People, says Cummings in his 1932 Introduction to the 1971 Penguin Modern Classics edition of this autobiographical novel first published in 1922, had wanted a war book but were disappointed; in The Enormous Room he ‘uses war: to explore an inconceivable vastness which is so unbelievably far away that it appears microscopic’. Something ‘more unimaginably huge than the most prodigious of all universes – …The individual.’ This is an account of an individual’s struggle against a callous wartime system.
Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massechussetts in 1894, the son of a Harvard professor who later became a Unitarian minister in Boston. With family friends like Henry James’s philosopher brother William, it was unsurprising that he graduated from Harvard in 1915. In 1917 he enlisted in the Norton-Harjes ambulance corps in France (Hemingway also drove ambulances in WWI). With his friends John Dos Passos and William Slater Brown (known as ‘B’ in this book) he became deeply Francophile, hostile to the bigoted, bellicose attitudes of his superiors, and all three volunteers, especially Brown, expressed in their letters and conversation anti-war sentiments which exhibited a lack of animosity towards the Germans which the military censors considered seditiously suspicious. He and Brown were arrested, cursorily arraigned, and committed to a ‘dépôt de triage’ – a sort of interim jail – at La Ferté-Macé in Normandy for over three months.
Here they were incarcerated in the huge cell which gave the book its title. More of a bitter-humorous memoir or journal than novel, The Enormous Room simply relates the events leading up to Cummings’ arrest and imprisonment, and then profiles the brutal, unhygienic regime he endured, with portraits of dozens of the varied inmates with whom he shared this ordeal. Most of them were there simply because they were foreign; in the eyes of the French government, depicted in the book as blinkered by bureaucratic xenophobia and systemic stupidity, this was sufficient grounds to consider them spies.
In many ways the book resembles Solzhenitsyn’s blistering account of a Soviet gulag in Ivan Denisovitch, but Cummings imbues his narrative with the irreverent wit of a young American non-conformist adrift in the France he loved for its culture but which was governed and administered by thuggish buffoons – according to this account.
A surprising factor is that there are only intermittent signs of the experimental style of his later poetry, with its typographic unorthodoxy and syntactic fluidity; his prose style is curiously stately, even Victorian/Edwardian in its ornateness. At times, in fact, it’s rather too stuffy and decoratively literary, with frequent allusions to Pilgrim’s Progress that clog its workings awkwardly.
But there are also modified quotations from Pound, and hints of the high modernism to come. Some excellent images, too: on the march to prison he describes the scene –
The road was absolutely deserted; the night hung loosely around it, here and there tattered by attempting moonbeams…and the delicious silence of the night (in which our words rattled queerly like tin soldiers in a plush-lined box) boosted me…
Installed in La Ferté he describes the disgusting coffee and bread:
Between gulps I smelled the bread furtively. It smelled rather much like an old attic in which kites and other toys gradually are forgotten in a gentle darkness.
There are a few unfortunate casual racist terms that can probably be ascribed to the intolerant attitudes of the times. Otherwise it’s a deeply humane story of the principled resistance by a young man of deep moral rectitude to the inane and unimaginative prejudices of a corrupt and hopelessly narrow-minded system that was rendered even more stupidly corrupt by war. The need to oppose the enemy encouraged an attitude of self-righteously venomous racism that would be unimaginable today, except it’s still too (sadly) evident.
Most of the portraits of Cummings’ colourful cell-mates are intriguing, affectionate and entertaining, but the catalogue does at times seem too long and detailed. The style, already mentioned, can also cloy the narrative:
The door by which we exited with the water-wagon to the street outside was at least eight feet high, adorned with several large locks…We waited until told to proceed; then yanked and shoved the reeling vehicle up the street…[a water source] operating by means of a stubby lever which, when pressed down, yielded grudgingly a spout of whiteness. The contrivance was placed in sufficiently close proximity to a low wall…the man in the shafts leaning back with all his might to offset a certain velocity promoted by the down-grade…
And so on; I find that too polysyllabic and filled with stodgy ‘elegant variation’. But these are minor defects. The Enormous Room was much admired by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it’s worth reading as a testament to the indomitable human spirit in the face of institutional cruelty, intolerance and hostility to people who dare to flout convention and refuse to conform to the tenets of mediocrity.
I’d rather end on a more positive note. Here’s a glimpse of the innovative poetry to come:
Rain did, from time to time, not fall: from time to time a sort of unhealthy almost-light leaked from the large uncrisp corpse of the sky, returning for a moment to our view the ruined landscape. From time to time the eye…stopped upon the incredible nearness of the desolate without-motion autumn.
On being released he muses:
I will get upon the soonness of the train and ride into the now of Paris.