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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

M.K. Joseph's War Novel

page 80

M.K. Joseph's War Novel

This essay was first published in Image, August 1960, as a review of M.K. Joseph's I'll Soldier No More (Victor Gollancz and Paul's Book Arcade 1958).

It is not easy to comment on a colleague's work, or on a novel whose events are so easy to forget as Mr Joseph's; it is, however, an advantage to know that by now, so long after publication, most readers of Image will be familiar with the novel.

It does not seem to me that Mr Joseph's main intention was to make a meaningful story out of the lives and relations of a few people. The impulse behind the book is something different.

The novel begins, with the precedent of Wuthering Heights, late in the action, in fact, on the point of the climax of the novel, the suicide of Johnny Clarke. The rest is a long flashback of all the events of almost six years before. But, unlike Wuthering Heights, the novel stops when it catches up with the climax: the wheel has come full circle, a cycle is over, everything is explained—and this reflects something of Mr Joseph's philosophy. The trouble is that the novel falls apart into two components—the climax, consisting of the Prologue and the last chapter, covering a few winter months and 27 pages, and the flash-back, covering five years of war and eight months of occupation and 234 pages. The climax is dramatically told and interesting, and might have made an impressive short story: the flashback is almost without drama or momentum and is sometimes very tedious. Most of it is only indirectly relevant to Clarke's suicide, and Mr Joseph's purpose is clearly not restricted to explaining that. His subject matter is the day-to-day experience of the common gunner; and the impulse behind the work is, I think, Mr Joseph's desire to recollect and digest his own war experience. The bulk of this book is a war diary.

What fascinates Mr Joseph is what he re-creates admirably, the change in atmosphere and climate of those years in England and Normandy and Germany, from the chaotic muddle of the summer of 1940 through the steady recuperation and preparation for invasion, the cohesion of an page 81 artillery unit working with a clear purpose, to the disintegration of the unit during the occupation of Germany, where every man pursues his own pleasures and interests. It is this that is the real theme of the novel and the source of what unity the book might have had.

So it is a pity that Mr Joseph distributes this experience over three characters who are in different camps till they come together in the same unit. The distribution is not only pointless, it prevents him from making the unit the real hero of the novel, and it reduces the flashback at times to a series of log entries of the weather, what they ate, what they said, how they slept, a record of operations and postings and promotions and changes of command; but more important, it prevents the development of what is the main source of interest and momentum in a novel, the relationships between people. It may well be that in an army the men's most important relationships belong to letters and furloughs, and the relationships with their comrades may be limited to what efficiency requires. But a novel on such terms is denied momentum; and it is notable that the most interesting parts of this novel are those parts where relationships are allowed to form: where Clarke visits his wife and her lover, where Gillies falls in love, where Nancy rejects him out of loyalty to her wounded former lover, where Gillies gets involved with black-marketeers, where Clarke finds a frat, and the brief close-ups of liberated civilians in France and Belgium and Germany. It is only in these parts that conflicts and moral decisions are allowed to develop and one is concerned to know how events will work out. The rest is rather a record of suspended animation.

Even the three characters are barely individualised. The writer of the dust-jacket does not make Clarke any more trite than his creator does when he calls him 'the worrier who cracks'. Here and there Mr Joseph makes a perfunctory attempt at interior monologue, but within a few sentences he is back to the detached, third-person, invisible witness's reportage which is the staple style of the novel. It is in its way an admirable style, controlled, evocative, faintly nostalgic and with an undertone of pity. But it is not narrative: there is no impetus from one sentence to the next.

Yet in these three characters, so far as they are developed, Mr Joseph has sought to make a statement about humanity in general. War, as Peter Bonham says, 'does test people. It shakes them loose from their habits, I mean—shows what's inside.' And what is inside these three is meant to be representative of types of attitudes to the eternal. Apparently the contrast is between Clarke and Bonham: Clarke is afraid, conscious of his own inadequacy and incompetence, disheartened by the defection of his wife and the death of his mother; Bonham is more fortunate, but only by the grace of God, in whose will, as he says, is his peace. Bonham passes the test because he has a faith to steer by. Either as a concession to evidence, or drawing on the theological concept of 'natural man', Mr Joseph creates a third man, Harry Gillies the New Zealander, with whom he is less in sympathy than with Clarke or Bonham. Gillies too gets by because, though page 82 he has no religious belief, he has pagan self-confidence and courage. It is really a choice of amulets, and poor Clarke has none.

Yet it is Bonham's amulet that proves superior. It is Bonham who intervenes like the grace of God when Gillies has almost landed himself into a court-martial for supplying a black-marketeer. It is Bonham's outlook that dominates the book, and Bonham's trite and pithy comments that underline the author's and point the morals; and it is with the entry of Bonham at page 139 that tedium descends like a North European winter sky. Harry Gillies has a point when he is irritated by Bonham's 'schoolmaster's voice, the pipe, the family photograph by the bedside—yes, and the iron bedstead itself, where Bonham tucks himself comfortably in for eight hours a night, while people with a bit more devil in them are out on the tiles.' In spite of such touches as this, Mr Joseph indulges in special pleading for him, because Gillies comes to recognize Bonham's solidity. In fact Bonham gets by not so much by his amulet as by his unadventurous-ness, his gentle refusal to offer any resistance to circumstances, his habit of accommodating himself to every new billet by tucking himself into a routine of work, reading, writing a note-book, letters, devotions and early nights. The philosophy of the novel then is not so much a vindication of faith over pagan self-confidence as a vindication of caution as preferable to taking risks. But Clarke only failed because Clarke is Bonham with the wraps off.

Though this philosophy is not integrated with the war diary, it is nevertheless supported by the events. There is further philosophy that is only declared but never demonstrated: it is stated at the end of the Prologue:

'For every day renews the perpetual Crucifixion, until the end of time.

And every day the world comes to an end.'

It is the pretentiousness that I object to. The novel does not support the statement. Bonham suffers no more than a few inconveniences and interruptions to his routine, Gillies runs close to thin ice, Clarke worries and shoots himself, but none of them can be said to have been crucified. If the perpetual Crucifixion is the war itself, then something more would have to be shown of the sufferings of the enemy and civilians than is shown. Mr Joseph has let himself be carried away by the attraction of rhetoric. There are two passages where this is evident, at the end of the Prologue and at the end of Chapter 7. The first is an apostrophe which envisages history moving backwards in order to set the stage for a repeat performance of the war, and it owes its conception to the process by which films can be run backwards. The second is sprung from aerial moving photography and does a quick spaceman's round of the globe touching down or hovering at points of a suffering world, especially where Mass is being said, and culminating in Christmas dawn in Salisbury. Its conception would seem page 83 to be derived from a documentary film showing in England in 1949, Five Days to Sydney, made for B.O.A.C. or B.E.A., I forget which, consisting of vignettes of life of the common people beneath the air-route and ending with a priest raising the Host at Christmas Midnight Mass in Sydney. What is most to be objected to is that in these passages Mr Joseph steps outside (or above) the novel and so diminishes the importance of the events in it. Traditionally, the novel has restricted itself to human problems resolved entirely according to the decisions of the characters who are involved in them and the consequences of those decisions. Its form precludes the intervention of God or a super-human conspectus of life, or any coasting above it all, seeing things as God might.

There is another occasion where Mr Joseph attempts to reproduce an effect derived from another work of art. His practice is not, like Hopkins's, to admire and do otherwise.

'The rain was falling softly, all over Germany perhaps, on the just and the unjust, on the roof above; on Hardcastle and Barnett; on the sleepy farms untouched by war, and on the shattered towns and cities; on the mortal remains of Hitler and Himmler, and on the white crosses by the Rhine . . .

He floated in and out of the cold black night, disembodied. Darkly it fringed his consciousness.'

(pp. 9-10)

'Softly, insistently, the rain went on, all over Germany.'

(p. 268)

In tone, rhythm, mood and partly in substance these passages echo the ending of Joyce's story The Dead:

'A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamp-light. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.'

Mr Joseph handles the style sensitively, and the suggestion of infinite sadness is gently insistent. Yet the purpose of this passage would seem to be only to cover up the lack of inevitability of Clarke's suicide, to create page 84 the conditions aesthetically appropriate for such an act. Far from being the logical way out of his dilemma, Clarke's suicide is no more than a gesture in keeping with the weather. One feels that the desire to reconstruct the feel of a German winter and the condition of Germany in 1946 was, at this point, more important to the author than the suicide itself.

In the light of the declaration of the title (which, I think, means no more than that the author is out of the age-group liable for service) Mr Joseph has sifted the experience of six years, faithfully, even lovingly, recorded with an accuracy of detail and a technical knowledge that can only have been transmitted by a clear memory or an actual diary. If he had written a straight war-diary, it would have been an interesting memoir (though perhaps more difficult to publish) and might have had a clearer coherence. But this would have denied him the opportunity to philosophize imaginatively on the testing effect of war. If he had developed this aspect more, he would have had to dispense with some of the diary. And then there is the unsuccessful attempt to see the whole in the light of eternity. The book is a product of mixed intentions. For all that, it is worth reading for the many fine things it contains, and it is written by a man with a feeling for language.