Book Review : The Wars by Timothy Findley

photo

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in a traditional 3rd person narrative but it is also interspersed with apparent interviews with  other characters and historical documents all of which  help to bring home how very personal Robert’s story is even though it takes place against a backdrop of global conflict.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

 

 

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.