Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NYRB Challenge Book #9: In Parenthesis. . .

This book is one of the first NYRB Classics that I ever bought and yet it has been sitting unread on my shelves for years. Actually on one particular shelf - the top one among the many I have dedicated to books written by and about participants in the First World War. It's a crowded bookcase and this is one of the key reasons I started this challenge - it forces me to finally read books I have been meaning to get around to for eons.

In Parenthesis by David Jones is unlike any war memoir or novel that I have read. Jones himself experienced life in the trenches - he was twenty when he joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and he fought at both the Battle of the Somme and at Ypres. The book - it's hard to know whether to call it a novel, a prose poem or a memoir - covers the months from December 1915, to the beginnings of the Battle of the Somme in July, 1916. Unlike many other war narratives, it doesn't follow the experiences of any set characters; rather the seven parts are a series of intense visual, auditory and felt impressions. There are descriptive paragraphs of the landscape as the soldiers march through the countryside, or a detailing of what shells falling really sounds like, sandwiched between the conversational slang of the soldiers and the abrupt interruptions of commands. While certain "characters" do pop up throughout - Private John Ball, Lance-Corporal Lewis, Corporal Quilter - there's no single story line; our narrator observes them all as they come into his view, along with the minute details and challenges of living in such close quarters in the trenches.

Jones acknowledges in his preface that his war companions were a mixture of Welsh and Londoners, and the intermixing of these two groups was a major theme in his work. He writes about his fascination:
to watch them, oneself a part of them, respond to the war landscape; for I think the day by day in the Waste Land, the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the imaginations of those who suffered it. It was a place of enchantment.
That last sentence is interesting. I'm always fascinated by the reading materials of people in extreme situations - the First World War soldiers took a lot of different books with them to pass the time, both commercial and literary. Lots of Shakespeare and poetry made their way to France. (And Jane Austen too if Rudyard Kipling is to be believed - I highly recommend his short story "The Janeites"). In Parenthesis is filled with references to Henry V, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and the Welsh Mabinogion. But don't worry if you're not familiar with those works - Jones has provided plenty of his own footnotes. What's clear is that he identifies and embues his experiences with a literary and mythological tradition which doesn't glorify the war, but seeks to understand and place the horror in a continuing historical and even magical tradition. Perhaps this is necessary in order to survive it. And the real beauty of this novel is its language, veering quite literally into poetic form at times (particularly when the battle begins), or rigorously energized by a rhythmical, colloquial, modernist prose. This excerpt about the rumours flying among the men prior to the Battle of the Somme, gives a good example of Jones' style:

this groom's brother Charlie what was a proper crawler and had some posh job back there reckoned he heard this torf he forgot his name came out of ther Gen'ral's and say as how it was going to be a first clarst bollocks and murthering of Christen men and reckoned how he'd throw in his mit an' be no party to this so-called frontal-attack never for no threat nor entreaty, for now, he says, blubbin' they reckon, is this noble fellowship wholly mischiefed.
This was a powerful and moving read and my favourite book so far in this challenge. Just a note on a mistake on our website - the book isn't translated by W.S. Merwin (it was originally written in English). Merwin contributes the foreword. There is also an introduction by T.S. Eliot reprinted from an earlier edition.

NYRB has published a number of classics dealing with war themes. I've read and can recommend The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (see my review here), and Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge (spies during WWII), and A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr (just a beautiful novel about healing after WWI).

Others include:
Apartment in Athens by Glenway Wescott (about a Greek couple sharing their apartment with a Nazi officer)
The Gallery by John Horne Burns (which takes a look at gay life in the military during occupied Naples in 1944)
The Singapore Grip by J.G Farrell (set during WWII and the invasion of the city by the Japanese)
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards (covers in part the German occupation of Guernsey)
Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte (WWII in Russia and Eastern Europe)

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