poirot, transplanted into whatever this crystalline-palace novel is? And what do we think twice-removed, when suspension of disbelief falters and everything seems suspect?

Moody says that “[he] only wished to remark that one should never take another man’s truth for one’s own,” and I don’t know whether I’m meant to think that’s a profound statement about the nature of narrative or just…you know…Poirot’s correct-but-not-to-be-taken-all-that-seriously assessment of affairs. Hokitika is a pretty serious place, and this is a pretty hefty, high-brow sort of book—you can’t get around it. And so I read Moody as a prig; arrogant, prudish, just about insufferable. And I think most mystery readers would agree that a big part of the attraction is often the detective. So did Catton intend for us to disdain Moody’s little pearls of wisdom? Perhaps as a further subversion of the mystery genre?

Or is Moody meant to be likeable? The narrator seems to take him seriously—where is the evidence in the text that anything is wrong with Moody’s speechifying? When he clarifies his position, “he replied, more carefully this time,” suggesting (as is suggested elsewhere) that Moody is a careful man—not a man to run his mouth lightly, say. He looks around “from face to face”; it is him against twelve men, and he stays calm—he “paused a moment, thinking.”

Likeable was not the right word, up there; I am still rusty. The point is, to put it bluntly: I think Moody is a stuffed shirt, and I can’t shake the suspicion that Catton doesn’t. Gosh, it’s a lot of responsibility writing a novel. You lose someone’s trust, even for something small, and look what happens. And if there’s anything I actually disliked about The Luminaries, it was feeling like that throughout the reading experience.

“[A]n enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat”

Yesterday, I said I had broader problems with The Luminaries than just some historical inaccuracies and sloppy writing. My problems are of two basic types, explained concisely in David Sexton’s London Evening Standard review (nominated for the Hatchet Job of the Year Award, but not, according to the kind David Hebblethwaite, as good as my own hatchet job):

The prose style is annoying, a pastiche of the omniscient narrator, a confident “we”, a device used successfully by some great 19th-century novelists but which now seems an intolerable affectation.

Catton never shows, she tells, wagging on in the most officious way. She has a particularly dismaying habit of telling us what the characteristics of every personage are, before then making them conform to them, a sure-fire way of killing any curiosity.

At least, if you add to the “intolerable affectation,” the fact that Catton doesn’t actually do this well (see yesterday’s post—and yes, this is important; I’ll get into why).

Most of the reviews I’d read of The Luminaries didn’t actually say very much. The novel was a “Gothic cathedral,” something about a tail beating you over the head, lots of images like that—but no detail, and no explanation. Presumably, at least some reviews wanted to avoid spoilers in a piece on what is ostensibly a mystery story, but it was just the sort of thing to keep me wondering, indefinitely, whether there was any there there or not.

But since Hebblethwaite is usually such a reliable source, I thought I ought to seek out his own review, well worth reading in its entirety. I agree with every point. Not believing in astrology, I simply don’t care about that conceit, but I agree that it “set[s] up some of the novel’s main subtexts.” It’s just that, I suppose, I don’t make quite so much of those subtexts as others might. For example, Hebblethwaite writes:

One of these, as I’ve hinted above, is the idea of connection and relation. This is perhaps most obvious in the mystery itself: ‘there is no truth except truth in relation’ (p. 364), as Catton’s omniscient narrator puts it; and, indeed, no single character knows the full truth of Crosbie Wells’s death, or the plot going on around it. But we also see this theme manifest in the way that so many of the characters are trying to forge their own paths in life, to act on or against the world (gold prospectors in search of a life-transforming nugget, of course, but others as well), yet are scuppered by the actions of others. Catton’s characters are enmeshed in a web of interdependence that they can only begin to comprehend.

Okay. Sure. But, as Kirsty Gunn put it in her review appearing in The Guardian (which Sexton notes is “one of the sharpest reviews” of The Luminaries), “nothing in this enormous book, with its exotic and varied cast of characters whose lives all affect each other and whose fates are intricately entwined, amounts to anything like the moral and emotional weight one would expect of it.”

Hebblethwaite continues to enjoy:

A murder mystery, for example, traditionally relies on a pattern being imposed upon seemingly unconnected facts. There are two major scenes in The Luminaries where this happens: when Moody sums up the accounts of the men in the Crown Hotel, and a later courtroom scene. Both of these sequences end with someone rushing in to announce an unexpected development. It’s a rather melodramatic device, but I see it as a literal interruption of disorder: the facts have been arranged to the characters’ satisfaction; everything seems to make sense – then in comes someone to reveal that it doesn’t. A classic fictional edifice is undermined with one of its own tools.

This is true, as far as it goes, but as an inveterate reader of mystery novels I find it rather familiar. The upset summation doesn’t feel so exciting to me—not to say there’s anything wrong with it.

Gunn—whose work, by the way, I’ve greatly admired for years—has a different take on what’s most interesting about the novel

That’s the point, in the end, I think, of The Luminaries. It’s not about story at all. It’s about what happens to us when we read novels – what we think we want from them – and from novels of this size, in particular. Is it worthwhile to spend so much time with a story that in the end isn’t invested in its characters? Or is thinking about why we should care about them in the first place the really interesting thing? Making us consider so carefully whether we want a story with emotion and heart or an intellectual idea about the novel in the disguise of historical fiction … There lies the real triumph of Catton’s remarkable book.

the fabulous trick of the book they hold: that this great, intricately crafted doorstopper of a historical novel, with its portentous introduction, astrological tables, character charts and all the rest, in fact weighs nothing at all. Decide for yourself, Reader, at the end of all your reading, what you think of that: is “nothing” enough?

What’s really funny is that nothing usually is enough, for me I mean. Nothing but this spectacular formality, this well-executedness, the elegance of the golden spiral and the complex waltz of the stars.

I don’t want to think this isn’t enough for me anymore or something. I will at least allow myself to suspect only that my faith was shaken too early on by things like those I noted yesterday (and this mention [hat tip to David Hebblethwaite] of an error about the Tasman sea).

And why, then, are any of those things important, when they are individually so apparently unimportant? Because if the whole point of this book is in how sophisticated it is, it had damn well better be sophisticated. And there’s nothing sophisticated about sloppiness; there’s nothing sophisticated about Lauderback’s anachronisms; there’s nothing sophisticated about telling, telling, telling everything about the characters (Sexton’s other point, which I didn’t really discuss, but agree with).

Initially, I had wondered whether I was missing something here. I’ve come to realize I’m not, but that somehow, The Luminaries just wasn’t the right nothing for me.