Fear – A Novel of WWI

June 10, 2014

autochrome

There are many fine novels and memoirs about the unspeakable human butchery known as World War I, and Fear (1925) by Gabriel Chevallier, stands very high among them in my view, although it is not as well known as others.  One reason might be that it was suppressed by the French government for many years, and, naturally, in the Anglophone world, the English writers are better known.  And unlike All Quiet on the Western Front, nobody made a great film out of it.

Each of these books has a distinctive tone:  All Quiet is epic in its seriousness and anti-war message; Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929) is mournful and bitter, a wrenching confession of betrayal and loss is how I recall it; Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger (1920) is powerful, and unusual because the author thrived on the horrible challenges of trench warfare, but all are steadfastly unsentimental and unromantic:  they are at pains to rip the gauzy cloak of patriotic jabber off the horrific body that was warfare on the front.   Paul Fussell’s profound study of the presence of WWI in English literature, The Great War and Modern Memory, contains so much material from primary sources, it reads like a powerful memoir steeped in dramatic irony.  The very distinctive contribution of Fear to all of this is its tone of cutting sarcasm and irony that shrinks back from descending into ranting, and its emphasis on the primary emotion of a trench solider – fear.

The author was French, and much of what he describes is characteristic of the French war effort.  Englishmen rave against the stupidity of the generals, but they also talk a lot about the flower of the elite classes sharing the trials of the men, and dying with them.  The French officer class was notorious for its pig-headed stupidity, and complete unconcern for the welfare of the troops, and it was only the French army that experienced widespread mutinies during the war.

The novel is largely autobiographical – how could it not be?  You had to live through the hell to write about it.  The young man who narrates it joins up at the beginning of the war, out of curiosity mostly, completely unaware, as was everyone else, of what he’s in for.  He is educated, and is granted minor privileges now and then when he’s not on the front line by virtue of his class standing, but for the most part, his lot is that of every other poor soul trapped, waiting to die in the trenches.   Here are some excerpts:

He is wounded, hospitalized, recovers, and given some leave to go visit his family.  The gulf between the civilian patriots and the men who fight for the cause is unbridgeable:

‘Let me introduce my boy who has just come out of hospital after being wounded.’ [my father] says, shaking hands.

These important men interrupt their games of cards to greet me warmly.

‘Excellent! Bravo, young man!’

‘Congratulations on your bravery!’

‘I say, Dartemont, what a fine chap!’

Then they go quiet, not knowing what further encouragement to offer me.  The war is out of fashion, people are getting used to it.  Military men on leave are everywhere, giving the impression that nothing bad ever happens to them.  And I am just an ordinary soldier, and my fathers’s business is hardly flouring.  These gentlemen have been generous to take such an interest in me.  …

‘You have some fun out there then, eh?

I stare in shock at this bloodless old fool.  But I answer quickly and pleasantly:

‘Oh, gosh yes.  I should say so sir…’

He beams happily.  I have the feeling he is about to exclaim: ‘Oh-ho, those good old poilus!’ [doughboy, literally, “hairy one.”]

Then I add:

‘…We really enjoy ourselves:  every evening we bury our pals!’

His smile goes into reverse and the complement freezes on his lips,  He grabs at his glass and sticks his nose in it.  In shock he swallows his beer too fast and it heads straight for his lungs.  This is followed by a gurgling noise and then a little jet of spume that he spouts into the air and which descends on to his stomach, in a cascade of frothy bubbles.

‘Something go down the wrong way?’ I inquire mercilessly.

The Germans, referred to as The Boche, mount an attack, for which the author’s units are well prepared:

‘We had six machine guns in action right off.  Can’t do anything against machine guns!…I never seen so many going down as I did then!’

‘Not as many as I have,’ says the machine gunner sergeant who is listening to us.  ‘When we were fighting in open country, I was with the Zouaves.  There was one time when there were three of us gunners dug in behind tree trunks on the edge of a forest on a little rise.  we opened fire on battalions that were coming out at four hundred meters, and we didn’t stop firing.  A surprise attack.  It was frightful.  The terrified Boche couldn’t get out of the way of our bullets.  Bodies piled up in heaps.  Our gun crews were shaking with horror and wanted to run.  Killing made us afraid!…

There is much more graphic description of the carnage of the front, and it is difficult to read, even when the author polishes off the description with a bit of rapier wit.  And then, there is is scathing contempt for the officer class, the directors of the war:

The officers of the colonel’s entourage…are carefully shaved, powdered and scented:  these are men who have time devote to their toilet…

Finally the colonel shows up.  He’s tall and slim, with a long Gallic mustache, dressed in khaki, cap pulled down over one ear, chest pushed out – very much the musketeer. . . He pulls himself to his full height when he sees a solider, fixes his magnetic gaze upon him, and salutes him with a fulsome gesture which might signify, ‘All honor to you, bravest of the brave!’ or ‘Always follow my plume! [an allusion to a famous statement of Henry IV].  Unfortunately, at the moment of a skirmish, that plume will stay put rather far in the rear…I am only going by appearances, and I do not know the true worth of the colonel, apart from his theatrical salute.  But I never trust people who give themselves airs.

His audience over, the captain rejoins us.  We leave Versailles…

The historical allusions to Henry, the satirical reference to Versailles – we are in the presence of an educated, intelligent, and deeply comic narrator.  His willingness to tentatively suspend judgment, despite having seen scores of men sent to their deaths on pointless missions ordered by men who look like the colonel, is part of his engaging nature.

At one point, knowing the war is grinding down, he delivers, to himself, an impassioned denunciation of everything associated with the entire sick enterprise:

‘I’ve had enough of this!  I’m twenty-three years old, I’m already twenty-three.  Back in 1914 I embarked on a future that I wanted to be full and rich, and in fact I’ve got nothing at all.  I am spending my best years here, wasting my youth on mindless talks, in stupid subservience……My patrimony is my life. I have nothing more precious to defend.  My homeland is whatever I manage to earn or to create.  Once I am dead, I don’t give a damn how the living divide up the world, about the frontiers they draw in their maps, about their alliances, and their enmities.  I demand to live in peace, far away from barracks, battlefields, and military minds and machinery in any shape or form.  I do not care where i live, but demand to live in peace to slowly become what I must become.  …Killing has no place in my ideals.  And if I must die, I intend  to die freely, for an idea that I cherish, in a conflict where I will have my share of responsibility…’

‘Daretemont!’

‘Sir?’

‘Go and check where the 11th have positioned their machine guns.  On the double.’

‘Very good, sir!’

The photo at the top is from a collection of color photographs, yes color!, taken by the French during WWI, and you can find more here.  My guess is that they tidied things up a bit before shooting the pics.

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la boutique obscure

May 15, 2014

I am new to Perec, a member of the French Oulipo group.  They were intent on creating literature with systems and constraints:  a premier example is Perec’s novel, La disparition (A Void), written without using the letter ‘e’. (I’m not sure about the English translation!) Personally, I’m not keen on this sort of stuff, but Italo Calvino was an enthusiastic member, so, I’ll try some of it, even though his works that play with such number/word games are, to me, his least appealing.

La boutique obscure is a journal of dreams from the early 1970s. I’ve always been drawn to surrealism, outré romanticism, and films that incorporate dream sequences, so I found it very enjoyable.  He records his dreams pretty straight; not at all the way Freud records dreams, as if they were taken from the text of a dense Victorian novel.

On and off during my life, I have recorded my own dreams.  The more you do it, the more dreams you remember it seems!  I was inspired by La boutique to start a new journal of my unwaking experience.  Here are the first two entries, with explanatory, non-dream, info in brackets.  Obviously, I am time-travelling:

Meeting with J. [a girlfriend from high school]

I am in a library, or some such public building.  I am standing at a high table, like the ones they used to have in the card catalog section, or that you find at a post office.  J comes in.  We are both middle-aged adults. [J. died of a brain tumor before she was forty.]  She is a tiny bit plump, as you might expect of a woman in her fifties who was extremely petite.  She is wearing a brown business suit, and her long blonde hair is touched with some grey.  She is rummaging in a very large, reddish  shoulder bag that she throws on the table.

She tells me, “You stole my mother’s inheritance[?]”

I am indignant, and reply loudly, “I most certainly did not!”

She continues to rummage in her bag, and then says, “Oh, I found it.  I see.”

Meeting with G. [a very wild male friend of mine from junior high school days]

We are sitting, with a table between us, sort of a card table.  We are both adults, dressed in suits.  G.’s hair is still full, and wild as usual.  He is not so thin as when we were boys.  There is half of a large Italian hero on the table between us.  It looks very good; lots of meat and vegetables on good bread.  G. is yelling at me about it, saying that it is somehow wrong that I am eating it.  He is being outrageous and purposely irrational in a way that was typical of him.


The Black Hole of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet

December 20, 2012

B and P

[I just realized, this is my 1000th post!  How appropriate that it should be about Bouvard and Pecuchet!]

I read through most of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet again over the last few weeks.  Flaubert didn’t finish the book, and the conclusion is simply an outline assembled from his notes.  It is a very difficult book to get a grip on, unless you are well versed in the Flaubertian world view:  This blogger, however, is on to something when she remarks that she read the entire thing with the childrens’  book, Frog and Toad in mind!

The ‘novel’ tells of two clerks, nobodies is how Flaubert referred to them in his original title for it, who take up a life of ease in the country after one of them comes into an inheritance.  In fact, the life they adopt is what I plan for myself in retirement: reading, travelling, ‘intellectual’ hobbies, and so on.  But this is Flaubert, remember.

B & P is Flaubert’s revenge on human culture, his ever-ticking time bomb of a black hole that sucks in everything that has been thought and said about anything, and makes it disappear with a ‘poof!’  He remarked in his letters that he hoped that after reading it, people “would be afraid to say anything,” because of course, anything they could say would be reflected in some imbecility or other in this book.  At last, people might just shut up, forever!

The book is not about anything, other than the endless mental and recreational diversions of the two clerks.  You could say it’s a book about nothing, more than one hundred years before Seinfeld hit on that theme as a platform for mass entertainment.  Of course, Flaubert’s spirit, if it watches television, recognizes and accepts the inevitability of the recuperation of his work.

People comment on this book a lot, in rather grand ways.  Christopher Hitchens reviewed a recent translation and got this off, my emphasis:

This novel was plainly intended to show its author’s deep contempt, however comedically expressed, for all grand schemes, most especially the Rousseauean ones, to improve the human lot. Such schemes founder because the human material is simply too base to be transmuted. Even Bouvard and Pécuchet receive a glimpse of this, if only through their own solipsism: “Then their minds developed a piteous faculty, that of perceiving stupidity and being unable to tolerate it. Insignificant things saddened them: newspaper advertisements, a burgher’s profile, an inane comment overheard by chance. . . . They felt upon their shoulders the weight of the entire world.”

Earnest fellow that Hitchens is, it doesn’t occur to him that Flaubert is here talking about himself.  As he said of his most famous character, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”  Read his entertaining and outrageous letters, and that much is clear.

In the forward to my edition, Lionel Trilling has this to say:

The more we consider Bouvard and Pecuchet, the less the novel can be thought of as nothing but an attack on the culture of the nineteenth century.  Bourgeois democracy merely affords the setting for a situation in which it becomes possible to reject culture itself.  The novel does nothing less than that:  it rejects culture.  The human mind experiences the massed accumulation of its own works…and arrives at the understanding … that all are weariness and vanity, that the whole vast superstructure of human thought and creation is alien from the human person.

Sometimes I get so sick of culture I could scream…but what’s the alternative?   Here’s a passage with my favorite part in blue:

Pécuchet, without bestowing a thought on them, took up the argument:

“Excuse me, M. Jeufroy. The weight of the atmosphere, science demonstrates to us, is equal to that of a mass of water which would make a covering ten metres around the globe. Consequently, if all the air that had been condensed fell down in a liquid state, it would augment very little the mass of existing waters.”

The vestrymen opened their eyes wide, and listened.

The curé lost patience. “Will you deny that shells have been found on the mountains? What put them there, if not the Deluge? They are not accustomed, I believe, to grow out of the ground of themselves alone, like carrots!” And this joke having made the assembly laugh, he added, pressing his lips together: “Unless this be another discovery of science!”

Bouvard was pleased to reply by referring to the rising of mountains, the theory of Elie de Beaumont.
“Don’t know him,” returned the abbé.

Foureau hastened to explain: “He is from Caen. I have seen him at the Prefecture.”

“But if your Deluge,” Bouvard broke in again, “had sent shells drifting, they would be found broken on the surface, and not at depths of three hundred metres sometimes.”

The priest fell back on the truth of the Scriptures, the tradition of the human race, and the animals discovered in the ice in Siberia.

“That does not prove that man existed at the time they did.”

The earth, in Pécuchet’s view, was much older. “The delta of the Mississippi goes back to tens of thousands of years. The actual epoch is a hundred thousand, at least. The lists of Manetho——”

The Count de Faverges appeared on the scene. They were all silent at his approach.
“Go on, pray. What were you talking about?”
“These gentlemen are wrangling with me,” replied the abbé.
“About what?”
“About Holy Writ, M. le Comte.”
Bouvard immediately pleaded that they had a right, as geologists, to discuss religion.
“Take care,” said the count; “you know the phrase, my dear sir, ‘A little science takes us away from it, a great deal leads us back to it’?” And in a tone at the same time haughty and paternal: “Believe me, you will come back to it! you will come back to it!”

“Perhaps so. But what were we to think of a book in which it is pretended that the light was created before the sun? as if the sun were not the sole cause of light!”
“You forget the light which we call boreal,” said the ecclesiastic.

I love the way the local class system is limned with such economy: the Count approaches, and they all await his words.  He lets fall a few clichés supportive of the status quo.  The dialog of the deaf continues…


A note on climate change from Bouvard and Pecuchet

November 30, 2012
by Guy Davenport

by Guy Davenport

From Flaubert’s story of the two clerks:

 …[they] bought M. Depping’s work on The Marvels and Beauties of Nature in France…But soon there will be no more to discover.  …burning mountains are becoming extinct, natural glaciers are getting warmer

Written over a period of twenty years, but published only after his death in 1880.  He claimed to have read over 1500 books in preparation for writing it.


Open Heart Surgery

November 24, 2010

The Maximes et Réflexions morales (1664) of François de La Rochefoucauld is a collection of witty, cutting, cynical, funny, brutally honest, depressing, and occasionally comforting dissections of the human heart and spirit.  They are of a type of literature for which the French are known, and the tradition of which they are a part is still alive among the elite of modern France.  Consider the quotation from Claude Chabrol in his recent obituary from the NYTimes.  Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde also come to mind.

Here are a few favorites, not in their original order, from my recent dip into the text:

L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu.
Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.

La philosophie triomphe aisément des maux passés et des maux à venir. Mais les maux présents triomphent d’elle.
Philosophy triumps easily over past misfortunes and those to come.  But present ones triumph over it.

Les vieillards aiment à donner de bons préceptes, pour se consoler de n’être plus en état de donner de mauvais exemples.
Old people love to give good advice to console themselves for not being in a state to set a bad example.

C’est une espèce de coquetterie de faire remarquer qu’on n’en fait jamais.
It is a way of flirting to claim that one never flirts.

Les vertus se perdent dans l’intérêt, comme les fleuves se perdent dans la mer.
Virtues lose themselves in self-interest as rivers lose themselves in the sea.

Quand les vices nous quittent, nous nous flattons de la créance que c’est nous qui les quittons.
When our vices quit us, we flatter ourselves by believing that we have quit them.

Comme c’est le caractère des grands esprits de faire entendre en peu de paroles beaucoup de choses, les petits esprits au contraire ont le don de beaucoup parler, et de ne rien dire.
Great characters can say much with few words, while on the contrary, petty characters talk a great deal and say nothing.

Le désir de paraître habile empêche souvent de le devenir.
The desire to appear clever often presents us from being so.

La vertu n’irait pas si loin si la vanité ne lui tenait compagnie.
Virtue would never get so far if vanity did not accompany it.

La souveraine habileté consiste à bien connaître le prix des choses.
The greatest cleverness consists in knowing the value of everything.

C’est une grande habileté que de savoir cacher son habileté.
It is a great cleverness to hide one’s cleverness.

Ce qui paraît générosité n’est souvent qu’une ambition déguisée qui méprise de petits intérêts, pour aller à de plus grands.
What appears as generosity is often nothing but disguised ambition that has put aside petty self-interest in order to advance a greater one.

Une des choses qui fait que l’on trouve si peu de gens qui paraissent raisonnables et agréables dans la conversation, c’est qu’il n’y a presque personne qui ne pense plutôt à ce qu’il veut dire qu’à répondre précisément à ce qu’on lui dit. Les plus habiles et les plus complaisants se contentent de montrer seulement une mine attentive, au même temps que l’on voit dans leurs yeux et dans leur esprit un égarement pour ce qu’on leur dit, et une précipitation pour retourner à ce qu’ils veulent dire; au lieu de considérer que c’est un mauvais moyen de plaire aux autres ou de les persuader, que de chercher si fort à se plaire à soi-même, et que bien écouter et bien répondre est une des plus grandes perfections qu’on puisse avoir dans la conversation.
One of the reasons why so few people seem reasonable and attractive in conversation is that almost everyone thinks more about what he himself wants to say than about answering exactly what is said to him.  The cleverest and most polite people  are content merely to look attentive, while all the time we see in their eyes and minds a distraction from what is being said to them and an impatience to get  back to what they themselves want to say.  Instead, they should reflect that striving so hard to please themselves is a poor way to please or convince other people, land that the ability to listen well and answer well is one of the greatest merits we can have in conversation.

Dans toutes les professions chacun affecte une mine et un extérieur pour paraître ce qu’il veut qu’on le croie. Ainsi on peut dire que le monde n’est composé que de mines.
In all professions,  we affect exterior appearances of what owe wish people to think us.  So, one can say that the world is made of nothing but appearances.

Et un coup de chapeau à mon professeur de Français – cette  petite, vieux, Alsacienne, Mme Schmidt, qui m’a initié à cette maxime:
L’absence diminue les médiocres passions, et augmente les grandes, comme le vent éteint les bougies et allume le feu.

And a tip of the hat to my French teacher – that little old Alsatian, Madame Schmidt, who introduced me to this maxim:
Absence diminishes mediocre passions and strengthens great ones, just as the wind blows out a candle and kindles a fire.


Information Superhighway

July 19, 2010

At last, here by popular demand! The original text of the amazingly prescient essay on Flaubert and the Internet from 1994!!


Descartes – pothead?

May 13, 2010

Monty Python did a song about famous philosophers that included the lines:

Réne Descartes was a drunken old fart,
I drink therefore I am!

Now the real truth has been brought to light by that brilliant scholar of the great thinkers of the West,  Frédéric Pagès.  Monsieur Pagès, better known today for his championing of the thought of the forgotten philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, wrote this book, Descartes et le cannabisPourquoi partir en Hollande in 1996.  All of France was celebrating the 400th birthday of the man who started modern philosophy, the one who coined its most famous proposition:  cogito ergo sum [I think, therefore I am.]

Well, what he should have said is, I think, therefore I know that I am, but that’s a trifle.  Of course, how does the I know that it knows, before the I has determined that it knows that it, the I,  is? Pretty obscure.

Pagès brings light to this dark murk by applying the Cartesian method to the mystery of why the most French of philosophers lived most of his adult life in Holland.  And why did this man change his residence practically every year?  The answer: cannabis.  Descartes was a dealer and toker. Amsterdam is the place to be for that.

This explains so many things.