, , , , , ,

“The captain … was due to retire in October.  In the very first burst of fire he was swept out of existence, arms and legs flailing.”

So began the battle of Charleroi, Belgium, August 21, 1914, in the first month of the (not so) Great War.  Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, a twenty-one year old, inexperienced French officer, was at first exhilarated, a fighting man at last!,  and then chastened by a shrapnel wound.  Returning to the lines weeks later he was wounded again. After recovering from that he and other French soldiers joined the British in the Dardanelles, from which he was evacuated with amoebic dysentery.  Recovered from that he joined a regiment at the Battle of Verdun to be so seriously wounded he was removed from active service.  This slender volume (212 p) of short-story/memoirs is his looking back at some of the events, the men he knew, the ideas and emotions that swept through him.

Books Comedy of CherleroiThe Comedy of Charleroi (1934, in a 1937 translation by Douglas Gallagher) is the title of the volume and the first, and longest (81 p,) of six stories.  All, in one way or another, take up Drieu La Rochelle’s main concern, the movement in a man between courage and cowardice, an idea he calls “homo duplex.”

“When I think back on the two-sided person I had been that day, I realize that my whole character had been laid bare in one go … how courageous I had been on that day!  how cowardly! good companion and deserter, ordinary and extraordinary, sharing and refusing the common lot.”

Along with many writers from that war, French, British and American, he is more impressed and appalled at the mechanized nature of it than at the idea of fighting or death itself.

“War today means being prostrate, sprawling in the mud, flattened.  Before, war meant men on their feet.  War today means every possible position of shame.”

He sees the falsity of his youthful dream, and that of many men, to be a hero. It is no longer possible.  Yet even seeing the fear, “an enormous, gigantic fear … crouched and writhed over those hills,” he also responds with exultation.  In the midst of a battle, German shells and machine gun fire coming at them:

 “… all of a sudden, something quite extraordinary took place,  I had stood up, stood up among the dead, among the living dead.  I discovered the meaning of the words grace and miracle.  There is something human in those words. they mean exuberance, exultation, culmination, … All of a sudden, I found myself, I found my life.  This was what I was, this strong man, this free man, this hero.. I had felt this effervescence of young hot blood — the puberty of virtue.”

The title story has the narrator, employed as the private secretary of a wealthy woman, taking her to the fields of Charleroi, to see where her son had died [not where he was killed, we are told,] and he, himself, escaped — for which she can not forgive him.  She looks at him with malevolence.

“She could not forgive me… I was still alive, whereas her son, my friend, was dead,.”   I myself sometimes felt ashamed, as if every breath I drew now had been stolen from those young men I had left here.  All of a sudden I said to myself that the men I had seen lying on this field were now underneath it.  They had stayed here.  They were still here.”

In a closing, bitter irony, she asks him to dinner.  With a “gentle voice, with an affectionate smile” she says she wants to do something for him.

“Claude was killed for something; you must continue to fight for that something.  You must become a Member of Parliament.”

In three of the stories he finds himself in conversations with men who contrive to leave the front, one through desertion and relocation in South America, one who pulls strings to get out of the infantry to join the new flying corps (which, he doesn’t mention, had a higher death rate than the trenches) and another who returns to Morocco with his Moroccan infantry regiment.  Into each of them he puts one side of the argument he has with himself:  ‘You are leaving France to save yourself; yet you would come back in its direst needs.’ As he says after one conversation:

He is lying.  We are all lying.  I lie all the time.  I lie when I conceal my patriotic reflexes, but the patriotism which comes back to the surface in occasional spurts is in contradiction to my everyday behavior.  Basically, I should like the others to undertake the task of saving my country, not me.    I’m not here as a patriot, I’m here as an intellectual bourgeois, looking for new experiences.  I turned to the [working] people out of some transposed, unrecognizable romanticism, a taciturn, dandy-like romanticism.  So I lie when I am friends with them.  They have nothing to do with this inner lust for poverty and humility.

For Drieu La Rochelle “the hero and the deserter are from the same mold; both are ready to sacrifice everything, including their lives, rather than resign themselves to being shelled and gassed anonymously, rather than submit to the mechanical annihilation of their human individuality.”

Of the many fiction/memoirs I have read from, and about, World War I, The Comedy of Charleroi is the most inward looking, the most consumed with understanding his own, very contradictory motives.  Not that there aren’t some superb pictures of the fighting. Crawling through a ravine on the Dardanelles peninsula:

“Of course, I go along on all fours: you either adapt yourself to the twentieth century or you don’t.  I notice that the 2nd battalion has indeed been there and has copped it.  There are corpses lying about.  Here’s a casualty.  I crawl up to him.  He’s moaning softly, continuously.

“Finish me off.  Finish me off.”

I make no reply, and what is worse, I don’t finish him off.”

Or, at the battle of Verdun, he is stricken with an attack of diarrhea and has to make his way out of the trench to the latrine, three or four times.  Another man follows him.

…he  came back across the courtyard, lifting his arm like a schoolboy trying to protect himself from the threatening cane.  When he reached the spot where I was standing, still propped against the door-jamb, he bent to light a cigarette from mine. Then he in turn leaned up against the door-jamb.  I was behind him, in the frame of the door, my chin resting on his shoulder.  It was then that ….

The whole universe exploded.  The shell arrived, and I knew it was coming.  Enormous, as huge as the universe.  It entirely filled a doomed universe.  It was the very convulsion of that universe. How slowly.  Much slower than a thunderbolt, I saw it coming.  But immediately afterwards everything was obliterated. The man who had come to protect me had caught the lot in the stomach.  He had fallen back on me, I in turn had fallen back and tumbled down into the room below.  The door had caved in and the room had become a living tomb.

What is fascinating as the stories accumulate and we read his reactions, is the persistence of a romantic notion of a purer, finer battle.  He thinks at one point,

There lies the reason for the failure of the war, of the quality of War in this war.

We suspect there is something different about his war wariness than that of his soldier-writer contemporaries.  Somewhere, deep down, for him, war is necessary to life; somewhere man is not man without war; somehow the mediocrity of bourgeois society can only be overcome by the rebellion of the strong, a man’s dual nature can only be resolved by death.  We are not totally surprised to find that in the 1930s Drieu La Rochelle became an partisan of French fascism, that he became a well known cultural collaborator during the German occupation of France, along with his better known contemporary, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who also fled France at the end of the war.

Which shouldn’t lead to dismissing either of their writerly skills, or indeed the pathways of thought they followed through and away from the war.  Drieu La Rochelle did not have the severe misanthropy and bigotry of Céline.  However, his acute observations of the destruction of war,

At Verdun I thought of Marathon.  And I wept.  My poor, disillusioned youth.  I had given myself to the ideal of war and just look what it gave me in turn.  This waste land, under a hail of dehumanized matter; groups of doomed men scattered everywhere; their leaders back in the rear, all those former second lieutenants with their proud dreams, now transformed into miserable railway men, delivering trainloads of human flesh to the holocaust.

did not protect him from a fascination with glory, of strength over decadence, or of the transcendence of death.  His turning  in the late 1930s from mystical fascism to spiritualism, still trying to counter his perception of a decadent and worn-out country, did not save him.  His greatest novel, Gilles, (1939) did not relieve his ambivalence.  He committed suicide in March, 1945, leaving one final novel, Les Chiens de Paille (1944) [“Straw Dogs,” not to be confused with the Peckinpah movie,] exploring death as a means of leaving the moi to enter the universal soi, ideas he had been imbibing from his studies of Eastern religious thought.

An interesting man, turned in unexpected, but not unique, directions by his experience of war, and who revealed in his own the contradiction in the hearts of many men.