On The Zone of Interest

What are the best books of 2014? I have no idea at all, mostly because I’ve hardly read any of them. This certainly isn’t the year when I’ve read the smallest share of contemporary fiction, but a handful of novels is not much to judge by, I don’t think. However, I did choose the best book I read that was published this year for BookRiot‘s annual festival of bestness, and I chose Martin Amis’s latest, The Zone of Interest.

It felt strange to select the novel with little comment; though I’d tweeted about it a bit, I hadn’t written about it here, or even in more than ultra-condensed form for BR. I complained to Matt Hunte that I didn’t know if I could go about writing about it at all, because I didn’t have the Holocaust lit cred to do so. But here I am looking back at my year of reading, months later, and thinking that was the best new thing there was.

The other two contenders, as it happens, were also comic novels. Jenn Offill’s Salon interview with Lydia Millet has been haunting me, it seems. “I’ve puzzled over the divide between how funny vs. ‘serious’ literary books are received, at least here in the United States. Can it be as simple as, the literary establishment can’t easily interpret humor as having a particular message, so it tends to discount humor categorically?” Millet suggests, when asked why her earlier, funnier efforts are typically less well regarded. (I had missed this memo entirely, as it happens.) “Yeah, our literary establishment does feel — when it comes to choosing, you know, a certain year’s alleged best books or most ‘important’ books or whatever — that it needs to be seen rewarding stories that have unimpeachable motives. It needs to responsibly select the ‘right’ books for the canon, where right usually means humanist, pretty squarely in the bourgeois mainstream, and with a soupçon of intelligence.” She goes on to posit that “Maybe our anointed literary books just have to be earnest ones because earnest ones showcase that soupçon of intelligence. Maybe humor isn’t felt to indicate a genuine commitment to looking smart.”

This may not be the most obvious reason people would raise objections to a comic novel about the Holocaust. There are, after all, some things you just shouldn’t joke about (aren’t there?). Amis’s usual French and German publishers certainly weren’t willing to go there—but was it because it’s wrong to joke about genocide, or because readers of the novel just weren’t sure what they were supposed to think about it? If they are “supposed” to think anything at all; Offill says to Millet, “It’s that whole weird idea of literature as instructive, as a tool for right living. I once got asked quite seriously what the ‘takeaway’ for my novel was and I was at a loss.”

I believe this phenomenon is happening among at least some readers of The Zone of Interest, and while I’m not at all sure I’m prepared to do a real review of the novel myself, Morten Høi Jensen’s review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Hilarity of Evil, gives me much to respond to.

Jensen has a number of what strike me as misreadings. For example: “The Zone of Interest is primarily a love story, and a comedy of errors in parts.” I may have reversed that, were I to call it a “love story” at all; something Jensen may have reconsidered when he went on, in the same paragraph, to emphasize the alleged lover’s caddishness: “This would be a big fuck. A big fuck: that was what I said to myself.”

So runs the first comment on Golo Thomsen, one of three narrators in the novel. Paul Doll, the man who runs the fictional Auschwitz in which the novel is set, comes next: a bumbling bureaucrat whose chapters focus largely on his problems at work. “And so the reader is subjected to a series of running gags about the woes of poor Paul Doll,” says Jensen, as if this would not be a significant part of the point of writing a comic novel about the man who runs Auschwitz.

This farcical routine is like something out of Fawlty Towers — if Basil Fawlty was the head of a concentration camp and not a provincial English hotel. You can almost see (and hear) John Cleese in full Nazi regalia being informed that they have now even tried blowing up the bodies.

Whether or not you find this sort of thing funny depends on your appetite for the morbid, I suppose, but as a novelistic approach to the Holocaust I wonder about its merits. (Does it really “grapple with the horrors”?) I don’t mean to suggest that you can’t conceivably write a comedy about Auschwitz without trivializing what happened there, only that it requires a different sort of comedy — Bernhard’s or Beckett’s, perhaps, or the unreality of Kafka. Martin Amis’s very English brand of satire, which has no equal in novels like Money or London Fields, only distances and distorts in The Zone of Interest.

Why, here, the distancing and distorting? Because Paul Doll is a caricature, but the world around Paul Doll—the meticulous re-creation of Auschwitz, the fidelity to the historical record—is not. This means Doll is not “validated by the world around” him, as Amis’s other funny caricatures are. “But why, then, is Nazism ridiculed in this novel rather than confronted?” Jensen asks. “It is an object of serial bad jokes.”

Of course, I would also argue that Jensen serially fails to understand many of the jokes. He complains that we are told,

in a moment of total narrative abandon, that “Mobius was originally a penpusher at the HQ of the Secret State Police, the Gestapa — not to be confused with the Gestapo (the actual Secret State Police), or the Sipo (the Security Police), or the Cripo (the Criminal Police), or the Orpo (the Order Police), or the Schupo (the Protection Police), or the Teno (the Auxiliary Police) […].”

And so on for another half a paragraph. We get it; in his research, Amis has come across these acronyms and rightly found them to be very funny. But why should Golo, too, find it funny and point it out to us? This paragraph, and the many other instances of authorial intrusion like it, is only there to give Amis a chance to indulge his research. It gives the impression that he is uncertain about inhabiting not only Golo’s mind, but the entire inferno of the Endlösung.

Why should Golo not find them funny—and why should we think he’d only find they sounded funny? In only the portion quoted by Jensen, Golo has listed no fewer than seven separate policing agencies, none of which must be confused with the other, all of which are the same but different. This is the absurdist comedy of totalitarianism, and we should fully expect Golo to find it as funny as we do—and not because German nicknames are cute.

Jensen goes on to imply that Amis fails “to actually try to imagine being an officer in the SS, living and working inside the Holocaust, putting yourself in the mind and milieu of those individuals tasked with performing the terrible work that such an annihilating undertaking required.” That would be difficult, and Jensen appears to think Amis dodges it by having Golo say that “When the future looks back on the National Socialists, it will find them as exotic and improbable as the prehistoric meat-eaters (could they really have existed, the velociraptor, the tyrannosaur?). Non-human, and also non-mammalian. They are not mammals. Mammals, with their warm blood and live young.” Couldn’t it be read as just the opposite—as Golo’s recognition that it will be very hard, even impossible to believe that normal people coming after them will be able to think that “Adolf Hitler was born, as we all are — innocently — into this world”? Instead,

Kommandant Paul Doll, whom Amis tries to goad into an embodiment of Arendt’s “banality of evil,” totters instead as a joke-figure: drunk, boorish, laughable. Evil doesn’t begin to enter into it. Nazism is just a joke — a horrible, murderous joke.

It’s clear that Amis has modeled Doll on Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann. But has Jensen read Eichmann in Jerusalem? Evil, in whatever sense he means it above, does not really enter into Eichmann’s trial, either. At least not in any sense it doesn’t enter into The Zone of Interest. Amis’s re-creation of Eichmann is, rather, brilliant, and Eichmann in Jerusalem is the perfect companion read to this novel.

Whether Jensen liked the book or not is, of course, immaterial to me, but he did ask one question I found completely fascinating, quoted above. “Why, then, is Nazism ridiculed in this novel rather than confronted?” Were we really, as a human people, depending on Martin Amis to, what—prove that genocide is morally wrong? Demonstrate that one should absolutely not kill Jews or “asocials”? Is every novel about the Holocaust required to prove, as if we are morally unformed lumps of clay, that Nazism was wrong, that Hitler and Himmler and Eichmann and all the real Paul Dolls of the world deserved to hang, or worse?

Again, my greatest recommendation would be to read Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt would not have much patience for this kind of weird moral lassitude, and it might remind you that Amis is representing nothing more nor less than the exact—and, yes, horrible—banality of evil.

Oh, also: it’s very, very funny, and very, very sad.

Independent People: a sonnet

I thought it would be good to restart a very silly project I have done intermittently, writing sonnets after I finish a book, after finishing a book that is itself so taken up with formal poetry, so I return with a sonnet on Independent People. It is pre-judged a failure because I don’t use the phrase “crafty verse,” which is what Bjartur himself loves to compose in secret.

Young Bjartur, proud, alone he buys a croft
From Jon of Myri, who, now creditor
Of Bjartur, th’independent man, aloft
Will stand above this epic of the moor.

His independence, earning it is sore:
His first wife died attended by a dog
His next wife stillbirth after stillbirth bore
And three live sons to raise sheep in the bog

Where Bjartur worked them all in his long slog
‘Gainst Jon the Bailiff, his son, and the dread
Of what is worst in all the world—not grog,
Nor death, nor hate, but other people’s bread.

As independent people, they all did agree
That sooner than take help, they’d lie under the lea.

Sophie Wilder, revisited

I may have freaked Rohan Maitzen out a bit saying I had tons to say because of her post on Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder, but I meant it when I said:

Perhaps the most fascinating—and clarifying—bit of Maitzen’s criticism of Sophie Wilder was focused on the religious element of the novel. Maitzen compares Beha’s treatment of religion and religious conversion unfavorably to George Eliot’s, which “offers…more to think about, more to work with.”

For instance, to me the account of Sophie’s religious experience was a reedy echo (at best) of Maggie Tulliver’s struggles with faith in The Mill on the Floss, where her passionate embrace of asceticism after reading Thomas à Kempis emerges from a rich narrative context including overt philosophical reflection on the needs religion meets for those who are suffering inexplicably. …Paradoxically, Eliot’s religion — that is, the religion of her characters — seems more solid than Beha’s, even though the tendency of her fiction is to replace sacred explanations with secular.

In doing so, she is of course making a decision about the fundamental split Beha’s dual narration leaves unresolved. Do I perhaps prefer Eliot because of that — because that is my own outlook? Was I impatient — bored, even — by Sophie’s religious struggles because they were left as religious struggles, not absorbed into other ways of thinking about the world?

Maitzen wonders if she likes Eliot’s approach better because it conforms to her own preexisting religious opinions:

was my response to What Happened to Sophie Wilder a tacit form of resistance to Beha’s apparent openness not just to religion in general (or some kind of vaguely embraced spirituality) but to Catholicism in particular? I have been trying to think of another contemporary novel with a genuinely religious protagonist that I did like — and Gilead comes to mind, so I don’t think it’s as simple as my unconsciously rejecting faith as a literary premise.

It’s a question I have frequently asked myself: am I hopelessly prejudiced against literature that is open to religion? After all, I am probably the only reader ever to have hated Gilead (yes, really). And perhaps Maitzen has given me the key to answering this question for myself. It may be just that “religious struggles…left as religious struggles, not absorbed into other ways of thinking about the world” are the only ones I enjoy. I’ve not finished The Mill on the Floss, but Maitzen’s description of Maggie Tulliver’s religious experiences suggests I would not enjoy those bits of it. The black box of mysticism forestalls any urge I might have to disagree with or even interrogate Sophie Wilder’s beliefs; they just are. And, being that she converts to Roman Catholicism and takes on the full dogma of that religion, I already know what those beliefs are—and, again, they just are. What she believes may make no sense to me, but her actions do, because they predictably follow from her beliefs—and I never have to walk through any attempts at nonmystical moral logicking with her that might rankle or irritate.

For similar reasons, I am not too bothered by what I agree is an unsatisfying passage covering Sophie’s conversion. Sam Sacks is not wrong that religious conversion is “real,” or in that it is “something that can be expressed in words because it’s real, just as any other experience can be evoked through language.” But expressing the fact of a conversion and expressing the religious experience of the conversion are two different things; I would not want Beha to attempt the latter. It is real only in that it is a real black box. That “George Eliot thinks religious belief needs explanation” may be her paradoxical weakness, for me.

So what was it that I did like so much? Well, “how the division into different narratives reflects different — perhaps incompatible — ideas about authorship and about purpose in narrative” was really the key for me. As George Michael Bluth might say, What Happened to Sophie Wilder is an awesome mind-puzzle. The resolution and tension of the two threads of narration and their conclusion is the whole point of the novel, for me, and the fun is all in slipping back and forth between them, deciding what is real-in-the-fiction (which fiction? see? awesome mind-puzzle!). It’s been too long for me to say there were no passages where the writing seemed “flat” or “forced” to me, but I can say it didn’t bother me at all that the characters were not the most substantial; their most important function for me was as concepts rather than people. And finally:

As for what actually happened to Sophie Wilder, well, my conclusion at the end was “not much,” or at least not much that the book made richly present to me.

I’ve always thought it was notable that the title of What Happened to Sophie Wilder does not include a question mark. The reader is not being asked, but told, and told two conflicting versions of what happened. Are we to decide which is true? Are we to believe both? Those are the questions that fascinate me—not the question of “what actually happened to Sophie?”

Thank You, D.G. Myers

Far be it from me to, tackily, use a good man’s death as an excuse to falsely scold myself while making excuses. No. The passing of D.G. Myers—so unexpected, despite its expectedness—shames me and my pathetic will-to-write. I fail, as at many things, in the moral obligation to write well.

Go and read A Commonplace Blog. Go and read Rohan Maitzen’s worthy tribute. Go and reads the tweets of Michael Schaub and Matt Hunte and dozens of other people he touched via his blog and Twitter. He was never afraid to say what he meant, and I wish I could say the same of myself.

I can ascribe at least two books I’ve read directly to Myers: Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia and Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Both were too good for me to be articulate about them. And while I am still writing (a shameful but ongoing trickle for BookRiot and every once in a while something that might actually be good), my own selfish regret at the moment is not having written the essay stuck in my mind about Sophie Wilder in time for Myers to have perhaps read and even criticized it.

Still, I am grateful for everything he did write, not to mention his attitude, well represented here.

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.