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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Anywhere out of the world! A confession.

May 16, 2012

 

“Tell me, my soul, poor chilly soul, how would you like to live in Lisbon? It must be warm there, and you would be as blissful as a lizard in the sun. It is a city by the sea; they say that it is built of marble…”

My soul does not reply.
 

Now is the time to spill my bile, or spleen…

When I was done with school, I was resolved to get out of this world, the Western world, and so I went on a trip for six or seven months through south-Asia.  I wanted to get away from the radio, TV, magazines, advertisements, the culture of “achievement,” and all that was part of my upbringing.  Of course, they had it there too, but it was in a language I did not understand, so it was merely interesting.

I was filled with critical theory and radical politics, unconnected with any practical organization or activity, and disgusted with my petty bourgeois, intellectual culture.  It was a good trip.

During the ensuing thirty years, I struggled to fit into this society of ours, and did it quite well, being a conformist at heart.  I spent a lot of time thinking about how to balance ideas and values that I retained with life in a society that seemed to contradict all of them.  Like many of us.

Today, I have never felt so out of tune with the world that faces me (I speak from my very narrow perspective and experience only), and I find that my earlier feelings of disgust are returning.  Perhaps its due to the fact that my children are out of the house, and I am free of many practical obligations and responsibilities that children bring, freeing me to return to my untethered philosophical aloofness.

Google, Facebook, billions and billions of dollars!  Endless news, speculation, and expectation of the next big thing, i.e., the next great business coup that will reap fortunes for some, and produce more…avenues for buying, selling, and consuming goods and our leisure time for the rest of us.  Well, as I have often said, I prefer a world sunk in the intellectual and spiritual doldrums of consumerism to one in which people dream of how to become the Master Race, dressed in smart black uniforms. 

There is no escape from culture, from style, from the structure of our society.  Once you have asked the question of how to escape, you have proven that you are so much a part of it that it is carried inside you always.  And to what would you escape?  To a life that is more … real?  Gimme a break!  Keep calm, and carry on is all you can do.

Here is the complete prose poem, Anywhere Out of the World (N’importe où hors du monde) by Baudelaire, in English and French:

     Life is a hospital where every patient is obsessed by the desire of changing beds. One would like to suffer opposite the stove, another is sure he would get well beside the window.
     It always seems to me that I should be happy anywhere but where I am, and this question of moving is one that I am eternally discussing with my soul.
     “Tell my, my soul, poor chilly soul, how would you like to live in Lisbon? It must be warm there, and you would be as blissful as a lizard in the sun. It is a city by the sea; they say that it is built of marble, and that its inhabitants have such a horror of the vegetable kingdom that they tear up all the trees. You see it is a country after my own heart; a country entirely made of mineral and light, and with liquid to reflect them.”
     My soul does not reply.
     “Since you are so fond of being motionless and watching the pageantry of movement, would you like to live in the beatific land of Holland? Perhaps you could enjoy yourself in that country which you have so long admired in paintings on museum walls. What do you say to Rotterdam, you who love forests of masts, and ships that are moored on the doorsteps of houses?”
     My soul remains silent.
     “Perhaps you would like Batavia better? There, moreover, we should find the wit of Europe wedded to the beauty of the tropics.”
     Not a word. Can my soul be dead?
     “Have you sunk into so deep a stupor that you are happy only in your unhappiness? If that is the case, let us fly to countries that are the counterfeits of Death. I know just the place for us, poor soul. We will pack up our trunks for Torneo. We will go still farther, to the farthest end of the Baltic Sea; still farther from life if possible; we will settle at the Pole. There the sun only obliquely grazes the earth, and the slow alternations of daylight and night abolish variety and increase that other half of nothingness, monotony. There we can take deep baths of darkness, while sometimes for our entertainment, the Aurora Borealis will shoot up its rose-red sheafs like the reflections of the fireworks of hell!”
     At last my soul explodes! “Anywhere! Just so it is out of the world!”

   Cette vie est un hôpital où chaque malade est possédé du désir de changer de lit. Celui-ci voudrait souffrir en face du poêle, et celui-là croit qu’il guérirait à côté de la fenêtre.
   Il me semble que je serais toujours bien là où je ne suis pas, et cette question de déménagement en est une que je discute sans cesse avec mon âme.
   “Dis-moi, mon âme, pauvre âme refroidie, que penserais-tu d’habiter Lisbonne? Il doit y faire chaud, et tu t’y ragaillardirais comme un lézard. Cette ville est au bord de l’eau; on dit qu’elle est bâtie en marbre, et que le peuple y a une telle haine du végétal, qu’il arrache tous les arbres. Voilà un paysage selon ton goût; un paysage fait avec la lumière et le minéral, et le liquide pour les réfléchir!”
   Mon âme ne répond pas.
   “Puisque tu aimes tant le repos, avec le spectacle du mouvement, veux-tu venir habiter la Hollande, cette terre béatifiante? Peut-être te divertiras-tu dans cette contrée dont tu as souvent admiré l’image dans les musées. Que penserais-tu de Rotterdam, toi qui aimes les forêts de mâts, et les navires amarrés au pied des maisons?”
   Mon âme reste muette.
   “Batavia te sourirait peut-être davantage? Nous y trouverions d’ailleurs l’esprit de l’Europe marié à la beauté tropicale.”
   Pas un mot. – Mon âme serait-elle morte?
   “En es-tu donc venue à ce point d’engourdissement que tu ne te plaises que dans ton mal? S’il en est ainsi, fuyons vers les pays qui sont les analogies de la Mort.
   – Je tiens notre affaire, pauvre âme! Nous ferons nos malles pour Tornéo. Allons plus loin encore, à l’extrême bout de la Baltique; encore plus loin de la vie, si c’est possible; installons-nous au pôle. Là le soleil ne frise qu’obliquement la terre, et les lentes alternatives de la lumière et de la nuit suppriment la variété et augmentent la monotonie, cette moitié du néant. Là, nous pourrons prendre de longs bains de ténèbres, cependant que, pour nous divertir, les aurores boréales nous enverront de temps en temps leurs gerbes roses, comme des reflets d’un feu d’artifice de l’Enfer!”
   Enfin, mon âme fait explosion, et sagement elle me crie: “N’importe où! n’importe où! pourvu que ce soit hors de ce monde!”


Tales from Casanova

December 23, 2004

…after escaping from the dreaded Venetian prison, the Leads, I found myself penniless and alone in Paris. At a gathering of friends, I overheard a courtier discussing his ambitions for the state lottery. When I told him that I had an idea for making the event more profitable for the King, he exclaimed, “I have an idea too!” and proceeded to tell me his plan. I said, “Your idea is far superior to mine.” Of course, I had no plan, but I promptly appropriated his, and soon found myself as the director of the state lottery, a lucrative position…

…kneeling down and peering through the keyhole, I was able to view the splendid naked body of a woman lying on her bed in a manner that concealed none of her charms from me. Her face, ravaged by smallpox, was covered by a black lace veil, and with the aid of this device she never lacked for lovers, of whom I soon became one…

…our view from the window in the staircase afforded us a clear view of the plaza in which the execution was to take place, and gave me a splendid opportunity to please myself with the two women who, bending down to rest their elbows on the window sill, presented to me, standing behind them, an even better prospect…

…with the help of a few good fellow soldiers, we carried off the beautiful woman who had the poor fortune to be married to a mere innkeeper, and took her to a room that was well provisioned with food and spirits. She, with the spirit of a lady, at first resisted our efforts to take possession of her charms which were so tempting and manifest, but after noting that we were many and she but one, the door locked and secure, and that no one came to her assistance from without, she resolved to make the best of a situation that was not subject to her will, and she gave herself over to the carnal enjoyments of our assembled group with an enthusiasm that exhausted us…

Freely adapted from my memory of Casanova’s Memoirs. You get a sense of the range of his escapades, from scam, to titillation, to fornication, to rape.