It was sometime over the recent long Memorial Day weekend I received a worn copy of Sebastian Barry’s “A Long Long Way” (2005), a gift from my old friend Dan, first person blogger at Tangential Meanderings at WordPress. I had mentioned Barry to Dan after reading a New Yorker piece about the Irish author’s writing (March 20, 2023). I had never read Barry.
I dug into “A Long Long Way” as into a trench somewhere along the Western Front. Barry in his technique seems to take the encyclopedia entries that summarize events and rewrites them using imagined characters, though apparently the Dunnes were part of his own family. My interest in WWI grew, and I read that a few years ago a trove of diaries written by soldiers during the war was digitized:
Many older people in Britain knew veterans of World War I. But the diaries provide a different level of detail, says Michael Brookbank, 84. On a recent day, he was drinking a coffee in the archives cafeteria. He had come to learn more about his father.
“My father very rarely talked about the war, and I think that is common with most of the veterans of the war,” says Brookbank. “The experiences that they went through and the conditions that they lived in were just something that, unless you were actually there, nobody could really comprehend.”“From The Trenches To The Web: British WWI Diaries Digitized.” Heard on Morning Edition, 23 Jan, 2014. Ari Shapiro. Read here.
That idea of what it might take to comprehend, and of what point there might be to talk about it, about anything, one might add, incomprehensible to another, plagues many veterans. And in the Army, one does not step out of place, let alone speak out of place. Who does tell the stories then? And who will listen with comprehension?
The reader has no privileges. He must, it seems, take his place in the ranks, and stand in the mud, wade in the river, fight, yell, swear, and sweat with the men. He has some sort of feeling, when it is all over, that he has been doing just these things. This sort of writing needs no praise. It will make its way to the hearts of men without praise.New York Times book review of “The Red Badge of Courage,” 31 October, 1896.
Crane, like Barry must have, had read accounts of those who had experienced the war in some way (Crane had not), and used them to create a truthful but fictional (a psychological rendering) account. The danger here, for most writers, is the chance the result will sound like a second hand telling. Also that it might affront those who actually did the fighting, or who in some way, psychologically, if not physically, experienced the war. But that begs the question: does a distant war not create an experience for the moms and dads, the girlfriends, the boyfriends, the folks back home, reading the headlines, the news, the letters from the front? And does not that experience test the dichotomy of mind and body – the psychological is physical.
In his blog “Time Now: The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Art, Film, and Literature,” Peter Molin, himself a veteran and writer, furthers the discussion of who can write what with what authority:
The question of whether a writer who hasn’t been to war can write well about war also intrigues me. Gallagher cites Ben Fountain as the example par excellence of an author who never served in the military, let alone saw combat, but who can still convey what it is like to be a soldier. I love Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, too, but have noted that Fountain evades extended description of battle. Is that a place he just didn’t feel comfortable going? Brian Van Reet, a decorated vet, portrays two horribly mangled veterans in comic-grotesque terms in “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek.” Would a civilian feel as comfortable doing so? Is there something wrong with someone who isn’t disabled portraying characters who are? Both these cases reflect the issues of credibility and authority that permeate discussions of war writing.“Veterans Writing,” Peter Molin, 29 September 3013.
Sebastian Barry, in “A Long Long Way,” gives all his characters the credibility of war experience, even those who have no comprehension of what they’re going through, of the dehumanizing effects war tattoos on one’s memory, and a tattoo becomes a story:
‘And what happened to her, Pete?168
‘That Belgian woman, Pete, that you – just like the sainted Germans did, just like all those stories we were told, Pete, what they did to the women.’
‘Don’t be so holier than thou, Willie. You’d’ve done the same.’
‘What happened to her, what happened to her?’
O’Hara said nothing for a moment.
‘All right, all right.’ But he didn’t seem able to say it for another few moments yet. Then he nodded his punched face. ‘She died of what had happened to her. She was bleeding all those hours. She was not treated right. She was fucking torn to pieces, wasn’t she? And she died. And we tried to save her.”
‘You think so?’
‘It’s just a story, Willie, a story of the war.’
‘You can keep your story, Pete. You can keep it.’
Willie’s girlfriend’s (Gretta) father shares a test he uses to qualify one’s experience. It has to do with knowing one’s own mind. Gretta repeats it:
‘We have to wait, Willie.’77
‘For what’ he said, a touch desperately.
‘For the war to be over and you to be home and you to know your own mind. There’s never any sense in a soldier’s wedding, Willie.’
If Barry’s characters and scenes seem stereotyped it’s because we’ve seen them so often. There’s not much of a plot. Boy goes to war, not really understanding why, maybe comes back, maybe not, still not understanding why. All the arguments are pandered down the ranks, where, in the end, they don’t hold water. The grunts do the work, the dirty work, for which they receive insult and despair. Barry’s approach gives the reader a kind of historical fiction without the overt history, such that the Easter Rising happens real time, with Willie and his cohort working laboriously trying to figure out what’s going on and why and how they should feel about it, what side they should side on, a process of getting to know one’s mind.
Who is the narrator? Not exactly Willie, neither can it be Barry. Some figure hovering over the gas clouds, looking through, picking out a figure here or there to zone in on. There are many to choose from. But the main characters are Willie, his sergeant-major Christy Moran, Willie’s father, Willie’s girlfriend, Gretta, Willie’s sisters, a few of Willie’s platoon members, Father Buckley, a Catholic priest who makes the rounds through the trenches trying to clean the spiritual and mental messes (which he does a fair enough job of). And Pete O’Hara whose single act of betrayal does more damage to Willie than anything the other side may have thrown at him.
The theme is irony, though it might seem somewhat backwards – the characters seeming to know something the reader does not, in spite of the reader’s armchair advantages. The book is composed of set pieces (gas attack, up and over charge, furlough – and the results thereof, field boxing match) and the action is described in realistic detail, too much detail some readers may feel. There’s humor, the excellent cussing of the sergeant-major, sarcasm and wit. On the whole, maybe it’s all a bit romantic, though, so full of purple vestment, not maudlin, but still sentimental, like the customs of Memorial Day, even if that day has yet to come anywhere in the novel. The dialog is brisk and easy and rings true. The point of the novel, if the reader must have one, is probably the Irish need and desire to have and know its own mind, which might also explain the need for every narrative trick, the deceit and betrayal writ large and small, the pawn-like movements that when stacked one upon the other make up the family histories that add up to a country’s history.
The title comes of course from the song, used to march by:
Up to mighty London
Came an Irishman one day.
As the streets are paved with gold
Sure, everyone was gay,
Singing songs of Piccadilly,
Strand and Leicester Square,
Till Paddy got excited,
Then he shouted to them there:
It’s a long way to Tipperary,
It’s a long way to go.
It’s a long way to Tipperary,
To the sweetest girl I know!
Farewell, Leicester Square!
It’s a long long way to Tipperary,
But my heart’s right there.
Paddy wrote a letter
To his Irish Molly-O,
Saying, “Should you not receive it,
Write and let me know!”
“If I make mistakes in spelling,
Molly, dear,” said he,
“Remember, it’s the pen that’s bad,
Don’t lay the blame on me!”
Molly wrote a neat replyJack Judge, 1912.
To Irish Paddy-O,
Saying “Mike Maloney
Wants to marry me, and so
Leave the Strand and Piccadilly
Or you’ll be to blame,
For love has fairly drove me silly:
Hoping you’re the same!”