What happened to class war?

Back in the seventies and eighties, fictions protesting the horrors and injustices of the great War (think Days of Hope or The Monocled Mutineer) had a simple left-wing agenda. Uncaring upper-class officers victimised the working-class rank and file. Bullying N.C.O.s were there too, but as the lackeys of the bourgeois hegemony.
How different from The Absolutist (2011) by John Boyne, which I’ve just read (Thanks for the non-recommendation, Anne-Marie.)
This is a grindingly miserable shot-at-dawn story whose narrator is a mournful homosexual.  He falls in love with fellow-private Will Bancroft, an idealistic vicar’s son. Their romance is doomed, mostly because, after a passionate fumble, Will finds himself disgusted by what they have done. When the murder of a German prisoner leads Will to lay down his arms in protest against the cruelty of the War, the narrator, in a fit of lover’s pique, volunteers for the firing squad that shoots him.
This melodramatic story is set in an Army of the author’s imagination, one in which privates call corporals ‘Sir’, and there are no officers. Nasty Sergeant Clayton is in charge of the training of the dozen recruits, and when they go to France is in sole charge of the whole battalion (though Boyne seems very confused about the distinction between a battalion and a regiment). When Will lays down his rifle, Bancroft and his cronies organise an impromptu field court-martial and sentence him to death. Nobody seems to think that their decision ought to be ratified by higher authorities.
Odder still, when the narrator is in hospital, the sergeant tells the doctor that there is nothing wrong with him. ‘Feed him up, rehydrate him, get him back on his feet. Then send him back to me. Is that understood?’ The doctor replies, ‘Understood, Sir.’ Boyne seems not to understand that an RAMC doctor would be an officer – a captain, maybe. The idea of such an officer calling a sergeant ‘Sir’ is really quite amusing.
Partly this oddity may come from a general carelessness on the author’s part about accuracy of any sort. This is especially notable in the language. Characters use late twentieth-century phrases like ‘They were an item’. (The earliest OED reference for this usage is 1970 – and, by the way, ‘rehydration’ of a patient does not appear till 1949.)
But I suppose that officers would have got in the way of the story that Boyne wants to tell. He wants his gay narrator and protesting friend to be the victims of harsh, stupid, unrelenting and all-powerful prejudice, and Sergeant Clayton, the nasty and incoherent working-class bully fits the bill very well. The drama is more extreme if the victims have no possibility of recourse to a higher authority.
In the left-wing fictions of the seventies the enemy was a class enemy. In this book the enemy is the crass prejudice that can understand neither gay affection nor civilised objections to a war crime. The victims, on the other hand, are actually or potentially middle-class. Will has a vicarage background and the narrator, while a butcher’s son, sees himself as different from the rest of the privates and will become a famous writer in later life. The class meaning of the shot-at-dawn narrative seems to have been turned around; rather than the toffs conspiring to kill the rank and file, here it is the working-class NCO bullies who arrange the death of an upper-class lad more sensitive and intelligent than they are.
The trope of the deserter shot at dawn is so emotive that it is reached for by almost every writer who wants to use the War to stir indignation. It has been variously used to demonstrate the horror of all warfare; the appallingness of this particular war; the rigidity of the military mind; the exploitation of one class by another; the hegemony of the manly; and now the power of homophobic prejudice.
Some of these interpretations are more convincing than others, and Boyne’s novel must be very unconvincing to anyone who knows anything about the war of 1914-1918. Once again, I am left wondering – do publishers never pass this kind of book to someone who might act as a fact-checker? Do they care?


  1. Alan Allport
    Posted May 19, 2014 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if somewhere along the line Boyne has gotten confused about the difference between an ordinary sergeant and a Regimental Sergeant Major (who really would be called sir, though not admittedly by a RAMC captain)?

    This book sounds so awful, though, that I honestly wonder why you bothered to finish it. You have more patience than me.

    • Posted May 19, 2014 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

      Why did I finish it? Despite its daftness, it’s quite a lively read. And I’m fascinated by all twists on the Great War myth.
      Some books do defeat me. I’ve not managed to finish Helen Dunmore’s misery sage ‘The Lie’, though I really ought to try.

  2. Posted May 20, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    An interesting post. I know the argument for using modern language is that it’s supposed to attract more readers, but it is worrying that by doing so they create a kind of hybrid version of history.
    However, mistakes with historical facts are worrying on another level. I agree with your concluding remarks.

  3. Bill
    Posted May 22, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read this one, but seriously disliked “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”, irrespective of the debate about whether there were children in Auschwitz. Fact checking doesn’t solve a lot of problems and in the end is about as useful as looking for wristwatches in Hollywood gladiator movies.

    Boyne seems to plunge around history with what I would call gay abandon, were it not for the dreadfulness of the pun. His language remains fairly similar, whatever the period.

    It does seem odd that a vicar’s son doesn’t have a commission, but perhaps Boyne was wary of a different stereotype of effete officers preying on susceptible rankers (rather like the allegations about Edward Brittain). The idea of an army without officers seems quite daring, really.

    • Alan Allport
      Posted May 22, 2014 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know if this makes me an evil person or not, but I confess that I laughed out loud when I first heard the title of that book because I guessed (correctly) exactly what it was going to be about and how shamelessly exploitative it’s approach to the subject was going to be.

  4. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted May 24, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Concerning anachronisms and no sense of history:

    Liz Goodwin, Yahoo! News a few days ago:

    “The Greeks didn’t call it PTSD. But they understood that war … left some warriors with a ‘thousand-yard stare,’ a phrase used by Sophocles.”

    Associated Press, 2008:

    “I found that even 2,500 years ago Sophocles was using words like ‘shell-shocked’ and ‘the thousand-yard stare’ … said retired Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman, who fought in the fierce Iraq battle of Fallujah in November 2004.”

    Kopelman, Goodwin, and others were clearly misled by recent stage versions of “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” paraphrased by Brian Doerries.

    Everybody knows that a wristwatch at Troy is an anachronism, but almost no one realizes that Sophocles could not have written “thousand-yard stare,” even in Greek. (He could have written about “staring,” of course.) As for “shell-shocked” ….

    • Bill
      Posted May 25, 2014 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      As far as I can tell, Doerries and his company give readings of ancient Greek plays to combat veterans and their families. It seems a bit harsh to complain this shows “no sense of history”. Teasing out contemporary relevance from old texts is intrinsic to most literary education (even if ideally we might prefer encouraging the veterans to learn to read them in the original language). Clearly there are common factors in combat trauma and experience through the ages and sometimes these can be used productively. A performance of Shakespeare in modern dress, for instance, isn’t an “anachronism”, even if you prefer your own Shakespeare in Elizabethan costume with no female actors.

      • Posted May 25, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        Those who (like myself) had never heard of Brian Doerries before reading these comments may be interested in a YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAfOgmUUprI) in which he talks about his Theatre of War project. He presents productions of Greek tragedy for veterans and for military communities, using the ancient texts to explore modern themes.
        This could be fascinating – if done well.

  5. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted May 25, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I should have thought it obvious that I was not criticizing Doerries, a dramatist, for interpreting drama for a special audience. His expressed purpose is certainly valuable and worthwhile.

    A journalist’s error, however, is worth pointing out, especially since it appears to be gaining meme status.

    The idea of “error,” of course, hardly applies to Doerries’s frankly creative dramatic texts. Fact and art are two very different realms.

    • Bill
      Posted May 25, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      You’ll be pleased to know that Liz Goodwin has addressed the error in her piece :

      “Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Sophocles used the phrase “thousand yard stare” to describe Ajax. Doerries’ translation of Ajax uses the 20th century phrase, but it’s not a literal translation.”

      Certainly, the Doerries project seems fascinating. It reminded me of the book “Achilles in Vietnam”, in which the author, a psychologist, drew parallels between the descriptions of combat of Vietnam veterans and “The Iliad”. And I was interested to find that same psychologist taking issue with the Doerries approach from the audience – suggesting that passively listening to descriptions of combat might not be helpful to veterans – and then being challenged himself by a veteran who did find it helpful.

      Clearly old fictions can continue to illuminate “real”, modern experiences and there is valuable debate around exactly how this can be done.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] be tempted to name one of the really poor twenty-first century efforts, like John Boyne’s The Absolutist, a book which combines an utter confidence in its own self-righteousness with an astonishing […]

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: