Sunday, May 21, 2006

Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory

An incredible book.I never thought I would be this captivated by what is essentially just a study of the literature of the First World War. But unlike Patriotic Gore, which did the same thing for The Civil War (and is also incredible), Fussell's ambition goes beyond literary criticism; he wants to give the reader something of a sense for what modern warfare has become, and what impact it has on soldiers. It appears that he knows himself; the book is dedicated to Technical Sergeant Edward Keith Hudson, "killed beside me in France, March 15, 1945."

The book proceeds unchronologically from theme to theme and, while quoting from an astonishing number of letters, poems, and novels - often from other modern wars, especially WWII - it usually has a single author represent the most comprehensive example of Fussell's thesis for each chapter; the main four are Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, David Jones, and Edmund Blunden. As in Patriotic Gore, each of these authors receives a true appreciation; there are few other books that make you want to go out and read so many other books. My library copy is already folded over every fifteen pages or so with a passage I want to write down and remember.

The Great War and Modern Memory is not perfect, but it almost seems ungrateful to mention it. Fussell's broader ambitions occasionally hurt the book, and lead him to draw conclusions that seem untenable to me; he sees the First World War as being a dividing line that it doesn't always appear to be - for example, he writes an entire chaper on the impulse in soldiers to demonize the enemy, and constantly establish Us and Them binaries. This depressing tendency struck me as having little to do with the First World War and much more to do with being human. The book also ends on an odd, unsatisfactory note, moving too far away from the reality of the battlefields.

But when Fussell stays with the soldiers, and focuses on telling their stories, and the way in which they started to realize, together, the horrible magnitude of what was happening to them, he is incredible; he has read so widely, and so sensitively, that he vanishes into their words, and at times seems to speak for all the soldiers in our awful 20th century. It is a cliche, but the world might really be a better place if everyone read this book.

Let me just quote one passage. Everyone will respond to different parts -- especially if they have experienced combat, or known people who have -- but the last sentence of Blunden's quote is what I remember whenever I think of this great, great book:
Whatever the main cause of failure, the attack on the Somme was the end of illusions about breaking the line and sending the cavalry through to end the war. Contemplating the new awareness brought to both sides by the first day of July, 1916, Blunden wrote eighteen years later: "By the end of the day both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the war. The War had won, and would go on winning."


Steve Lackermann said...

I'm reading The Great War and Modern Memory right now, and I had the exact same thought that the book's main weakness was over extending itself to draw conclusions. The binaries chapter was the most egregious and the one which stood out most in my mind. Also, the theatre of war chapter was weak I thought.

Thomas said...

Fussell's book is good EXCEPT for his assessment of David Jones's epic poem In Parenthesis, which he misreads as glorifying war by allusions to romance. The truth is that these allusions provide an emotional correlative to the horrors and loss of war--allusions, for the mostpart to legendary loss, at Roncesvalles, Camlan, Catraeth, and to horrific violence such as that of the Welsh monster Twrch Trwyth (Great Hog). Jones's long poem is the greatest literary work to emerge from the Great War and probably the greatest writing on war in English.

Trina Webb said...

That's really a marvelous post. Some interesting thoughts here. Thanks for this post