I’m finally reading The Middle Parts of Fortune, by Frederic Manning. It’s a war book, a classic of its kind – Hemingway called it the best book to come out of WW1. I’ve been aware of the book for many years, and intending to read it for all that time, but something would always put me off. A recent re-release going cheap had me finally pick it up.
Manning was an expat Aussie living in England when the war broke out. He was an intellectual, a writer, and something of an aesthete. He joined up a local British unit and served out the war on the western front.
I’m about halfway through the book, but already it seems to me one of the very best books I’ve read set in the first war. In a way it’s more of a character study. The protagonist, Bourne, is a singular character, self-sufficient, capable, a bit more of what they called a gentleman back in the day. It’s a complex portrayal of an interesting man, and I presume autobiographical. The other characters are finally drawn and distinctive, and more to the point, ring absolutely true.
It seems to me a more complete story than most I’ve read. Perhaps I’m pushing that a tad – so far most of the action has been behind the lines. I may form a different impression when the action becomes more violent – though I have read very fine excerpts of those scenes previously.
I’m trying to separate in my mind what I mean precisely by most complete. I think for a start most, but not all war novels, concentrate on the battle scenes, whereas in reality a soldier is much more often doing nothing quite tediously than he is in battle. That is representative of a philosophical perspective. We look back upon the Great War from a historical perspective, a horrible event done in 4 years. As bad as it was it is in the context of history and aberrant event. And that’s how we read these things.
Quite naturally being in the war gives a much different perspective. The war is everything and everywhere, and when it ends and how is unknown. It’s not an aberrant event when you’re in the middle of it, but normal life itself.
It seems to me that Manning approaches his characters with that in mind. The battles, the exercises, the carousing in the estaminets and the resting in their billets, as all part of the same cloth. A man may be, in our eyes, in an extreme situation, but the thoughts and desires and all the rest of it continue for them as they do for us. It’s not all sturm und drang, but as articulated in the character of Bourne, the same feelings, the same questions flow through him as we know ourselves.
I may change my mind by the time I come to the end of the book, but so far it’s just about the best book on WW1 that I’ve read. There seem to me only two books that rival it, but in different ways.
All Quiet on the Western Front is the most famous book to come out of the war. It epitomises some of the horror of war, the pity and callous brutality. It’s finely written – Remarque was a very good writer – and of all these books it best expresses the pathos of war.
Under Fire by Henri Barbusse is another classic. I believe it was written while he was still in the line. This is very much in the trenches, and captures the grime and misery of trench life and the coarse, fatalistic humour of men who expected to die any day. It’s the angriest of these books, angry at the conduct of the war and those who conduct, and angry at the brutish futility of it.
If I were to add one more book it is Storm of Steel, by Ernst Junger. This is another famous book, but unlike the others is a memoir of a pretty fierce seeming warrior who found meaning and purpose in battle. He doesn’t shy away from the horrors, but seems to accept it as the inevitable cost of waging war.