Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 18 June 2014

Among the many contributions made by publishers to the commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War is a small book by Edith Wharton called Fighting France, published by Hesperus Press, an independent publishing house specialising in neglected and out-of-print classics. The introduction by Colm Tóibín tells us that the French Red Cross had asked Wharton, a famous American writer living in Paris, to report on the needs of military hospitals near the front. She obliged with a series of articles that appeared first in an American magazine and then, in 1915, as a book.

Edith Wharton is a very good writer. The quality of her prose in this book is up to her usual high standard. The first paragraph, like many others, is an object lesson in good writing and worth quoting in full.

On 30th July, 1914, motoring north from Poitiers, we had lunched somewhere by the roadside under apple trees on the edge of a field. Other fields stretched away on our right and left to a border of woodland and a village steeple. All around was noonday quiet, and the sober disciplined landscape which the traveller’s memory is apt to evoke as distinctively French. Sometimes, even to accustomed eyes, these ruled-off fields and compact grey villages seem merely flat and tame; at other moments the sensitive imagination sees in every thrifty sod and even furrow the ceaseless vigilant attachment of generations faithful to the soil. The particular bit of landscape before us spoke in all its lines of that attachment. The air seemed full of the long murmur of human effort, the rhythm of oft-repeated tasks, the serenity of the scene smiled away the war rumours which had hung on us since morning.

Back in Paris, she captures the change of mood from day to day, week to week, month to month, as the war progresses. She had lived in Paris as a child, returned regularly throughout her life and now lived there, as celebrated for her novels in France as she was in America and in a way that she found more congenial. It is not surprising that her descriptions of Paris are among the most memorable passages in the book.

But there is another army in Paris. Its first detachments came months ago, in the dark September days – lamentable rearguard of the Allies’ retreat on Paris. Since then its numbers have grown and grown, its dingy streams have percolated through all the currents of Paris life, so that wherever one goes, in every quarter and at every hour, among the busy confident strongly stepping Parisians one sees these other people, dazed and slowly moving – men and women with sordid bundles on their backs, shuffling along hesitatingly in their tattered shoes, children dragging at their hands and tired-out babies pressed against their shoulders: the great army of the refugees.

But when she leaves Paris to travel to the front, or as close to it as it is safe to go, although the quality of her prose never falters, the voice seems less sure of itself. She is a tourist now, describing the sights that she sees on her way to the front.

Standing up in the car and looking back, we watched the river of war wind towards us. Cavalry, artillery, lancers, infantry, sappers and miners, trench-diggers, road-makers, stretcher-bearers, they swept on as smoothly as if in holiday order. Through the dust, the sun picked out the flash of lances and the gloss of chargers’ flanks, flushed rows of determined faces, found the least touch of gold on faded uniforms, silvered the sad grey of mitrailleuses and munition wagons. Close as the men were, they seemed allegorically splendid: as if, under the arch of the sunset, we had been watching the whole French army ride straight into glory…

Away from the Paris she knows, she is an outsider and does not try to pretend otherwise, but sets down her observations and reflections as honestly as she can. But the closer she gets to the front, the less there is for her to say, because what matters is out of sight and out of reach. Except once.

Over a break in the walls I saw another gutted farmhouse close by in another orchard: it was an enemy outpost and silent watchers in helmets of another shape sat there watching on the same high shelves. But all this was infinitely less real and terrible than the cannonade above the disputed village. The artillery had ceased and the air was full of summer murmurs. Close by on a sheltered ledge I saw a patch of vineyard with dewy cobwebs hanging to the vines. I could not understand where we were, or what it was all about, or why a shell from the enemy outpost did not suddenly annihilate us. And then, little by little, there came over me the sense of that mute reciprocal watching from trench to trench: the interlocked stare of innumerable pairs of eyes, stretching on, mile after mile, along the whole sleepless line from Dunkerque to Belfort.

It is a powerful image and perhaps explains why From Dunkerque to Belfort is the book’s subtitle. Travelling behind the front line from one end to the other, this is the closest she has come to war itself. What she sees ‘over a break in the walls’ is transformed into an image of war as ‘mute reciprocal watching’, an image of mutual suspicion that prevents speech and makes sleep impossible, of distrust from which there is no escape and of which there seems no end. But an image is only an image after all and the actuality remains out of reach.

Her frank admission that she does not understand what it was all about is a sign of her own self-awareness and one reason perhaps why there have been so few novels and only a few poems about war on the front line. One of the terrible things about war is the silence it imposes on those who are too close to it for comfort and those who cannot get close enough to understand.

edith wharton 01

The next post, on 25 June, will be about America’s communist manifesto.

The next Reader’s Diary will be published on 2 July.

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This entry was posted on June 18, 2014 by in Literature and tagged , , , .
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