The Great War changed everything, pretty much ushering in modernity—right? You’ve probably heard that before, as I had heard, vaguely, dozens of times over the years. It’s not something I ever put much stock in, or even understood as an idea, until reading Parade’s End nearly two years ago. Knowledge of this commonplace sentiment combined with a few cursory readings of the war poets wasn’t enough to bring home any real idea of the cultural meaning of this war, but suddenly there it was, something that reached past the clichés I’d always been familiar with and actually meant something to me. Thus an interest is born.
And it was with this interest that I excitedly read of Geoff Dyer’s apparently rather well-known book, The Missing of the Somme, become (re?)available in the US in a new Vintage paperback edition. As The Observer blurb on the cover boldly pronounces, it is “The great Great War book of our time” (where “our time” was 1994). But it’s perhaps not so much a Great War book as a Remembrance book—and that ended up making it even more intriguing for me, as I work my way slowly toward greater knowledge of the war itself and plan (uh oh…) a possible forthcoming Great War Literature project. On its face it might seem like an unusual project for bibliographing—All Quiet on the Western Front is no Clarel—but as I recently began to lament, much of the reading list that’s come out of Dyer’s book (a wonderful source for such ideas) is of relatively limited availability in a country that, admittedly, did not experience the First World War in the same way as the Second, which so often foreshadows the First elsewhere as well.
But back to Dyer’s book. I noted while pretty much devouring it that I don’t often read this kind of nonfiction—meaning narrative nonfiction, the kind of memoir-travelogue-meditation-history-essay-cultural critique that The Missing of the Somme turned out to be. Well done, as it is here, this genre can be great—as it is here. The threads of Dyer’s essay (I think that’s really the best thing to call it) weave in and out but never tangle, and work up into a satisfying whole. Interesting facts and observations are good on their own, but Dyer pursues angle after angle, source after source, and question after question until there’s much more than just horrifying figures and piled-up calamity; the project of Remembrance, both official and unofficial, is what creates the war itself, both for those who did and did not live it, and Dyer peels that project apart to reveal a bit of what lies beneath (as well as to expose how the layers of cultural memory are built up that create what we do know and recognize).
Dyer’s quasi-stream of consciousness brings in some unexpected but brilliant elements, like the way the Great War put an end to the Romantic idea of ruins: “Instead of the slow patient work of ruination observed in Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, artillery brought about instant obliteration.” And his tone is just right: serious but not grave or over-solemn. There’s nothing cloying here—I don’t suppose there could be much cloying about a book about “the horrors of war” that spurns such clichés as trite and unhelpful in its cause—but not much cold either.
Mostly, The Missing of the Somme is an opening for me, already intensely interested in exactly its subject matter. For anyone less interested, it would be, I agree, “the great Great War Book”—at least, probably, the one most worth reading.