Thursday, May 13, 2010

Looming Ahead and Receding Behind

When I finished reading AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book I felt the need to read something short that I could finish quickly.  So I picked up J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country which had been in my pile for a number of months.  I had never read it, although I had a vague recollection of seeing a dramatization of it on Masterpiece Theatre long ago, starring Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth.  But all I really remembered about the story was that it involved a church in the English countryside.

I had completely forgotten that the principal character and narrator, Tom Birkin, had recently returned from The Great War.  Tom was an artist (actually a restorer of medieval paintings) whose wife had left him during or immediately after the War. He took this job in the country restoring a wall mural in a church not only for the money but in the hope that the quiet of the countryside would help him get his life back together again, including his nerves.  Tom suffers from a facial tic brought on by the stress of the War.  How serendipitous, I thought,  to pick up this particular novel immediately after reading The Children’s Book, which ended with World War I.

The Children’s Book is not a novel about World War I, although the war occurs.  It is a novel about people going about their lives when, suddenly (or so it seems to them), a war occurs.  And yet the War is not foreshadowed in the novel by the author; any foreshadowing occurs simply because an educated reader knows that the War will occur.  So when political events of the day are discussed by characters, especially violent political events, the reader knows that eventually one violent event will precipitate mass carnage on a scale unimaginable to these characters.  But the characters themselves are simply discussing them as part of their life.  Byatt does a very good job of intertwining discussions of violence with every day life – exactly the way, for instance, in the 1990’s Americans might have discussed the bombing of the Cole as they were eating a hotdog at the ballpark. 

I’'ll give you an example.  In one scene a number of the characters are having dinner in Paris where they have gone to see the Grande Exposition Universelle de Paris.  It is the turn of the century, Victoria is still Queen of England.  Charles/Karl Wellwood, a teenage boy, has been giving thought to the great issues of the day and has been introduced by his German tutor to a group of Anarchists.  At the fair, Charles and his tutor have broken away and met Emma Goldman and seen presentations on the plight of poor women.  Now it is dinnertime:

He dined with the Cains, Tom, Fludd and Philip. Everyone talked of what they had seen at the fair. Charles did not mention Emma Goldman, and did not discuss streetwalkers.  Cain said he supposed it was encouraging that people at war with each other – the Germans and the Chinese, for instance – could coexist in this imaginary city.  Benedict Fludd, who seemed alternately excitable and grumpy, said perhaps Cain had not seen the papers?  An anarchist had stepped out of a crowd with a revolver and shot point-blank at the King of Italy.  They missed him three years ago with a knife, said Fludd. This time they got him.  He’s dead.  What do they hope to achieve?

     “Chaos,” said Prosper Cain.  “they are mad.” Karl kept his polite public-school face at this moment also.  He was in a moral knot that he was beginning to recognize.  Belonging to something, believing in an idea, meant perhaps conceding assent to things that were, outside the belief, ludicrous or horrid. He had tried being Christian, and had tried to force himself to believe in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection.  He found the anarchists compelling and arousing. but he could not – he could not – accept that a symbolic killing of this or that muddle-headed, insulated old monarch would really advance freedom or justice.  And then he tried to see it from the anarchists’ point of view.  He formulated an idea:  they are more sane, and madder, than other people. They have a better idea of human nature; which is perhaps only an idea. But they are serious and real, and this hotel is not, and this souffle is all airy nothing, and the women in evening gowns at the next table are bought and sold.

     It was, however, a delicious souffle, elegantly put together with Seville orange and Grand Marnier.  It lingered on the tongue like a blessing.

I loved that passage. The casualness with which the assassination is dropped into the conversation.   They had been talking about the fair for, evidently, some time before Fludd forced the negative event into the conversation.  I love how Byatt switches between Charles and Karl showing, I think, not just the difference between the polite, well behaved outer self of Charles and the deeply conflicted anarchical Karl within him, but also the fact that he is a boy on the cusp of being a man but not yet there yet.  As Charles he doesn’t feel comfortable telling his elders he met Emma Goldman and discussed streetwalkers.  But as Karl he is having the thoughts a man might have about ideology.  And, finally, after all this deep thought by Karl, the last line.  Does it represent the thoughts of Charles/Karl as he tastes the souffle?  Or is it an editorial comment by the author? 

A few years later, Charles/Karl goes to Germany with his sister Griselda and his cousin Dorothy.  Here, again, he tries to think through the necessity of violence to achieve political ends.  In Germany these things can be discussed, unlike in England:

It was a long way from the polite lucubrations of the Fabians and even further from the horse-racing, shooting-party circles of the New King, at the edge of which Charles’ father moved – thanks to his German mother’s fortune.  Charles was quite intelligent enough to see that he was able to be an anarchist because he was rich. The Munich cafe thinkers were aesthetically excited by peasant manifestations of energy – the charivari, the Bauern-tanz, the Karneval.  Karneval and misrule went together, and were glorious.  Joachim Susskind mostly listened.  Wolfgang said little, though, like his father, he sketched incessantly, beards wagging in passionate dissertation, women’s legs visible under their skirts as they leaned back, applauding.  Leon joined in.  He discussed the necessity of assassination, almost primly. Karl said he did not see that it was necessary – such detached Acts as there had been – anarchists had killed the President of France, the Prime Minister of Spain, the Empress Elizabeth and the king of Italy – had only led to more repression.  There speaks an Englishman, said Leon, not unfriendly.  You don’t recognise oppression as we do.  You cannot be put in prison for Unzuchtigkeit - “obscenity” Joachim translated – or for lese-majeste as our artists regularly are.

And yet, these moments in the novel are not necessarily foreshadowing the war because so much else is going on.  So the War, when it arrives in the novel, simply arrives. Just as it did in real life.  And the characters don’t seem too concerned.  Just as people in real life thought it would be over by Christmas.  And it changes the lives of every character in the novel.  Just as it changed the lives of the real people who lived through it.

In an interview, Byatt described her thought process in writing about the War:

And the other thing I discovered which I should have always known, was that they didn’t know the war was coming . I discovered that I could write a society that rushed into a war it had no way of imagining. I’d read so much First World War literature and so much scholarly literature about the war – my favourite is the reminiscences of Edmund Blunden (Undertones of War) I kept reading and re-reading him. And I kept reading Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That). And what I didn’t do was re-read Paul Fussell’s wonderful book, The Great War and Modern Memory. I noticed that a lot of novelists had used the metaphors that he had picked out of all the war poetry – the skylarks and so forth. I very carefully didn’t put a skylark in the novel. I combed and combed for things that nobody had put in. For instance, I had never seen in a novel the fact that they had all these standing up, two –dimensional puppets at Passchendaele which they pulled on strings to get the Germans to fire on them, and betray their own whereabouts, and that gave me intense constructional pleasure. Fussell’s book is a wonderful book but when you’ve read the third or fourth novel which has used exactly the same image . .

Later she says:

I have the great fortune of having a husband who is somewhat obsessed with World War One and military history in general, and so he has a huge library, and as fast as I read one book, he lent me another and I also re-read everybody’s reminiscences and memoirs. And I kept coming back to Blunden, but I read Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon and Edith Wharton and memoirs of doctors and nurses.
I had the option when I started the book, of either finishing it in 1913 but then everyone would forever have wondered which of them died and I decided I couldn’t do that for that reason – it would drive readers crazy in a way they wouldn’t enjoy. So having planned this very long novel about children, I now had to write the first world war novel in a short space.

The War doesn’t take up much space in this novel.  Unlike the real War, Byatt’s war is very efficient. She tells us only the parts we need to know.  Because I knew my history and knew what bloody carnage the War was, I began to suspect that many of the characters I had grown to love were not going to make it.  I didn’t worry only about the boys, but also about the girls because they went over as nurses and, in Dorothy’s case, as a doctor.  I found myself adopting a very fatalistic attitude about it and began to assume that all the boys would die.  And possibly some of the girls.  (And since one of the families we have gotten to know is the German Stern family with two boys I included them in my fatalism.)

I don’t want to give too much away but not all of them die.  And the one thing that Byatt avoids is describing life After the War.  She allows those whose loved ones return to be happy and thankful and then she ends the novel.  But in real life the boys who returned as men from World War I were gravely changed.  (Anybody who really wants to understand the British and French reaction to Germany leading up to World War II must understand just how much they lost in World War I). 

That is why A Month in the Country was a serendipitous choice.  Tom Birkin has survived the War but it still haunts him and has changed his life.   He is, he says, a casualty of the War.

The marvelous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head but uncovering their wall-painting for them. And, afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the War and the rows with Vinny had done to me and begin where I’d left off.  This is what I need, I though – a new start, and afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.

Tom’s healing process is slow and he seems to uncover his true self as he uncovers the painting in the church.  He admits that the War gave him a new perspective on time:

We went in and we came out.  That’s good enough for me. We’re here on borrowed time, and I’ll take what’s to come as it comes.

When he finally begins to heal is after he visits a local family who lost a son in the War.  Leaving their house he says:

I suddenly yelled, “Oh you bastards!  You awful bloody bastards!  You didn’t need to have started it.  And you could have stopped it before you did.  God!  Ha! There is no God. “

A Month in the Country is a novel of hope because Tom Birkin survived and manages to regain a sense of normalcy.  He goes on with his life.  But life was not so kind to many others who did not survive the War, or survived to be killed in the influenza epidemic or who were never really “right” again.

In Byatt’s novel one of the characters, Hedda Wellwood, becomes a suffragette.  After I finished the novel I found myself humming the suffragette song from Mary Poppins.  The one that Mrs. Banks sings.  And suddenly I realized that little Michael Banks might very well have died in World War I or come out of it scarred for life either in body or mind or both.   If he had been a real person.