Like many other heavy-duty readers I often find myself in the middle of two or more books at the same time.
At the moment I’ve got two novels on the Kindle app of my tablet that could not be more different, though both are about the Great War.
One is Helen Dunmore’s latest novel, The Lie, a very grim and downbeat story about an ex-soldier suffering from combat stress and survivor guilt when he returns to England in the early twenties.
The other is a French thriller from 1917, Rouletabille chez Krupp by Gaston Leroux (a writer best known here as the original author of The Phantom of the Opera). This is his seventh Rouletabille novel. Its hero, formerly a journalist, is recalled from the trenches for a secret mission, to go to the Krupp factory in Essen. He must rescue a French inventor who has been kidnapped by the Boche. Failure to do this will allow the Germans to build his secret weapon, a device so powerful that its blast could destroy the entire city of Paris.
These two books have one thing in common. Both use the mud of the trenches as a potent symbol of the War, but to strikingly different effect.
Helen Dunmore’s morose hero is haunted by memories of the battlefield, and the book’s very striking opening conveys a terrifying vision of imagined horror:
He comes to me, clagged in mud from head to foot. A mud staue, but a breathing one. The breath whistles in and out of him. He stands at my bed-end [….] I can smell the mud. You never forget the reek of it. Thick, almost oily, full of shit and rotten flesh, cordite and chloride of lime. He has got himself coated all over with it.
So the mud sums up the dreadfulness of the trenches, and defines them as a scene of horror, unredeemable, quite unfit for humans.
Rouletabille chez Krupp also starts with mud. The hero is covered with it, and proud of the fact:
Quand le caporal Rouletabille debarqua sur le coup de 5 heures du soir à la gare de L’Est, it portait encore sur lui la boue de la tranchée.
(When Corporal Rouletabille, on the stroke of five, left the train at the Gare de L’Est, he was still covered in the mud of the trenches.)
What is more, he does not try to rid himself of this ‘glaise glorieuse’ (glorious clay). He thinks how the civilians of Paris are only still there and safe because of men like him:
Et il se redressait dans sa crotte, dans ses vêtements boueux.
(And he stood up straight in his crust, in his muddy clothes.)
I’ve translated ‘crotte’ as ‘crust’, but it can mean ‘turd’ or ‘shit’ as well, so Dunmore’s lavatorial connotations are not absent from this passage – but here the filth is a source of self-esteem, a symbol of what men like him are enduring, and are proud of enduring.
As so often in contrasting accounts of the Great War, the facts are more or less the same, but the contexts that give them meaning are utterly different.
Helen Dunmore’s novel is a (rather well-written) presentation of the most common twenty-first century literary myth of the war. Its hero enlisted with no conception of what the War was about, in a state of such naivety that he did not even realise that officers and men would lead very different lives. He is an entirely passive figure; in the trenches he does not fight, but merely endures. His best friend is killed, and he feels guilty about this. He returns home utterly alienated to a country where he has no place, and where nobody understands him. The memories of war that afflict him are strong enough to be experienced as hauntings by his friend’s mud-covered ghost.
The Leroux book is the opposite. Published in 1917, the most terrible year for the French military, it is an unabashed morale-builder. It’s intrepid hero has put himself unquestioningly behind the war effort; he accepts a near-impossible mission; he spurs embusqués into action, and is not put off his task by being wounded.
Obviously, Rouletabille chez Krupp does not tell us the full truth about the War, but it tells us the story that the French wanted to be told in 1917. I’m half-way through the book, and the hero is already facing impossible odds. I’ve a feeling that things are going to get even worse for him, but I’m willing to bet that he will triumph in the end. As the Allies did too, just about.
So does Helen Dunmore tell us the truth about the War? She tells us the truth that we have often come across in the novels of Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks and others; she tells us that war is degrading and destructive, and that those who fight will never be the same again. Yet this is a partial truth, too. I think of other writers who show the War as a source of pride, as a site of achievement, as a time of intense comradeship, as a time that has given their lives meaning. (I have known Second World War veterans with a deep nostalgia for a period that, although terrible, was the most intense experience of their lives.)
Helen Dunmore’s central character, the hapless Daniel, made me think of another Dan, the hero of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s The George and the Crown (1925), with whom he has much in common. Dan also finds it hard to fit into post-war England, but for this Kaye-Smith blames not the War (which Dan remembers with some gratitude, since it taught him much about survival) but the world he has returned to.
In putting all the blame on the War, is Helen Dunmore, as much as Gaston Leroux, telling their readers what they want to hear? It tells us that wars are terrible, and encourages to take a position of moral superiority to those who wage war, and who must therefore be ultimately to blame for Daniel’s troubles. And these bad things are in the past, nearly a century ago; in contrast,Kaye-Smith was asking her readers to question the values of their own time, 1925. The Lie powerfully communicates an emotional pacifism, and one that does not tackle hard questions about how a country should defend itself or look after its interests. Do Helen Dunmore’s readers enjoy her saga of misery because its subtext is that feeling is everything, and they need not actually worry about the difficult intellectual issues.
But I’ve only read half of either book so far, so it’s wrong to leap to any sort of final judgement. If anything happens in either of them to alter my interim assessment, I’ll blog about it.