After reading the
War I memoir by Robert Graves for the fourth
(and, I expect, final) time, I began to wonder why I had never looked at the
autobiographical novel about the war by his friend Siegfried Sassoon. So I did.
I am glad I
did -- sort of. I had feared he would be a whiner, but he wasn't. He is a terrific
writer, with an unusual feel for turning a great phrase. Almost at random,
there is this: "for an infantry subaltern, the huge unhappy mechanism of the
Western Front always narrowed down to the company he was in."
later: "The sky seemed to sag heavily over Flanders; it was an oppressive, soul-clogging
country." (I thought the same of Iraq in the late spring, when rain storms
mixed with dust storms resulting in pelting mud.)
And then night
just behind the front: "the whole region became a dusk of looming slopes with
lights of village and bivouac picked out here and there, little sparks in the
loneliness of time." On the next page: "the rockets soared beyond the ridge and
the machine-guns rattled out their mirthless laughter." There is not just
precision of observation here, but also of expression.
"One wet days the
trees a mile away were like ash-grey smoke rising from the naked ridges, and it
felt very much as if we were at the end of the world." I've had that feeling,
both in northern Bosnia and northwestern Ira, but have never been able to
capture in it words.
in the trenches: "It was queer how the men seemed to take their victimization
for granted." And, "What in earlier days had been drafts of volunteers were now
droves of victims."
"Last summer the First Battalion had been part of my life; by the middle of
September it had been almost obliterated."
I suspect at this
point he is descending into a kind of madness, but he keeps a British attitude,
deciding that, "getting killed on purpose [would be] an irrelevant gesture for
a platoon commander." In its last
section the book peters out into diary entries, and then, because he lost part
of his diary, into remembered moments. But he still throws out some good
aphoristic observations. "The better the soldier, the more limited in his
outlook." That's not just for the enlisted ranks: "One cannot be a useful
officer and a reader of imaginative literature at the same time." (He is being
cute there-a few pages later he actually cites his company executive officer as
a terrific help and also a big reader. In fact they are both reading poetry
during a bombardment when their dugout suffers a direct hit from a shell that
turns out to be a dud-the nose of the shell protrudes into their shelter."
What he liked
about patrolling in no-man's-land: "We were beyond all interference by
One of his final
lines is about his sense that he died, or part of him did, during the war: "I
seem to write these words of someone who never returned from France."
It is an
interesting book. But at the end, it was less than the sum of it parts. I guess
that the best way to say it is that it doesn't add up to much. He is a better
observer and writer than thinker. Despite the fine turns of phrase, at the end
I didn't take away much. As much I as admire his eye, and his hand at turning
phrases, I don't feel I took away anything larger. I doubt I will read it
again, or even recall it much. The odd thing about his pose as a lightweight is
that, ultimately, he really is.