The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer

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.

11 comments to The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer

  • Also hopefully your opening to Geoff Dyer, my favourite contemporary writer. Dyer blithely ignores genre and produces these wonderful, discursive books that never cover the same ground twice. His next book is on Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’.

    I’d happily debate your opening question about WW1 ushering in modernity, but I’d argue it surely accelerated a force that was already unstoppable.

    This is a great introduction to Dyer. I wonder why it’s just been released in America.

  • Definitely my opening to Dyer! I was very impressed.

    My opening question was an extreme simplification, and that’s part of the point—you hear this sweeping generalization that’s so broad as to be meaningless, I think, but as you get into it, you begin to see what the real meaning behind it was, which is something much more nuanced and specific, though still hugely important for like, “civilization” or whatever.

    Also, a good question for you that just came to me…I assume I should really finally look into Josipovici for this too, eh?

  • Josipovici’s position in What Ever Happened to Modernism is that modernism is not a historical milestone but an ongoing provocation to artists. His analysis of the origins and originators of modernism is, by necessity, reasonably succinct. For a broader, thoroughly fascinating history of modernism I recommend (also) Michael Levenson’s Modernism, which I am two-thirds of the way through. I’ve also got Peter Nicholls’s Modernisms lined up, which I expect to be comprehensive also.

  • Sounds like an intriguing read. If you’re interested in further nonfiction on the subject, Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars was released a few months ago and I was enthralled by it for a good couple of weeks. He’s such a wonderful writer – and speaker. I had the pleasure of seeing him when he dropped by the Seattle Public Library in September.

  • I’m so glad you liked this book. I bought it recently on a whim. I’m not particularly interested in WWI (beyond the kind of vague curiosity I feel about most historical events), but I AM interested in Dyer, so I’m glad this is such a good one to read if I’m only going to read one book on the subject.

  • I keep hearing great things about Dyer from an ever-widening array of my favorite bloggers. I obviously need to investigate his work!

    And I’m intrigued by the reading list of unavailable-in-the-US titles on WWI. Maybe you’ll have to plan a trip to Britain in order to pick some up – what a hardship. :-)

  • Emily—Haha, Canada’s closer, and a fine source for all of it (and I still have lots of peeps there). Which makes me realize that this project is also a great reason to revisit Michel Tremblay. Excellent!

    Tess—Thanks for the recommendation; I had encountered that title in my early research but I wasn’t sure how it was. Sounds perfect.

    Rebecca—Yeah, definitely good for a one-book read. You’re going to be all over this I think.

  • I read a curious little novel about WWI last spring called Katzenjammered (from Blazevox Books) by Norma Kassirer. It’s about WWI, but in a very subtle way. It’s almost easy reading, but with a nicely grim commentary on what happened to the men who fought in the war. I really enjoyed it, and if you’re already interested in the subject, you might take a peek.

  • A handful of the books that Dyer mentions that aren’t that familiar in the States were reissued last year by my (online) friend James Morrison, who blogs at Caustic Cover Critic, through his new imprint, Whiskey Priest Books. As I read Dyer’s book, I kept making notes about WWI memoirs and novels to investigate, and seriously about half the time I found that James had just reissued them. They’re all available through Lulu or Amazon.

  • Levi—That’s wonderful and helpful news, and I thank you! I follow CCC but knew nothing about this.

  • I’m going to enjoy following your reading on WWI. It’s been a while since I’ve read much on the war (I love military histories and remember standing in so many bookstores, over the years, looking at a full bookcase on WWII and half a shelf on WWI). I’m not much for that sort of memoir-history-travelogue-meditation thing, but your description of Dyer’s book has me intrigued, especially that image of how things are brought to ruin. It’s hard to have any romantic image of that sort of immediate and complete destruction resulting from modern weaponry.

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