Friday, February 17, 2012

Bookish: The Western Front

Goodbye to All That
Robert Graves, 1929

It's hard to keep your appraisal of a book separate from your prior expectations. Goodbye to All That, for much of its length, is a simply amazing document of a junior officer's experience of World War I. Since junior officers didn't tend to survive that war, a lucid, frank, and articulate account of life in the trenches -- literally -- is a very valuable document.

Unfortunately, I was pointed towards the book by its reputation as a bitingly funny attack on and rejection of the entire British, or European, class system as it existed before The Great War. This reputation is, however, weirdly off the mark. Graves is, first of all, not bitingly funny. He gets an occasional good line off, but he is on the whole a workmanlike and rather spare prose craftsman. His wit is dry, but not abundant. And although he is perhaps a bit Bohemian, fancies himself blunt-spoken, and reports himself as able to get on well with the lower classes, Graves is through and through a member of the "ruling class" from start to finish. He doesn't even really try to tell us otherwise; his decision to say "good-bye to all that" and exile himself in Malta is by his own account mostly about his failed marriage. In a forward written decades later, Graves frankly admits that he wrote his memoirs to a formula he thought would sell, in order that he could make some money. That is charmingly cynical, perhaps, but it's not a very convincing rejection of the social order.

Readers hoping for a broadside against The Establishment will be disappointed to find that the post-War chapters of the book are downright cluttered with name-dropping, alternating between unremarkable stories of family life and detailed reports of everything Thomas Hardy, T.E. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, and other literary notables said on the occasions that he rubbed elbows with them. They didn't say much of interest, really.

Very highly recommended indeed for those interested in the First World War. Skim the pre-War and post-War chapters unless you are related to Robert Graves and are interested in family history.

The Amazing Interlude
Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1918

Mary Roberts Rinehart is best known for her mystery novels. I have read the most famous of these, The Circular Staircase, and although it was a big hit in its day (1907) it is certainly nothing to write home about. Its success, however, established Rinehart as a professional writer who could more or less pick her assignments. Having a taste for adventure, she became a war correspondent on the Belgian front during the First World War. Her experiences in this singular situation, her earlier education as a nurse, and a lot of thought about the costs a person pays to challenge gender roles all come together in The Amazing Interlude.

Here’s the premise: a very naïve American girl is sent by a very naïve church group to try to “do something” to help out in the corner of Belgium that is not under German occupation. Everyone in Europe can see that her plan is preposterous, but an intelligence officer assists her in setting up a behind-the-lines mercy station as a front for his own activities. She ends up having a significant impact on morale. There is a love interest that may be a bit too good to be true, and some incredible events that may indeed stretch credibility. But then, stories have to stretch the bounds of probability at least a little; that is after all what makes them noteworthy enough to merit the telling.

The Amazing Interlude is a hidden gem that deserves to be much better known. As a book about the First World War, it makes an important counterpoint to the trench horrors of Goodbye to All That and, say, All Quiet on the Western Front. The action of Rinehart’s novel takes place not on the front lines but just behind them, where we can see the impact of war on not only the soldiers but also the civilian and support population. Unlike in most war literature, the main character remains tied to the rest of her existence; her family and social ties do not cease to exist and exert their influence because she is in the war zone. Rinehart is also ahead of her time, I think, in writing well about the difficulties faced by people returning from the extremes of war to homes that no longer feel comfortable or meaningful, and to expectations that no longer feel possible to fulfill.

There is a quietness and gentleness to The Amazing Interlude that makes the entire story true to its title. Some readers might find the occasional heroism of its soldiers, their bashfulness around the unexpected young woman in their midst, and their general good manners a gross idealization. But part of the value of this book is its suggestion that war, for as much as it has the power to dehumanize, does not always or continuously do so. Even in the extremes of the First World War the soldiers were perhaps not, or not always, as reduced to animal survival as we might expect. Nor is the horror of war glossed over by Rinehart; it is merely seen at second remove by a well-rendered point-of-view character who has a limited imagination. Much less cynical, much softer of edge, Rinehart’s novel is nevertheless quite compatible with Graves’ memoir and other accounts of trench warfare.

Rinehart's simple, straightforward prose in The Amazing Interlude has great clarity and cleanness of line. It is a simple story about people with simple motivations, but it treats with real moral quandaries about the individual’s loyalty to family, to received morality, to country, commitment, and the greater good. It is a terrific surprise of a book.


mrs.5000 said...

Hey, why doesn't the library have The Amazing Interlude? Do we own a copy?

I may want to read Goodbye to All That also, since I am such a fan of Graves's I, Claudius, which was also dry and written for money.

Jenners said...

Graves came up quite a bit in one of my favorite reads from last year, Skippy Dies. So much so that I was actually considering reading some of his stuff.