This novel is one of those hidden gems that you trip across when browsing a store's bookshelves or, in my case, having looked on the exciting Serpents Tail Book Publishers website, and instantly know, after seeing the intriguing cover and read the blurb, that this is simply one of those books you must possess.
It is a remarkable book and in many ways. For a start, it is a story written at the time of the First World War but unlike so many published contemporaneously pulls no punches. The language, featuring as it does working class men at war risking life and limb, is crude and often foul. The words fuck and cunt, not the sort of words heard from Grandparents, appear at times during conversations. Never gratuitously but in keeping with the content and the conversations being held.
This use of the profane will neither shock or cause the least outrage now, contemporary times are immune to such things, desensitized perhaps following the verbal onslaught of a reactionary generation bemused by such Victorian principles which had sex confined to a missionary position and oral sex being something one never spoke of let alone enacted in a loving way. The same was true of perceived bad language. A shroud of subterfuge, of denial was thrown over polite society wich denied such language, apart for the common man, ignorant and vulgar, was ever used. Frederic Manning's book blows that misrepresentation clear out of the water and at the time sent shock waves of horror among the genteel literary circle.
Bourne is a private. Unlike his fellows, he is not working class. He is liked but always as a comrade rather than a bosom pal. He is slightly aloof. Always friendly to all but distant somehow as though observing all he encounters as much as participating. He is kind enough but with that detached manner he has. Brave and not cowardly but very aware of the failings of both the higher ups but also his fellow foot soldiers. His intelligence is obvious and he is offered a commission which he initially refuses. His desire is to fight with those whom he has befriended but the military hierarchy recognises his talents and insists he takes a promotion. Bourne agrees but asks that they, the top brass, allow him to take part in the next push - the Battle of the Somme.
The language is a near perfect as you could want; languid at times but never lethargic. It is rather hypnotic in the way a fire or pool are when you gaze upon them. You are soon captivated by this haunting, sometimes harrowing tale that has not dated since its publication in 1929.
Manning, the author, never strays into sentimentality. People die, bodies are seen headless, limbless, scattered like meat by the muddy roadside, corpses rotting stepped upon. Nor does he glamorise or worse still fall into the oft-repeated trap of portraying this war, the war to end all wars as being any worse than any other. In some respects, it is almost a memoir or reportage. When the eventual call to 'go over the top' comes' the pace picks up; the tension and fear palpable; the shells that explode about the attacking army leap off the page. No wonder Ezra Pound. Ernest Hemmingway and T.E. Lawrence rated it so highly. The end left me weeping. This is a magnificent read and one I shall return to.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.