09 Thursday Oct 2014
Many of the novels written about World War I, by those who fought in it, didn’t appear until a decade after the end of the fighting. All Quiet on the Western Front, in 1929, A Farewell to Arms, 1929, Paths of Glory, 1935. just to name a few. The earliest of these best known novels/memoirs is Under Fire (Le Feu) by Henri Barbusse, 1916. Reputedly the inspiration if not the basis for Remarque’s later novel, and read closely by Sigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen before their slashing anti-war poetry appeared, it’s publication was pushed ahead, in time to win the Prix Goncourt for that year, though most readers encountered it in 1917.
What isn’t generally known is that the Prix Goncourt for every year of the war, 1914-1918 was awarded to war fiction. (The run ended in 1919 when it went to Marcel Proust for the second volume, Within A Budding Grove, of his massive In Search of Lost Time.) The first, by Adrien Bertrand was The Call of the Soil, (L’Appel du sol ) which was published in 1914. The Prize was not awarded that year because of the war, but was awarded retrospectively in 1916 to his book, along with Under Fire.
To a modern reader it’s a strange sort of read. Bertrand was a pacifist-socialist become soldier, and severely wounded after three months of fighting in the Battle of the Frontiers and the weeks following. During his long, partial convalescence, almost three years of bed rest from a severe lung wound, he returned to writing, his profession before the war. The Call of the Soil was the result, along with a collection of surrealistic anti-war short stories, finished before his death in November, 1917. The novel was the first, to my knowledge, to rework into fiction actual experiences at the front, under severe fire; the first to detail the horror of the wounds being suffered.
He could see the blood oozing from the fractured skull of one of his chasseurs, his beret spattered with brains.
What makes it unusual is that, woven between scenes of fear, mud, cold, hunger, incoming shells, carnage and death are not only exhortations to courage and valor, but long conversations between several officers and one philosophy student sergeant, about the mystical ‘call of the soil’ on men’s souls. Many encomiums are made to stoic endurance, passive obedience and the effect of leaders on the men. Though there is acknowledgement and description of the results of war, as would be true in all the anti-war novels that followed, it has none of their irony, much less cynicism.
Bertrand recognizes, not too many pages into the novel, the false sheen put on war in contemporary accounts:
Journalists … carry on the old literary tradition of war, always representing it in their writings in the same old trappings: light-hearted, splendid, disciplined, glorious, heroic. And so the world’s conception of war is based on their accounts of it, which vaguely correspond with what they remember of the Iliad and with the various treatises on history so highly esteemed in our lycees and elementary schools.
He cannot help himself, however, from often doing the same.
“There is nothing so ennobling as the love of danger,” he said. “My soul is indeed possessed by a sensation of something sad and glorious,” answered Lucien. “My boy,” said the old officer, “every minute that passes is a victory over self. Such an experience suffices to enrich a whole lifetime with glorious memories.”
In fact, much of the novel reads like the English boy’s books of glorious war that had preceded 1914 and were to continue in popular fictions and accounts from the front in the hands of John Buchan (and here) and other lesser writers. We may be surprised that a prestigious literary prize was awarded The Call of the Soil. Despite its philosophical discussions, it seems lightly conceived. Given the desperation of the times, the Committee may well have been more influenced by its praise of French character than any strictly literary merit. Third person narrative is used throughout, though not omniscient. We do not know what the characters are thinking except through their conversation or observations of behavior — and some of it straight from the Song of Roland.
Considered in itself, war is humanity’s crowning disgrace, but those who can read in the hearts of the men who urge it, will see in war the sanctification of the race. As Captain Nicolai said to me —and he was not given to random speech—’We live here a life of continual self-conquest. That conquest consists in learning to love danger.’
Though some men turn and run, the main characters do not; they are full of sacrifice and pride.,
“The most noble thing, the loftiest courage of which a man is capable, is not to die for an idea, to die for his country; it is calmly to give up his life without knowing the why and the wherefore. That is the true way to die for one’s country.”
After a trying day, dirty and exhausted, the men respond when called upon, as though written out on movie story-boards:
They fired as one man. Their confidence was completely restored. They had a leader and in that minute they gave themselves utterly, body and soul, to their commander.
And the young officer in charge?
In proportion as the danger increased, he grew in calmness, in mastery of himself and of his men.
At the time of the novel’s publication the war was still in its early months. Bertrand could still believe, as one of his characters says — echoing every man in every army– that it would be over at Christmas. His realism in portraying actual battle field conditions must have been a shattering novelty to the literature reading public who had been fed nothing but accounts of glorious victory and German set-backs. But because 1914 had not become 1915, much less, ’16, ’17 and ’18 he could still be imbued, it seems, with the mystical élan vital, initially of Henri Bergson, and frothed to a military certainty by Generals Foch and Joffre all the way down to the lowliest subaltern: “The French Army, returning unto its traditions, no longer knows any law other than the offensive.” As one of his characters exults:
“Sniff in the scent of powder and danger. Put yourself in heroic posture; it aids us to practice the virtue of which it is the outward and visible sign. For twenty years I’ve been waiting for this war. Oh, I drink to the lees the glory of this hour.”
Sympathy is shown for the dead and wounded of both sides and the first notice of the theme that was to dominate all later war writing appears: it was no longer a man-against-single-man combat; the personal outcome of a battle was no longer based on strength or cunning but on blind chance.
In battle chance reigns supreme. Death is equitable at least to this extent that it carries off without distinction both the daring who defy it and the cautious who could cozen it. With modern engines of destruction you are no more likely to escape death by taking cover than by exposing yourself.
As with many of the World War I novels, both the language of the time, mild by modern standards, and older translations, are somewhat of an impediment to full immersion. Typically, they have not been redone to update to language and metaphors we are more familiar with, 100 years later. In this case, while the translation is not objectionable neither is it compelling. Appearing in English shortly after the original, it had to have been done with some haste, without time to tighten and strengthen. [It would be interesting to know something about the motives of translator and publisher in England, since war fever was still running quite high. In fact the newly imposed DORA (The Defense of the Realm Act) included penalties for any written or enacted questioning of the war. One suspects some risk was being run by its publication.]
As with almost all the war novels and memoirs to come from the war, any traditional plot progression is almost entirely gone. The problems aren’t those set up by encounters, alliances, loves, misunderstandings, but of terrifying loud, continuous shells at all hours of day and night, the advance into machine-gun fire with little hope of return. So this novel, as others, moves forward by repetition more than development. Despite the change of chapter titles, attacks, retreats, sleeping in the mud, the noise of shells screaming in from five miles away reappear often. Though we meet several officers and hear them talk, we don’t engage with them particularly. When they die it seems a formality, a necessary way to end the story rather than a felt goodby to someone we care about.
One chapter does depart the scenes of battle as Lt Fabre meets Marguerite Courtois, a pretty young woman in whose volunteer hospital he was resting, in the south of France. Their love flowers but as a sketch. We see but are not involved. Healed, he returns to the front. They will not meet again.
The Call of the Soil (available here) will be of most interest to those with a background in the war, and a list of novels already read. It is valuable as an example of the change war novels were to go though in only a few years. Barbusse, 2 years later, has lost all touch of élan vital, however much his men still endure and show courage under fire. It will also interest those who wonder at the motivations of those who go to war, who with varying levels of belief and fear endure the guns of others and level their own against an unknown enemy.
I suspect, without having read them that Bertrand’s’ short stories which followed the novel and came from the experience of continuing wound illness and increasing clarity about the years of static trench war are less stirred by the glory and the ‘call of the soil,’ painting images and attitudes with sharper edges.