Disciplined even in death. Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping. Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent. Pushkin Press, 2015. First published in Dutch, 2008. It forms the first part of a trilogy; the second has already appeared in Dutch.

Despite some initial misgivings, I was not immune to the poetic and emotional power of this novel. It comprises the vivid, fragmented memories of Helena, a very old lady of French-Belgian origin, from her life before, during and after WWI, in which she lost the people she loved most. But like some of those whose reviews I give links to at the end I also found the ornate, image-laden style a little too dense and indigestible at times. The translator, Paul Vincent, has done a good job with what must have been a difficult task.

Mortier While the Gods coverI find as I flick through its pages again, reminding myself of its textures and resonances, that the novel is not so much a story about recollections of things past as a congeries of stories, memories and images that swirl through the narrator’s mind as her body fails her and she lives increasingly in her head.

The prose therefore works better when dipped into and savoured. Mortier, the Belgian author of several other novels, is also a poet. This novel reads like a prose poem, a non-linear anthology, in which chronology is regularly telescoped, focused back and forth, time’s strata exposed and disclosed by Helena’s mining memory.

Take for example the second paragraph on the opening page. Helena is setting out her approach – writing down in notebooks the recollections of her lengthy past as they crop up irregularly in her mind, and breaking off occasionally to apostrophise her kind Moroccan carer, Rachida:

I’d give a lot to be able to descend into the subterranean heart of our stories, to be lowered on ropes into their dark shafts and see stratum after stratum glide by in the lamplight. Everything the earth has salvaged: foundations, fence rails, tree roots, soup plates, soldiers’ helmets, the skeletons of animals and people in hushed chaos, the maelstrom congealed to a terrestrial crust that has swallowed us up.

Wow. That’s a hefty accumulation of the kinds of images and objects that form the ‘heart of our stories’. It fuses mighty abstractions with highly visual, painterly details: the detritus of time’s encounter with human warfare. It’s the verbal equivalent of the scattered contents of an occupied wartime trench after being hit by a shell; the narrator comes by afterwards and inspects, like an archaeologist poet, or a photographer-artists, the fragments out of which we’ve ‘salvaged’ our savage ruins.

I came to this novel shortly after the very different, much more conventional Not So Quiet…by Helen Zenna Smith. That fictional autobiography of a woman ambulance driver’s traumatic experiences in the same war is more direct, consciously unpoetic, and thus more immediately accessible. After my initial struggle to come to terms with the slow-burning, meditative approach of Mortier I’m finding While the Gods is more moving in many ways.

Like Smith, Mortier is good at conveying the horrific experiences of women who lived through WWI. Although, unlike Helen in Smith’s novel, Belgian Helena lived behind the front line, ostensibly away from the action, many of her memories involve the sense-impressions of that war of attrition: she could see the flashes of the huge guns in the distance, hear the thunderous booms they made, and feel in her very entrails the vibrations they made. She tells how a little village girl was killed by a random shard of shrapnel as she ran to play. There was no front line when artillery shells could travel miles.

She also gives vivid descriptions of journeys to the front with her English lover, Matthew, a photo-journalist. These sections indicate that she too has the sensibility and artistic eye of an artist-photographer. One of the most powerful sections in the novel is her description of her snapshot of her lover, taken from behind as he inspected the site of trench years after the war, and as the photographic plate looms into focus with the action of the chemicals on the plate, she starts to see details that had eluded her vision at the time: the jagged, scattered limbs of long-dead soldiers reaching out of the frozen mud, like images from Picasso’s Guernica.

Similar scenes recur, indelibly printed (or congealed) on her memory. For example when Matthew takes her to other such battle-scarred sites long after the war’s end, when he:

meticulously documented what I call the congealing, the great levelling, in all respects after the ravages and the euphoria of peace. The smoothing-over of the tormented earth.

She’s appalled by the ‘cemeteries where the fallen were gradually put in straighter and straighter ranks, disciplined even in death’. She bitterly reflects on the ‘wry euphemism’ of these ‘charming cemeteries’ that cover up cosmetically with ‘solemn temples, carved mourning statues, lit eternal flames…the bones and the corpses and the countless shattered lives’ in ‘an arcadia stretched out.’

She also evokes with heart-breaking pathos the ways that the women in her world, excluded from the infernal horrors of front-line action, had to bear a terrible burden of their own: it’s also the women who ‘take the blows’. Another memorable vignette from this montage of such images is that of her otherwise bohemian uncle, who’s taken on the responsibility of travelling from house to house in his small town, conveying the dreaded news of the latest casualties at the front. More women with lost sons, brothers, husbands, lovers. Lives smashed and frozen as graphically as those exposed limbs in Helena’s photo.

This novel was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015, the year it was won by Jenny Erpenbeck for her novel The End of Days. I agree with Tony: it would have made a worthy winner itself.

But it takes perseverance, and perhaps a second reading to reveal, like the images in Helena’s stark photo, the shards of war that penetrate and wound a person’s memory like shrapnel.

Other bloggers who have posted on this novel find echoes in its themes and style, quite justifiably, of Proust and Sebald, among others. Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong also portrays vividly and poetically the connections between passion, love, loss and death in that terrible war:

Rough Ghosts

Dolce Belleza

David’s Book World

Tony’s Reading List

The Book Binder’s Daughter

 

‘I see people cashing in.’ Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Joseph Heller (1923-99), Catch-22. Everyman’s Library, 1995 (19611)

 I finally decided it was time to read this famous novel after watching the first few episodes of the new TV dramatization, produced by George Clooney (who plays the gloriously named  Col. Scheisskopf – all the names are exorbitant in this novel – ludicrously obsessed with pointless, mechanistic parades). The filmed version does a pretty good job, but although it includes some of the darker elements of the novel, still unsurprisingly sanitises the narrative.

Captain Yossarian is the Everyman figure caught in the middle of the absurdity and horror in WWII of flying missions for a US Army airforce unit based at a fictitious island called Pianosa off the mainland of Italy. The Germans are in retreat so the war is in its final stages. And Yossarian has had – and seen – enough.

The novel opens with him feigning an unspecified disease in his liver. The doctors, like all the military personnel in this crazy army, are so incompetent they’re ‘puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this being just short of jaundice all the time confused them.’

That’s typical of the demotic, looping style of the satiric, wittily sardonic narrative voice. It shares some of the characteristics in tone and style of the amphetamine rush and surreal, jazzy angst and hedonism of Beat writers: novelists like Kerouac (On the Road was published in 1955, two years after Heller started drafting this novel).

Heller Catch-22 coverIn structure too Catch-22 shows its allegiance to the nascent anarchic, counter-cultural post-war reactions of the younger generation to the institutionalised, corporate capitalism and cynical opportunism (political and commercial) that had started to thrive during the war – always a good theatre for entrepreneurs – and had prospered further during the cold war. Each of the 42 chapters focuses on a single character or set of related events. These stand alone almost like short stories, but are connected thematically, and the episodes often recur in later chapters (like the  terrible death of Yossarian’s colleague Snowden, slowly revealed across the 500 pages), repeating, rearranging and accreting details (déja vu is a leitmotif; arbitrarily redacting the enlisted men’s letters home another – it’s a network of redactions and rewritings), as the narrative does at the level of the sentence, shown in that quotation above.

In this respect the novel’s development is similar to the iterative narratives of a patient undergoing therapy, talking to the analyst who gradually encourages them to remove the defensive veils that shield them from the traumas their psyche is attempting to defend itself from, by revisiting and re-narrating the events that triggered the trauma (as Salinger shows with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, published soon after the war). Yossarian doesn’t explicitly undergo such therapy in the novel, but his frequent exchanges with anyone who’ll listen to his frenzied attempts to stop getting killed in action fulfil a similar function.

At first it’s Doc Daneeka, but he’s so disaffected at having been drafted into the military just as his civilian practice began to become financially successful (we later learn this was largely because of his dodgy dealings with drugs – he too is corrupt and amoral, like all the military in Heller’s satiric portrait) that his unsympathetic, selfish response to complaints and requests like Yossarian’s or any of his other terrified comrades is: ‘“He thinks he’s got troubles? What about me?”’ He doesn’t want to make sacrifices, he snarls; ‘”I want to make dough”’.

Later it’s the ineffective timid chaplain (who’s lost his faith), incapable of standing up to the intimidating senior officers he’d have to confront if he were to carry out Yossarian’s anguished appeal for his intercession – to have him grounded, sent home, taken out of the hellish bombing raids he has to fly.

Yossarian’s terror is exacerbated by the camp’s senior officer, Col. Cathcart, interested only in getting his name into the popular press, and thwarting officer rivals in their attempts to gain promotion ahead of him. His petty obsessions result in his regularly, callously increasing the number of missions his men have to fly. Each time Yossarian reaches or nears the magical limit – which means going home to safety – Cathcart bumps up the total, deepening Yossarian’s despair and frustration.

Yossarian readily admits he’s a coward. He’s seen too much death and mutilation suffered in a war directed by incompetent madmen like Cathcart. Nowadays we’d probably consider him to be suffering from PTSD. Yossarian’s rejection of traditional military and patriotic values, of heroism and sacrifice for one’s country and fellow servicemen, is the central feature of Heller’s satire. For all morality and human decency, values and virtues, have been inverted, perverted, replaced by inhumane, cynical self-serving amibition, and greed. Everyone in the military, he insists with sound logic, is crazy, but you’d have to be crazier to fly missions – hence the infamous ‘catch’ that thwarts him: he must be sane to know that.

Language has become as unstable as sanity; semantics are unclear. Linguistic play, puns, paradox and literary allusion and intertextuality abound: Dostoevsky is namechecked explicitly several times; Kafka’s voice is implicitly omnipresent – for example, when the chaplain is interrogated with ‘immoral logic’ by sinister agents who accuse him of crimes of which they are as yet unaware – as he is.

The absurd black humour serves to heighten the dark moral message. When Capt. Aardvark, the navigator on one mission, is asked by the pilot if the bombs had hit the target, he asks, ‘”What target?”’ Yossarian, the bombardier, asked in exasperation the same question, responds, ‘”What bombs?” His ‘only concern had been the flak.’

It’s one of the most searing indictments of the absurdity of war that I’ve ever encountered. It’s not just the physical and emotional torture endured by the combatants and civilians affected, which tends to be at the heart of canonical anti-war literature from Remarque and Barbusse to Wilfred Owen, Hemingway and…well, Helen Zenna Smith. Heller’s most acrid satire takes what Smith started to do in Not So Quiet…and increases it to monstrous, Rabelaisian proportions.

Heller takes this anti-war anger and disillusionment to a different, ferocious level. The most shocking element in his carnival of dark grotesquerie is the cynical entrepreneurship of mess sergeant, Minderbinder. He has assembled a corrupt ‘syndicate’ that harnesses the graft, villainy and amorality of the Mafia with the corporate ruthlessness of big business. His dodgy import-export scams exploit the greed of officers like Cathcart, only too happy to profit from his use of military aircraft to move his wares around the world (with making money his only cynical concern; I’m reminded of the banking crisis in 2008, and what caused it). His lust for profit takes precedence over every decent consideration. When it seems he couldn’t become more fiendishly capitalistic, he starts dealing with the Germans, aiding their war effort against the Americans for cash, culminating in the horrific bombing and strafing of his own airbase – with huge loss of life of his comrades (a detail redacted in the TV version).

This vision of a hellishly corrupt and depraved corporate-military complex is mitigated in the dramatization. There’s less, too, of the dated sexism and misogyny that mars some of the novel; the scenes in the Rome brothel, although contributing to the theme of cynical commercialism and profiteering from war, display some disconcerting attitudes to women.

But the Rome scenes also produce one of the most chilling and disturbing sequences in the novel, near the end when Yossarian seeks out the sex worker who his friend Nately naively believed he would marry. He needs to tell her Nately has been killed in action. His descent through the noxious alleys of the city’s lower depths is like the harrowing of Hell, or Dante’s progress through those tormented circles of doom accompanied by Vergil. Raskolnikov gets one of his mentions in this section. He witnesses depraved acts of cruelty, sees the poverty, suffering and despair of the innocent while the ‘ingenious and unscrupulous handful’ of corrupt sinners thrive. The narrative takes on Yossarian’s voice:

What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? [and so on for a dozen more lines]…Yossarian walked in lonely torture, feeling estranged…[next page] The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves.

This catalogue of depravity reveals Heller’s purpose beneath the black comedy: Yossarian’s sense yet again here of déja vu – of ‘sinister coincidence’ – underlines the scorching message of social criticism in the novel. The act of rape and murder that follows, and the injustice with which it’s met, indicate its shift into a nightmare world of perversion and craziness that outKafkas Kafka.

As ever I’ve gone on for far too long, but it’s difficult to be brief in assessing this complex, extraordinary novel (despite its flaws). Near the end, as Yossarian’s disgust with military corruption and incompetence reaches its climax, and we hear the final version of the death of Snowden – a terrible unfolding that explains much of his desperate condition – he has an exchange with a sympathetic but deluded officer. He tries to explain why ‘ideals’ are no longer valid:

‘You must try not to think of them,’ Major Danby advised affirmatively. ‘And you must never let them change your values. Ideals are good, but people are sometimes not so good. You must try to look up at the big picture.’

Yossarian rejected the advice with a skeptical shake of his head. ‘When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.’

 

 

 

 

I become savage at the futility: Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet…

Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of War. The Feminist Press, New York, 1989; first published 1930

Helen Smith, the protagonist of this novel, is a prim, callow woman of 21, daughter of a jam manufacturer who considers himself solidly middle-class. She’s sufficiently bourgeoise to be considered suitable as a volunteer ambulance driver in France in World War I. Only girls from the upper classes were accepted, partly because they could pay for the privilege of volunteering, and also, as Helen cynically muses at one point, because they came from that ‘stiff upper lip’ class that would keep quiet about the truth of the horrors and carnage of trench attritional warfare.

Women ambulance drivers WWI

Female motor ambulance drivers with their vehicles, Étaples, France, 27 June 1917, during World War I. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2015 and Imperial War Museums website: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205078785)

Hers is one of the grimmest, unflinching accounts of that war that I’ve read. What makes it more harrowing, in many ways, is that it’s not the usual male-camaraderie viewpoint of fighting in the front line. Although not a combatant, Helen gets to see the worst of the aftermath of modern warfare. Here’s a typically hard-hitting sample, one of countless descriptions of the horrors she witnessed:

We hate and dread the days following on the guns when they boom without interval. Trainloads of broken human beings: half-mad men pleading to be put out of their misery; torn and bleeding and crazed men pitifully obeying orders like a herd of senseless cattle, dumbly, pitifully straggling in the wrong direction, as senseless as a flock of senseless sheep obeying a senseless leader, herded back into line by the orderly, the kind sheep-dog…men with faces bleeding through their hasty bandages; men with vacant eyes and mouths hanging foolishly apart dropping saliva and slime; men with minds mercifully gone; men only too sane, eyes horror-filled with blood and pain…

It seems churlish to take issue with what some readers might consider the overwrought style here, the thumping rhetorical repetitions and parallel structure; for the awfulness of the scenes described surely justifies such verbal excess. It’s the language of anger and despair. Even the echoes of Wilfred Owen resonate and chill. Smith has the same anti-war sentiment; she too uses the word ‘futility’ to sum up the scenes through which Helen is required to drive her wounded, dying men – it makes her feel ‘savage’.

The senselessness is heightened by the contrasting levity of Helen’s letters home to her jingoistic ‘flag-crazy’ parents: “It is such fun out here, and of course I’m loving every minute of it; it’s so splendid to be really in it”, she gushes deceitfully. It’s ‘the only kind of letter home they expect, the only kind they want’. They don’t want to hear the truth: that she hated and feared it, is ‘terror-stricken’, and has lost all ‘ideals and beliefs’:

You don’t believe in God or them or the infallibility of England or anything but bloody war and wounds and foul smells and smutty stories and smoke and bombs and lice and filth and noise, noise, noise – that you live in a world of cold, sick fear, a dirty world of darkness and despair – that you want to crawl ignominiously home away from these painful writhing things that once were men, these shattered, tortured faces that dumbly demand what it’s all about in Christ’s name…

No, all the parents want to do is boast to their smart friends, competing to exceed the patriotism of their rivals and to recruit more innocent young men (including Helen’s own teenage brother) to go to their slaughter, brag that their daughters are ‘doing their bit’, examples of ‘England’s Splendid Daughters’. They don’t want to hear that she’s been ‘pitch-forked into hell’. ‘Nobody cares because I’m going mad, mad, mad’, has ‘no guts’ and is ‘white-livered’, a ‘rank coward.’ There’s no heroism or nobility in the abject, often terrifying routine she endures: vile, dysentery-inducing food, sleep deprivation, a sadistic, megalomaniac female commandant known unaffectionately by the girls as ‘Mrs Bitch’, who delights in meting out ‘punishment’ duties on the already exhausted, starved and freezing drivers (their ambulances have open cabs and they have to drive the shell-pocked roads at night without lights; the winter winds cut through them until their lips bleed) on top of the disgusting menial cleaning tasks they already do as part of their daily routine. Descriptions of the daily cleansing of their filthy vehicles of every kind of human effluent and effusion are stomach-churning.

HZ Smith Not So Quiet coverIt’s not a misery memoir, however. In her Afterword , academic Jane Marcus gives useful literary-historical, political and socio-cultural context for this novel (and provides an interesting explanation for its strange subtitle). Smith was the pen-name of Australian-born Evadne Price (1896? – 1985), an unusual woman who began adult life as an actor, turned to journalism, then became a prolific author of romantic pulp fiction and children’s stories; she was even house horoscope writer for women’s magazines. Marcus suggests these less than right-on credentials have caused her to be unjustly neglected by feminist literary historians and critics.

I learned a lot from her essay (though it has some strange flights of fancy, such as war’s frenzied blood-letting being ‘menstruation envy’ from men). She places this novel in the context of canonical war literature by men (Hemingway, Ford, Graves, etc.) – but also by less canonical women (about whom I only began to learn recently when I read and researched Edith Wharton’s WWI novel about life on the home front in Paris, A Son at the Front). She has some interesting, fairly convincing theories about masculinized women and feminized men, female ‘potence’ and male impotency.

Not So Quiet…, as its title suggests, was commissioned as a spoof riposte, from the woman’s point of view, to Remarque’s best-selling novel about the German experience of the war, All Quiet on the Western Front, first published in 1929; it was first published the following year. Not having witnessed the trench war at first hand, Smith used an unpublished diary by a real-life woman ambulance driver called Winifred Young for source details. The narrative certainly rings horribly true. There were four sequels, tracing Helen’s decline in post-war, depressed Britain.

Smith was keen to depict the gender confusions arising from the women who served behind the lines, in the ‘Forbidden Zone’, in support roles to the fighting men. Unlike the more traditionally caring role of nurse (who ‘domesticates devastation’, says Marcus memorably), often the only women portrayed in this literature, these well-bred young women driving ambulances in danger zones challenged the gender stereotypes. Back home it would have been considered unthinkable, unladylike for them to drive solo, let alone with a load of shell-shocked, gangrenous wounded men, unchaperoned. Just as these girls risked being jeered at as ‘she-men’, unfeminine (Helen worries about losing her ‘womanliness’ if she cut her hair short like her braver colleague, to reduce the torments caused by lice), so the men in novels like All Quiet tended to be considered unmanly, cowardly, if they showed fear or lack of bellicose aggression towards ‘the enemy’. (There’s a powerful passage in Not So Quiet…in which Helen reflects with bitter passion on the real enemies: the politicians and armchair elderly who start wars but don’t participate themselves).

Marcus’s literary analysis is also interesting when she considers Smith’s fragmented, modernist prose style, with its breathless present tense narrative and prevailing use of free indirect discourse in multiple voices. Smith’s anti-imperialist and socialist-realist, feminist depiction of the class elements in the war are also well covered (Helen pointedly rejects class privilege towards the novel’s end – to the horror of her friends and family – when, disillusioned and shattered she leaves the ambulance convoys and re-enlists as a lowly cook’s orderly, working alongside working-class girls from the urban slums).

As Lissa Evans showed in Old Baggage, the women who’d learned to organise themselves and fight the patriarchy in the suffragist movement reacted in many different ways to the challenges to their struggle posed by the war, and the transitions they had to consider. The Pankhursts famously handed out white feathers to conscientious objectors and enthusiastically joined in the jingoism of the likes of Helen’s blinkered parents. Some made use of their new-found discipline and taste for rebellious direct action to become proto-fascists, as Evans shows in her novel.

There’s one aspect of this novel that took me a while to figure out, but Marcus spells it out with withering clarity: Smith was partly engaged in a PC counterblast to the prevalence of lesbianism among women ambulance drivers in Radclyffe Hall’s wartime sequences in The Well of Loneliness (1928). A sub-plot involves the unedifying persecution and ultimate banishment home of a couple of women in Helen’s group who are lesbians. Smith dutifully narrates this sequence, but turns it into a harsh critique of the crazed values of wartime Britain: a woman was forced to see out her driving duties no matter what crime she committed, or how cowardly or inept was her performance; only show ‘immorality’, however, and she was kicked out with alacrity.

I find, once more, I’ve gone on too long. This is an indication of what a fascinating, powerful text this is. It may not be the best written (anti-)war novel, but it’s probably one of the most memorable and unusual, and it packs a terrific punch.