A War with a View

These are two very different books, but so close in flavors and effects. Both concern a soldier recently returned home from World War One duty. Rebecca West wrote “The Return of the Soldier” when she was only 24, living with her three year old, in 1916, the war still on and in some of its deadliest and darkest hours. J. L. Carr’s “A Month in the Country” was published in 1980, when he was in his late 60’s, WW1 at that time superseded by a number of other high and mighty events.

This is not a book review, that lockstep genre one learns in literary basic training. War narratives often exaggerate plot and action. The truth is action, if it comes at all, stops time, stops waiting, lifts the soldier off the ground or water, suspends. There is no plot to that moment. If he remembers anything of the action the memory stirs smells, sounds, touch, taste. World War 1 is memorable for its suspension of progress, the soldiers on both sides stalemated in their trenches for days, weeks, months, years, the most significant action perhaps a slow moving cloud or fog hugging the ground and when it gets to you takes the skin off your face. And of course in any war for every soldier that experiences what I am here calling action there are several others who experience only the waiting. Both experiences take their toll and can leave soldiers, whatever their experience, broken machinery.

In any case, for the most part, these books avoid that portrayal of action, and take place in beautiful natural settings, far from any action of the war. Both returned soldiers suffer from emotional trauma, but are able to enjoy life returned away from the front. They don’t suffer from anhedonia, usually the result of not enough action. Both books are necessarily novellas, because so much has been left out. Both concern a small cast of characters in a little window of time and action out of view of the mainstream. Rebecca West has her character Jenny narrate, so it’s a first person but not the soldier returned who talks, while Carr’s book is told first person by the returned soldier, Tom Birkin. Both books are love stories surrounded by nature in lovely landscaped settings mostly unspoiled. The writing is clear and concise, natural and unaffected but poetic, impressionistic, descriptive. Both books touch on class as a theme, work, and all the trappings and dressings of diversions and social nakedness.

“Penina’s Letters” too touches on those themes and uses some similar techniques to get its soldier returned story going and told, but I suppose its author may not have seen enough action, and so had to substitute satire for reality, or maybe should have relied on someone else to tell his story, Penina perhaps.

Day after Day the Weather Rather

“Day after day that August, the weather stayed hot and dry. These days we call it real holiday weather but, then, only the well-to-do in those parts went far afield and even a week at Scarborough was remarkable. Folk stayed at home and took their pleasure from an agricultural show, a traveling fair, a Sunday-school outing or, if they had social pretentions, a tennis party with cucumber sandwiches. Most country people had a deep-rooted disinclination to sleep away from home and a belief that, like as not, to sojourn amongst strangers was to fall among thieves. It was the way they always had lived and, like their forefathers, they traveled no further than a horse or their own legs could carry them there and back in a day.”

A Month in the Country,” J. L. Carr [Bob Carr 1980], nyrb 2000, p 82.

And these days the weather
rather like some older person
no longer relevant
fluous, superfluous
your personal covenant
(within a place of your own
family and knickknack
weekends yard games
reprieve from work
a bit of a book
a work of art
music hot dogs
pizza and beer)
the seal broken
by those expensive wingtips
these days full of closet dust
expansive neckties the colors
of ecclesiastical vestments
no one in the office guessed
how much trouble caused
from the either or fallacious
and no longer personally
responsible for the ugliness
of the world
find beauty reflected
in all the broken pieces.

No quotes suffice nor even
allowed the etiquette of now
of an equality unshared in the
shadows of human conditions
the tics of post traumatic
stress disorder
not to mention
the tics of now
living in the moment
cursed with mindfulness.

Anyway, we were on the radio
a dinner party was playing
and we lined up to go through
the food line
like at an automatic car wash
noises on soaps flooding
and after walking down the line
feet locked into the tracks
nude through the car wash
slapped to and fro back and forth
by the wet washing cloths and huge
spinning wheels and sprays
we dried and redressed
and vowed next time
we’d be better rehearsed.

The only thing left
for us is the weather
to go
out in it
to get wet
and dry
wet and
and again
after day.