There are not many works of literary criticism in the Folio Society’s backlist. Most of the books that are given the sumptuous Folio treatment are classics of fiction, biography and travel writing – the sort of thing that a bookish person of means might want to decorate his or her shelves iwith in preference to a cheap paperback.
Paul Fussell’s 1975 book, The Great War and Modern Memory is no ordinary work of literary criticism; since its publication its ideas have set the agenda for literary critics writing about the War, even those who dissent from its findings ; some historians too have been strongly influenced by its interpretation of the conflict. Moreover, it has been a best-seller. By the time that the second (‘Twenty-fifth anniversary edition’) was published in 2000, fifty-three thousand copies of the book had been sold.
It is a cultural landmark, and it is a marker of that status that the Folio Society has chosen it for reissue in the centenary year. They have kindly sent me a copy for review.
The book has the usual Folio Society quality: a striking cover, protected by a cardboard slipcase; clear print; good quality paper. There are forty illustrations of various kinds, compared with the fifteen in the 2000 paperback edition on my bookshelves. The new additions include photographs of the War, and of one or two war poets, posters, and paintings by war artists such as Orpen and Nash. Oddly, though, the editors of the new edition have not included some of the original photographic choices.
(Click for a larger image)
I miss especially the pair facing each other on pages 43 and 44 of the paperback; one of these shows King George sagely inspecting some very neat and shipshape model trenches, and the other presents the chaotic shambles of an actual trench on the Somme. That is exactly the sort of ironic contrast that Fussell at his sardonic best specialised in. Nor does this edition include the photograph of the King, Haig and Plomer, looking the very embodiment of the ‘old men’ who sent the young up the line to die. We also miss what Fussell later valued as ‘the inexpressibly touching photograph’ that he selected for the cover of his book, of a young soldier in wading boots. ‘If anyone ever looked aware of being doomed to meaningless death, it is this boy,’ he wrote.
Fussell selected his pictures very deliberately, to reinforce his text; this new edition’s choices are less pointed, and blander.
Perhaps the Folio editors have missed the point that Fussell was a polemical writer, and at his best a brilliant one; that is why his book remains compulsively readable even when one realises that he is stretching his interpretation further than the facts will allow, or is quite simply getting things wrong. He has had many critics, including military historians Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, who back in 1994 wrote an authoritative article pointing out his historical inaccuracies and insufficiencies, but their criticisms (and those of others) have had little effect on the book’s popular reputation, as is shown by the fact of this classy reissue.
An afterword that Paul Fussell wrote for the 2000 edition makes clear what a personal book this is. A professor of literature by trade, and a specialist in eighteenth-century writing, Fussell was haunted by memories of his own experience as an infantry officer in the Second World War.
He felt unable to write directly about that experience, so, in his own words, searched for ‘displays of language that might help define the similarity of infantry experience in the two world wars and the problem of containing it within words’. Reading through the Imperial War Museum’s collection of documents from the First World War, he ‘was struck repeatedly by the similarity (almost the identity, for the ground forces) of the two wars.’
Our tactics of infantry were hardly more refined than theirs, consisting of mass attacks in skirmish lines, ambushes, night patrols, and defence while dug in. With the exception of the bazooka and the anti-tank mine, infantry weapons had undergone little change between the wars [….] The bayonet was shorter, but it still had power to chill the blood of the enemy who saw it approach.
He knew what he was looking for, and found it, paying little attention to contrary evidence. In that later afterword (which the editors of the Folio edition have chosen not to include, to the detriment, I think, of their book) he defines himself as writing ‘illuminated by emotion’, he called it the work of an essayist […] rather than of a scholar, speaking with pride of having annoyed those who ‘still […] apparently think the First World War was not such a bad idea.’ He admits that in his book ‘ historical data was called on to enhance the elegiac effect.’ Sometimes his use of data could be wildly inaccurate, as in his claim that ‘even in the quietest times, some 7,000 British men and officers were killed and wounded daily, just as a matter of course.’ (Do the maths, factoring in a reasonable number of not-so-quiet days, and you’ll see what is wrong with this.)
It is a book that makes fierce claims for the special knowledge of the front-line soldier; he alone can be trusted to speak of war, and all other voices are to be regarded with suspicion. This limits the range of literature that he discusses; although the Times reviewer in 1975 called it ‘the most thorough survey of [Great War ] literature’, Fussell’s book concentrates on relatively few texts beyond the well-known poems of the War, and some of the prose published at the end of the twenties. What he took from (or imposed on) the literature of the Great War was the representation of a conflict whose pointlessness seemed unarguable, and whose horror was totally unappreciated by civilians. He sometimes even hints that he does not think very highly of the literature he is using to prove his case; as William Golding wrote in a 1975 review, ‘a note that can only be called patronising creeps in.’ Notably, he suggests that the soldier-writers of the Great War would have benefited from a course in modernism: ‘Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence, Pound, Yeats were not at the front to induct them into new idioms which might have done the job better.’
The way that modernists might have ‘done the job better’ is indicated in the book by Fussell’s introduction of American novelists of the Second World War, especially Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon. Sometimes one puzzles at the relevance of these. It is a pity, perhaps, that Fussell at that time seems not to have read Céline ’s Voyage au Bout de la Nuit (1932), from whose example Heller and Pynchon learnt much about describing war in terms of cruel absurdist comedy. Céline ’s equation of war with madness, and his bolshy poilu’s-eye-view of army life would have fitted neatly into Fussell’s thesis.
Paul Fussell’s own Second World War experience determined what he wanted to do in his examination of Great War literature, but another war is also important. In that 2000 afterword, he points out that the book was written when a new generation of soldiers were ‘experiencing their own terrible and apparently endless war of attrition’ in Vietnam. The book is written with a moral intensity, especially obvious in its description of the ‘troglodyte world’ of the trenches, the waste, the suffering, the terror, the smell.
The folio edition has an introduction by Lyn Macdonald, the writer who interviewed so many Great War veterans for valuable books like They Called it Passchendaele and The Roses of No Man’s Land. If you expect an introduction to be an advocate for the text, this one is slightly odd, since in it Lyn Macdonald gives a full account of her own career in oral history, and expresses doubts about Fussell’s reliance on literary texts:
It is unfortunate (pace Paul Fussell) that popular memory of the war in our times seems to reside almost entirely in the literature of the war, and in particular the work of the war poets [….] I believe that this may have implanted images in the minds of the young so powerful that they tend to impede appreciation of the historical realities of the Great War, and even perpetuate myth.
No critic has done more to reinforce the implantation of those images in the collective mind than Paul Fussell. So does his book deserve its place as a classic in the Folio collection? Its facts are unreliable, and its dependence on the theories of Northrop Frye theory is unfashionable, but it is still a book worth reading, though perhaps more as a historical document of the times in which it was written than as a reliable guide to the literature or history of the Great War.