Monday, 12 January 2009

We will remember them

The Missing Of The Somme by Geoff Dyer

Following on from Sebastian Barry's superb A Long Long Way, my Great War education continues with the equally superb The Missing Of The Somme by Geoff Dyer. Anyone who has read anything by Dyer before will know that his books don't easily fall into any particular category. Combining elements of travel writing, literary criticism, art appreciation and cultural commentary he isn't so much a jack of all trades as a polymath, capable of using his wider knowledge to show things in a fresh light. In this book he set out

'...to write a book that was not about 'the War itself but the effect of the idea of [the War] on my generation'. Not a novel but an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance.'

When first writing my thoughts on Barry's novel I attempted to articulate the sense of familiarity one has with the Great War. We know what we're going to get when we read a novel, play or even poem from that period. In fact, enough time has passed now for that familiarity to develop into something else. Or as Dyer more eloquently puts it.

'The problem with many recent novels about the war is that they almost inevitably bear the imprint of the material from which they are derived, can never conceal the research on which they depend for their historical and imaginative accuracy. We have...entered the stage of second-order pastiche:pastiche of pastiche.'

I think that's where my sense of familiarity comes from and Dyer is able to find a new perspective not just on the modes of artistic expression of our remembrance but even on the artists behind it. For many people the artistic experience of the war comes through the poetry of Owen and Sasson and their pervasive influence is shown clearly in this book. But what Dyer also highlights is a slightly more surprising view of these two spokesmen for the war and its horrors.

'We have become so accustomed to thinking of the slaughter of war that we forget that the slaughtered were themselves would be slaughterers. Owen personally "inflicted considerable losses on the enemy" when he captured a machine gun and Graves recalls that he "had never seen such a fire-eater as [Sasson]- the number of Germans whom I killed or caused to be killed could hardly be compared with his wholesale slaughter."'

This hardly chimes with our picture of the soldier-poets, or not with mine anyway, and this is typical of Dyer, puncturing the received picture of things. The very idea of remembrance is turned on its head when he points out that those famous words repeated each year on Remembrance Day:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

that seem 'not to have been written but to have pulsed into life in the nation's collective memory' were actually written in 1914 before the fallen actually fell. Making it a work 'not of remembrance but of the anticipation of remembrance.' With such a long running war this theme returns again and again from the front, the command that we must never forget even whilst the slaughter continues around them.

A large part of the book is taken up by his appraisal of the various monuments of remembrance both here and on the continent. He is brilliant not only at decoding the signals and meaning contained within these sculptures but also at finding the evocative description that can help us, the reader, to see and feel them almost as tangibly as he can. He also does this with the various photographs which pepper the text. One monument communicates in bronze and stone the heaviness of the soldier's life.

'Every piece of equipment looks like it weighs a ton...Things were made of iron and wood, even cloth looks like it has been woven from iron filings.'

From here Dyer develops his theme pointing out that the future is always getting lighter, hence the weight of the past. In another photograph, a panorama of the aftermath at Paschendaele by the Canadian William Rider-Rider, Dyer uses the language of the art historian to explain its effectiveness before allowing his own skills as a writer to find the perfect finish to this image of desolation.

'Instead of receding into the distance these trees disappear beyond the edges of the frame. There is no perspective. The vanishing point is no longer a more or less exact point, but all around. A new kind of infinity: more of the same in every direction, an infinity of waste. The sky lies in tatters in the mud.'

It is a testament to this short book that my review is made up in large part of quotations from it, and there are still plenty of other markers in my copy; images and observations that would be worthy of a mention here. In examining how we remember Dyer finds many genuinely enlightening ways to remind us exactly why we must.


John Self 12 January 2009 at 11:47  

Great to see you reviewing this book, William. I think it's probably Dyer's best, even though it's almost entirely free of the humour which is such a valuable part of his other books. Like you, I found that the best way to praise it was just to quote great swathes of it.

I was just writing my review of his new novel Jeff in Venice last week, so with this and Kevin's review of Paris Trance, it feels to me like the blogosphere is suffering from verbal Dyerhoea at the moment...

William Rycroft 12 January 2009 at 18:41  


If you ever fancy a change of career John, there are theatres all over the country crying out for puns like that at panto time.

I realise you are paying tribute to Mr Dyer's own penchant for a pun.

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