27 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Paul Doyle on Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear: A Novel on World War I, translated by Malcolm Imrie, and published by New York Review Books.

Here’s the beginning of Paul’s review:

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.

For the rest of the review, go here.

27 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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.

10 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Paul Doyle on Daniel Anselme’s On Leave, translated by David Bellos, from Faber & Faber.

Here’s the beginning of Paul’s review:

In 1957, Daniel Anselme published On Leave, a novel about three soldiers on leave from the Algerian War. At that point during the war, only two of its eight years had passed and the full savagery and politically instability that would mark latter years of the conflict had yet to occur. Yet despite the national trauma of the intervening years, On Leave, as translator David Bellos notes in his introduction, is one of the rare literary responses to the war. It is even more remarkable given it received little notice when it was first published, and was then soon forgotten. It now makes its first appearance in English.

The story is simple: three soldiers, comrades and friends, go on leave to Paris for the Christmas holidays. They are friends only because they serve together. The sergeant, Lachaume, is an English teacher with middle-class ambitions. The corporal, Lasteyrie, is a single man more interested in women than anything else. And the infantryman Valette, is a kid Lachaume looks out for. As they try to get some sleep on the ride into Paris, Anselme wastes no time in showing how difficult it is going to be to interact with the civilian world. A World War I veteran finds the men and begins to lecture them on how great a nation France was, especially before World War II, blaming the loss of the colonies on the Americans and the Soviets. The speech is a paean to a past that never was, when French soldiers were at their best. The irony here is the French lost so many soldiers in World War I that, in the last year of the war, the soldiers went mutinying. It’s a comical speech, too, as the old man admits the French have their flaws.

For the rest of the review and some Friday morning reading, click here.

10 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In 1957, Daniel Anselme published On Leave, a novel about three soldiers on leave from the Algerian War. At that point during the war, only two of its eight years had passed and the full savagery and politically instability that would mark latter years of the conflict had yet to occur. Yet despite the national trauma of the intervening years, On Leave, as translator David Bellos notes in his introduction, is one of the rare literary responses to the war. It is even more remarkable given it received little notice when it was first published, and was then soon forgotten. It now makes its first appearance in English.

The story is simple: three soldiers, comrades and friends, go on leave to Paris for the Christmas holidays. They are friends only because they serve together. The sergeant, Lachaume, is an English teacher with middle-class ambitions. The corporal, Lasteyrie, is a single man more interested in women than anything else. And the infantryman Valette, is a kid Lachaume looks out for. As they try to get some sleep on the ride into Paris, Anselme wastes no time in showing how difficult it is going to be to interact with the civilian world. A World War I veteran finds the men and begins to lecture them on how great a nation France was, especially before World War II, blaming the loss of the colonies on the Americans and the Soviets. The speech is a paean to a past that never was, when French soldiers were at their best. The irony here is the French lost so many soldiers in World War I that, in the last year of the war, the soldiers went mutinying. It’s a comical speech, too, as the old man admits the French have their flaws.

We grumble like hell, nothing is ever good enough for us. But it isn’t true that we’re lazy. We just work faster than other people, and as we’re not the ambitious kind, we take it easy the rest of the time.

None of the men are interested in what he has to say and ignore him for the whole of the journey.

Lachaume, who is the axis of the book, leaves the men, only to find his wife has left him. During his absence she had come to the realization that she did not love him. He waits in her apartment for a few hours hoping he will see her. But it is hopeless, and he ventures out into a Paris that he has little connection to anymore. He meets Thévenin, an old friend and doctor, who is uninterested in hearing about the war. He is more interested in Lachaume’s pending divorce or in complaining how the government’s plan to set doctor’s fees will destroy the French health system. Lachaume sees his friend for what he is:

But the idea that a misfortune of that kind could affect himself in the slightest particular didn’t even cross Thévenin’s mind. The Algerian War was reserved for the under-thirty-twos, just as silicosis was for miners. Thévenin was in no danger in either respect.

The uncomfortable nuisance of the war is used throughout On Leave to show a France that has grown corrupt. Anselme has a large vision of the problems facing France and in his characteristic biting humor pokes fun at the growing consumer culture. He describes the meal Thévenin and Lachaume share:
bq. What he now had beneath his nose was a large wooden platter bearing twenty small pots, each containing a different variety of salted, marinated, or pickled fish, labeled as if they were on display in the Trocadéro aquarium. The Market Greens, on the other hand, consisted of a plate of raw vegetables served unpeeled, so as to give them an authentic touch

Unfortunately, this kind of humor is sparser than it should be. Anselme, though given to humor, is also a communist and he can’t help, despite his relative honesty, showing that idealized French workers are, if not a solution, then at least a way forward. Lachaume goes to Valette’s home for dinner. Valette lives in a predominantly communist working class neighborhood nicknamed the “Little USSR.” The awkwardness here is not one of soldier and civilian, but of Lachaume’s middle-class manners and the working-class realities of Valette’s family. They are welcoming, anything but crude, and serve as an example of an ideal France, especially when the grandmother servers a dinner of French home cooking that everyone loves. Yet Lachaume can’t help but feel uncomfortable. When they were in Algeria the two men were friends, but among family the friendship they have seems distant. There is a subtle poignancy to the relationship that wants to bubble out from his writing.

Instead, the night and the story go wrong with the appearance of Luc Giraud, the neighborhood’s communist party representative. He has a great speaking voice and long ponderous explanations for why the workers are wining against the capitalists. It seems comical at first, but in one of the more unbelievable moments, Lachaume finds his way of speaking comforting, as if he agrees with Giraud. Giraud is no Thévenin and Anselme is at pains to show how important the man is. Still, Anselme is a brave enough author, despite his political sympathies: when the conversation turns to the war, Giraud’s only suggestion is that Lachaume take a petition with him and get some signatures. On hearing this, Valette explodes and goes against the party line, asking how that is going to help 500,000 soldiers who are losing their youth. Giraud has no answer and sulks away. The failure is not the want of conviction, but of action. He is, tellingly, the only civilian who proposes some sort of action to end the war. He is misguided and does not understand the soldiers—few do—but he wants to do something.

The rest of the book follows the men as they wander around Paris looking for something to do before they have to go back to the base. They don’t find much, as if leave were little better than the war itself. Anything short of the war’s end will always keep the men as outcasts. Everything Anselme sees as being wrong with France is summed up by Lachaume in one sentence:

“At the end of the day,” Lachaume said, “the only problem we have to solve is to decide which car we’re going to buy when we come back.”

Despite Bellos’s fine translation, Anselme’s style can occasionally be tedious, which is unfortunate because there are some excellent passages in this otherwise interesting book. Anselme uses a conventional realism to describe events and it fails him when he tries to dramatize some of the joviality the soldiers share together. The other issue that might leave a reader feeling as if Anselme did not fully grasp the complexity of the war is the publication date. Since the book was written during the early part of the war, the events that mark the chaotic period, the fall of the fourth republic, the attempted coup against De Galle, the rise of the paramilitary OAS with its campaign of terror against Algerians, had not yet taken place, so the book seems to have voids in it. Also, because Anselme had only served in the resistance during World War II, it could be argued he doesn’t have much firsthand knowledge of the war. So what comes from the book is more a question of where France is going, instead of what ultimately happened. However, given the paucity of works on the war this is a welcome translation of a lost work.

17 March 09 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Over at The Quarterly Conversation, Paul Doyle reviews Vilnius Poker.

Ričardas Gavelis wrote to intimidate and attack, and his novel Vilnius Poker, seldom subtle in its language, demands attention. It is a masterwork of bitterness and sarcasm, one that descends into the self-destructive impulses of those who, though they physically survived the privations inherent to Soviet Russia, were nonetheless emotionally traumatized. Part national rant, part passage into madness, Vilnius Poker is more than a product of the Cold War. It is a condemnation of everything Gavelis thought was wrong with Lithuania, and this first English translation, published twenty years after Poker was originally written, feels fresh.

....
Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

Read More >

I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

Read More >

Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

Read More >

The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

Read More >

Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

Read More >

Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

Read More >

Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Will Eells

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .

Read More >