Fear: A Novel of World War I
One hundred years have passed since the start of World War I and it is difficult to believe that there are still novels, considered classics in their own countries, that have never been published in English. Perhaps it was the overwhelming number of novels in English in the years following the war that prevented their appearance. Just looking at the list of American authors, a country whose contribution was quite short, Wharton, Cather, Cummings, Faulkner, Dos Passos, and of course Hemingway with A Farewell to Arms, makes it obvious that it was a subject that once had to be written about. Still, that doesn’t explain why perhaps the most famous WWI novel is from Germany, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Maybe it was that a second even more devastating war eclipsed the first one, and pushed it into the background. It is a shame, because as Paul Fussell noted, World War I was a literary war and Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear: A Novel of World War I, ably translated by Malcolm Imrie, is a long overdue addition to that literature in English.
Gabriel Chevallier (1895-1969) was called up at the beginning of the war, wounded, and after convalescing returned to the front for the remainder of the war. Fear follows a similar trajectory: call up, wounding and hospitalization, and a return to the front. It follows a typical pattern of novels written by veterans and even echoes that of Remarque. The power that comes in front line narratives is not in the intricacies of plot, but in how they can evoke the experience of war. Chevallier is successful in his descriptions of the front lines, the constant shelling, the gruesome description of the dead, and one will come away with a sense of the terror and fear men faced. At times there is a monotony in this and it seems as if all there is to the book is moving from shell hole to shell hole. Yet it is that repetition without seeming purpose, a drama played out on an isolated stage where little context exists and the characters just survive one shelling after another, that is the real story.
What sets Chevallier’s work apart from other novels is his narrator, Jean Dartemont. He is a university student who is detached from the world and is not swept up by the crowds of patriotic enthusiasts. On reaching the medical examination he notes,
The war was already a few months old and I was beginning to fear that it might end before I got there. I saw war neither as a career nor an idea, but as a show—in the same category as a motor race, an air display or a sports match. I was full of natural curiosity and, since this war would be the most remarkable spectacle of the age—I would not want to miss it.
This sentiment makes Dartemont aloof, uninterested in military trappings. He is not even disappointed when can’t even make corporal. He is a lazy soldier who never learns how to use a hand grenade properly. He appears sarcastic and doesn’t trust the officers who seem to disappear at the first sign of shelling. His attitudes come from his observational distance, as if he is never quite in the war. At one point he comes across the bodies of two long dead Germans and investigates: “I spent some time in their company, turning them over with a stick, not out of hatred or disrespect but motivated rather by a kind of fraternal pity, as if asking them to deliver up the secret of their death.”
The narrative distance creates a curious phenomenon, especially the first section: there are few other developed characters other than Dartemont. Yes, there are plenty of people around him, but few have names and even fewer get more than a line of description. It’s as if in the first section he is so distant from it all he has no interest in even his companions. It is only when he is wounded by shell fire and spends some time in the hospital that the men around him take shape, gain names, and even converse about the state of the war. The hospital with its slow pace and constant reminders of the savage results of shell fire is when Dartemont loses some of his distance, as if he has now really become a soldier. It is also when he realizes the distance between the civilian and the soldier. He recounts to some young nurses he likes, “Would you like to know the chief occupation in war, the only one that matters: I WAS AFRAID.” They are horrified and run off, thinking he is a coward.
The distance you find in Dartemont makes for wry commentary set against the most extreme elements of the war. It is a refreshing narrative approach, because it limits the artificially clean exploration of the war that comes when trying to capture with dialog the shifting thoughts of soldiers. It also makes Dartemont quite capable of saying, “I understand now how slaves submit so easily, because they have no strength left for revolt, nor imagination to conceive it, nor energy to organize it. [. . .] I sometimes feel I’ve almost reached that state of utter subjection that comes from weariness and monotony, that animal passivity that accepts anything.” In the statement you find an intellectual analysis of the war, not one of emotions, or if they are there it’s not his attempt to render the sensation, but his description of it. This kind of analysis finds its clearest evocation towards the end of the book when he cross the battlefield and sees some ruins.
These particular ruins have their own pathos, and I imagine the destinies of the men who spent time here, many of them now dead. Along with pleasure comes pride in knowing secret places, which become my own domain, on this land that one army observes and another defends.
It is still a game to him. Perhaps it is because there is no other option but to take some sort of power over what he has so little power to control.
In the last part of the book Dartemont spends his time as a runner. It is a dangerous job, but one that keeps him out of attacks. It is a purposeful dodge that shows a cynical self-preservation that few detest. Again, it underlies the futility of the war and what it takes to preserve one’s life. The repetition of his journeys under shell fire and across the cratered landscape all the while finding in himself fear and apprehension create a sense of futility and pointlessness to the war. While Chevallier mentions the geographic areas where Dartemont is, some of them quite famous, Dartemont never engages in much action. Death and wastage are just around, a fact of life, and ultimately the third section which feels as if it is dragging, is actually a good representation of the daily disaster that was the war.
Ultimately, Fear feels more modern than some of its cohorts. While not as shocking as All Quiet on the Western Front, nor as dramatic as A Farwell to Arms, it has a humor and a cynicism that render the war’s indignities in all their mundane horror. Chevallier’s skill is to render the dark humor of phrases like, “Where we’ve been, you only salute the dead!”, against the cold analysis of a soldier in a pointless war. The conflict between the two makes Fear a welcome addition to a sometimes seeming well-trod literature.