Book Review : The Wars by Timothy Findley

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This book was a recommendation from another blogger. During the course of 2014 I am reading WW1 related books and I asked for some suggestions particularly any books dealing with the experience of Commonwealth soldiers .

Like The Lie and Wake which I reviewed here this a a novel rather than memoirs. Timothy Findley is described as being one of Canada’s foremost novelists although I have to confess that I had never heard of him before.

The novel follows the fate of young Canadian,Robert Ross. A family tragedy propels Robert to enlist  in the cavalry and after a brief period of training he is shipped off to France.

Even during training Robert soon realises that the image of a glorious and heroic war that he has been sold is probably not what awaits him and his fellow recruits.Whilst out for a run on the prairie, Robert and a comrade bump into Taffler, a former football star and now war hero, throwing stones at a bottle:

‘The distance,’ he said, ‘between our lines and theirs is often no more than a hundred yards. Did you know that?’

‘No sir,’

‘One hundred yards,’ said Taffler. He gestured at the remaining bottle. It was green and had a tall, thin neck. ‘All you get in this war,’ he said,’ is one little David against another.’ Then he threw – and broke the tall, thin neck clean off. ‘Like that. Just a bunch of stone throwers.

Once over in France we see the same picture and chaos that Robert Graves and Hemingway painted of their own War experiences.

‘Not a single man was on his feet. One man lay alive on a stretcher while at the other end the stretcher bearers curled like caterpillars – dead…………… No one spoke. The dead all lay with their faces in the mud – or turned to the walls of the trench. This was the only way they could be told apart from the wounded. ‘

So far so Blackadder , but what is fascinating about this book is the structure of it. The story is circular………it ends as it starts,  although the significance and power of the beginning of the novel are not clear until we have followed Robert on his nightmare journey.

At times his story is told in a traditional 3rd person narrative but it is also interspersed with apparent interviews with  other characters and historical documents all of which  help to bring home how very personal Robert’s story is even though it takes place against a backdrop of global conflict.

Transcript : Marian Turner – 1

You will understand from what took place, why I cannot tell you what he looked like. I suppose such things are of interest. Well- of course they are! (LAUGHTER) Everyone  wants to know what people look like. Somehow it seems to say so much about a person’s possibilities’

Findley also wrote short stories and plays  and at times the descriptions are overwhelmingly vivid. Robert and some comrades become trapped in an overflowing dyke in the pitch dark and on horseback. He is confused by the large objects that keep bumping against his horse’s flanks together with a heavy fluttering sound………only to discover that the objects are the bloated corpses of dead soldiers and the fluttering comes from the crows feeding on them.

As this is a book dealing with war experiences most of the characters are necessarily male. There are two particularly fascinating and not altogether positive women characters however.

The first is Robert’s mother. As we meet her she has already lost one child and fears, with Robert’s departure for the Front that she will lose another.Her descent into addiction and madness is reminiscent of a Eugene O’Neill character.

‘I know what you want to do. I know you’re going to go away and be a soldier. Well-you can go to hell. I’m not responsible. I’m just another stranger. Birth I can give you but life I cannot.I can’t keep anyone alive. Not any more.’

The second is Barbara D’Orsey, his cold, hard hearted lover collecting wounded officers as a badge of honour only to abandon them when they need her most.

This is a harrowing tale of a young man’s quest for life whilst surrounded by insanity.It is hard to say too much more about this book without writing a spoiler, so I’ll stop.

At the end of the novel, ‘ the archivist’ finds a photograph of Robert and his sisters playing with a pony ;

‘On the back is written: ” Look! You can see our breath!” And you can.’

 

 

Book Review : A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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Regular readers of this blog will know that to mark the centenary of the start of WW1 I decided to do some ‘themed’ reading.

I have already blogged the memoirs of Robert Graves here and also reviewed two recent novels that deal with the war, Wake and The Lie, here. A Farewell To Arms, which I first read aged about 15 ,was definitely on my list.

This is a fictionalised account of Hemingway’s own First World War experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front. It is also a love story ,again based on Hemingway’s experiences when there. The bones of the love story had stayed in my memory , not least because of the wonderful film starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, but what hadn’t struck me as a 15 year old reader was the sheer beauty of Hemingway’s prose.

‘ At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.’

Just like Graves, Hemingway is sickened by the senselessness of the mass slaughter caused by the war and the jingoism of its leaders :

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by bill posters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.’

Frederick Henry is an American who has joined the ambulance service as a driver, just like Hemingway himself. The book opens in Udine , northern Italy, where Frederick is posted and where he meets Catherine Barclay a young English, or rather Scottish, voluntary nurse sent to the hospital there.

Frederick initially goes to meet Catherine together with his friend Rinaldi, an Italian army surgeon, who has heard about the arrival of the new nurses and is determined to court them.Catherine and Frederick immediately fall in love and Chapter 4 in which they first meet must truly be some of the most beautiful prose ever written  in the English language. It isn’t really possibly to quote an extract from it, you really do have to read the whole thing.

This is not a long book , only 293 pp in the edition I read, and divided into five short parts. Part 1 gives us Frederick and Catherine’s meeting and Frederick, just like Hemingway himself, is then badly injured whist on duty on the frontline ; in Part 2 he is evacuated and hospitalised in Milan, where Catherine has also been posted. During his time as a patient and after during his convalescence ,their relationship grows ; Part 3 sees Frederick back at the front and subsequently  caught up in a shambolic retreat with the Italian army which leads to a trumped up charge of deserting his post ; Parts 4 and 5 deal with Frederick’s transformation into a fugitive and the resolution of his relationship with Catherine.

This is not , however, romantic fiction. The searing realism of Hemingway’s writing truly captures the pointless horrors of war. Frederick meets a British major in the officers’ club in Milan :

‘He said the offensive in Flanders was going to the bad. If they killed men as they did this fall  the Allies would be cooked in another year. He said we were all cooked but we were all right as long as we did not know it. We were all cooked. The thing was not to recognise it . The last country to realise they were cooked would win the war. We had another drink.’

During the chaos of the Italian retreat many officers become separated from their men. When stopped this leads to a charge of desertion and summary execution. Hemingway describes the process :

‘Two carabinieri took the lieutenant-colonel to the river bank. He walked in the rain, an old man with his hat off, a carabiniere on either side. I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots. They were questioning some one else. This officer too was separated from his troops. He was not allowed to make an explanation. He cried when they read the sentence from the pad of paper, and they were questioning another man when they shot him.’

There is a poetic quality to the writing too. Throughout ,the rain appears as a harbinger of tragedy…..as can be seen in the first extract I quoted,which appears at the very beginning of the book, and again in the shooting of the officers. Catherine explains it to Frederick like this :

All right. I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it.’

‘No.’

‘And sometimes I see you dead in it.’

‘That’s more likely’

‘ No, it’s not, darling. Because I can keep you safe. I know I can. But nobody can help themselves.’

Later in the book, Frederick’s friend and colleague, Aymo, is killed by what we would now call ‘ friendly-fire’ :

‘ Aymo lay in the mud with the angle of the embankment. He was quite small and his arms were by his side, his puttee-wrapped legs and muddy boots together, his cap over his face. He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew. I had his papers in my pocket and would write to his family.’

At one point the ‘rain’ is transformed to blood, as the wounded Frederick is transported on a stretcher in an ambulance with a man haemorrhaging above him :

‘The drops fell very slowly, as they fall from an icicle after the sun has gone.It was cold in the car in the night as the road climbed. At the post on the top they took the stretcher out and put another in and we went on.’

This is book is truly a masterpiece. Heartbreaking in it’s realism ,it is indeed a testament to lost youth and gives a lie to Michael Gove’s claims that ‘leftie’ comedy writers at the BBC have distorted the history of the first world war.

My next WW1 read will be The Wars by Tim Findlay ,recommended by a reader of this blog and which tells the story of Canadian volunteers . Before August I also hope to write about a book I first encountered in our local public library when I was aged about 14 or 15. This tells the story of a woman’s lost love and struggle to come to terms with her life after WW1. Long out of print, I happily managed to find a second hand copy last year.

Before then, I have some very exciting new releases that have been sent to me to introduce here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review : Lest We Forget

photoThis year, of course, marks the centenary of the start of the First World War and ,with this in mind, I decided to do some themed reading over the course of the year. I have already reviewed Goodbye To All That  here but here are two recently published novels both dealing with the subject and both by female writers. This is not a compare and contrast review but, I hope, an appreciation of two fine books that happen to deal with similar themes.

Coincidentally, both are set in 1920, two years after the end of the war, and both deal with the ‘aftershocks’ of the war on the surviving soldiers and the women they left behind.

WAKE by Anna Hope

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Here we meet 3 seemingly unconnected women all, unbeknownst to them, bound together by terrible events at the front.

Hetty earns her living as a ‘dance instructress’ at the Hammersmith Palais, sitting in a cage with other girls until a man will come along and pay the price to release her for a dance. The author explains this particular phenomenon of the times in a note at the end of the book. At home there is Fred , her shell-shocked brother, back from the war but unable to escape the horrors of what he has experienced.

Ada is a housewife who cannot let go of the past and her dead son, Michael, killed in action at the front.

Evelyn is possibly the most interesting character in the book.Upper middle class and single, after losing her lover in the war, she is now regarded as useless by her family.After tasting a freedom of sorts during the war, a return to her former life of waiting to be married is now impossible. She is trapped in a meaningless job as a clerk in the Ministry of Pensions way below her capabilities but a real career is denied her. She is one of the 2 million……..spare women now with no marriage prospects and therefore no future.

The action is centred round the unveiling of The Cenotaph in London and the arrival of he body of the Unknown Soldier. Tensions mount with the arrival of Rowan, another soldier returned from France,and finally the terrible secret that binds the lives of the women together is revealed.

THE LIE  by Helen Dunmore

photoDunmore’s latest novel is set in Cornwall.Daniel Branwell has returned from the war to his childhood village. He is haunted by his memories of the front and of his friend Frederick, killed in France.

The novel explores the way that class lines became blurred in the thick of the battle. In the trenches, Daniel’s boyhood friendship with the son of the family for whom his mother worked as a maid is rekindled.

Dunmore also deals delicately with the issue of ‘shellshock‘. She uses a stream of consciousness style as Daniel increasingly slips between his current reality and what happened to him back at the front, unable to differentiate between the two.

‘The dead aren’t tied to one place………Things ought to stop once they’ve finished, but his won’t stop. They say the war’s over, but they’re wrong. It went too deep for that. It opened up a crack in time, a crater maybe.’

He also meets Felicia again, Frederick’s sister, who he admired from afar as a boy. Felicia can sense  Daniel’s pain and wants to help him escape……but Daniel has told a lie to explain his presence in the village and the truth is catching up with him.

Any Suggestions??

I enjoyed both these novels enormously and was really unable to put them down. I am definitely going to read some more First World War fiction during this year. I am planning to read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man at some point but I would love any suggestions of other books to read………..particularly dealing with the experience of ‘Commonwealth’ soldiers whose contribution is often overlooked.

Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves

photoI read this book almost by accident. My son had been asking about books about the First World War for a University assignment and I bought him this which wasn’t suitable for his purposes ,so I inherited it.

Born in 1895 Robert Graves was a British poet and novelist and this book, written in 1929 just before he left the UK pretty much for good, is a memoir of his experiences as a soldier in the Royal Welch Fusiliers during WW1.

The book is in three sections . The first deals with his young childhood in Wimbledon and then at a series of boarding schools where he was desperately unhappy. The largest section deals with his experiences as a young officer who joined up within a few days of the declaration of war; in the final part he tells us about his difficult transition into peacetime life and marriage following his demobilisation.

What I found remarkable about the book as a whole is how contemporary his voice sounded.

When talking about his unhappy schooldays, he is frank about he sexual exploitation of boys by older pupils and masters that was rife within the system.

The war passages are extremely powerful.Graves saw active service in the trenches in France and was wounded twice. He returned to France following his second and most serious injury but in a training capacity behind the front line.

He is brutally honest abut the mood of the soldiers fighting : ‘Patriotism, in the trenches, was too remote a sentiment,and at once rejected as only fit for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism  would soon be told to cut it out.’

In fact he felt alienated on his return to England on leave and found it difficult to adjust to family life : We couldn’t understand the war-madness that ran wild everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language.I found serious conversation with my parents all but impossible.’

He shows us the reality of the war where men were shot for cowardice on the most flimsy of excuses despite government denials : ‘…but cowardice was punishable only with death and no medical excuses would be accepted……….Executions were frequent in France.I had my first direct experience of official lying when I arrived in Le Havre in May 1915 , and read the back files of army orders at the rest camp.They contained something like twenty reports of men shot for cowardice or desertion; yet a few days later the responsible minister in the House of Commons….denied that sentence of death for a military offence had been carried out in France on any member of his Majesty’s forces.’

He is scathing about the Staff Officers safe behind the frontline whose poorly organised attacks and bungled bombardments read more like a plot line from Black Adder Goes Forth than a modern military campaign.

It was during the war that Graves began to write poetry and to be published. He developed a close friendship with the poet Siegfried Sassoon and kept up a correspondence with Wilfred Owen. It was to Sassoon that he was closest and they often went walking when home on leave or sick leave to discuss their work ‘We defined the war in our poems by making contrasted definitions of peace’

By the time of the Armistice in November 1918, Graves had been invalided out of active service and was training prospective officers in North Wales. The announcement of peace brought him no joy however as at the same time he also received the news of a death of a dear friend killed in action as well as that of Wilfred Owen.

He quotes from Sassoon’s poem :

Everybody suddenly burst out singing,

And I was filled with such delight

As prison birds must find in freedom…..

And adds grimly ‘ But ‘everybody’ did not include me’

Graves had got married towards the end of the War to Nancy, an artist and committed feminist who, much to Graves’ family’s disgust refused to change her surname. He describes a visit to the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy who, on being told the above exclaimed ‘Why you are old-fashioned my dear!!” explaining that he had known a couple in his village sixty years before who had done the same thing.

Graves, however, struggled to cope with the return of normality and the start of married. Suffering from what we now know to be shell -shock or battle fatigue he found ‘Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy shared it with me; strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed……..My disabilities were many: I could not use a telephone, I felt sick every time I travelled by train, and to see more than two new people in a single day prevented me from sleeping’

He found , like the other returning soldiers, that the promised ‘land fit for heroes’  had been forgotten. ‘The Herald spoiled our breakfast every morning.We read in it of unemployment all over the country due to the closing of munition factories; of ex-servicemen refused reinstatement in the jobs they left when the war broke out, of market-rigging,lockouts and abortive strikes’

In 1919 he finally took up the Oxford scholarship he had been offered in 1914 where he got to know T E Lawrence then engaged in writing The Severn Pillars of Wisdom.

He had resolved to live by his writing if he could but with a growing family and a failed attempt at shop keeping behind him, he found it increasingly difficult to make ends to meet. Eventually his mother came to his aid buying a cottage in Islip, a small village near Oxford , and letting it out to the couple at a low rent. He was still embittered by his wartime experiences….the local vicar asked him to speak at the church War Memorial service as the resident ‘war hero’ and suggested that perhaps he could read some war poems: ‘But instead of Rupert Brooke on the glorious dead, I read some of the more painful poems by Sassoon and Wilfred Owen about men dying from gas-poisoning, and about buttocks of corpses bulging from the mud. I also suggested that the men who had died, destroyed as it were by the fall of the Tower of Siloam, were not particularly virtuous or particularly wicked, but just average soldiers, and that the survivors should thank God they were alive, and do their best to avoid wars in the future.’

The First World War will, of course, be a very topical subject in the coming year with all sorts of  centenary events planned. Graves’ stand at that Memorial Service seemed incredibly modern . This book came as a complete surprise to me and I definitely recommend it.