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My title is taken from a passage about half-way into Sebastian Barry‘s novel of the First World War, A long long way (Faber, 2005):

For no matter what mayhem was afoot in the ruined fields of the Lord, the army was deeply attached to its regulations, always allowing for the fact that the staff officers didn’t see battles, didn’t understand what happened in battles, and probably didn’t want to. It was line officers only that knew the drear paintings and the atrocious music of the front line.

It’s not a bad example of the quality of his prose and approach: its rhythm, the vernacular touch, the deft choice of imagery; men glorying in having “quarters that shut out the bladed wind and drunken snow.”  Nor elsewhere does he labour the point about the ruling class generals way back at High Command; indeed one particular line officer is held in high regard and affection by his men.  He doesn’t need to preach; though one of the men does opine, “Anyway, they don’t write books about the likes of us. It’s officers and high-up people mostly“.

As a novel of men at war A long long way is right up there with the best.  The writing is – given its subject matter – remarkably free of cliché, and as with his recent Days without end, Sebastian Barry takes you – seemingly effortlessly – there.  This is what it feels like to be in the midst of the action, of the brutality of battle, as well as the longeurs, sharing the banter (there’s a neat riff on a Bovril ad), the camaraderie and esprit (laced, though it can be, with spite).  And you, the reader, is also taking in the sights and sounds of their immediate surroundings, of  the natural world, and this never getting in the way of the tale.

Here they are back from the trenches, having  abath, in the reserve area:

The water held them gently, warmed their inmost marrow; and if they had forgotten what it was to bathe, and some of them maybe never had a proper bath in their born days, they soon had it high on their list of sumptuous things to experience on God’s earth. They would be devotees in their private minds of this immersion.

More relief, of a very different kind:

It was difficult for his head to love and think of the future when he could not feel his feet.
‘By the good fuck,’ said Christy Moran, ‘this is some war.’
Then something miraculous occurred. The lice in Willie’s clothes began to stir again, and one morning the music of the cold, with its piercing little notes, seemed to pass away. The greens and browns seeped back into the world.

Never mind poppies:

Meanwhile, the roadsides burgeoned up and grew almost noisy with memory-laden colours. The arrogant sun had touched them and the casual rain had done the rest, leaving these million marks of respect on the neglected edges of fields and paths and roads. Even in fields, where most likely some calamity had stolen away the tillers, great weaves and plethoras of field flowers appeared, army after army of yellow heads, golden heads and blue, red and burning green. It was like a sudden paradise. Birds fiercely sought those sites on which they could bestow their efforts all the summer, the heroic house-martins and swallows come back from whatever Portugals and Africas they knew, to rest their faith again in Flanders, and the safety of Flanders.

But it is – as well as the sheer quality of the writing – an Irish dimension that gives A long long way a special status in the literature of the First World War.

Our main man is Willie Dunne, “born in the dying days” of the nineteenth century, son of a high-up Dublin policeman.  His relationship with the folks back home – his family, his girlfriend – are a significant part of the narrative but I’ll not dwell on them here.  It’s not a first person narrative, but it is mainly what he sees and feels and thinks that drives A long long way.  We are back in a time when the whole of Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom and the Empire; Home Rule legislation has been suspended for the war.  Willie, with many others, volunteers in 1915, making common cause with other European nations against the bullying might of Germany.

His war kicks off with his unit being victim of a horrendous mustard gas attack, which is followed by some recovery time back home.  Having embarked on the boat to return to the Front, they are mysteriously ordered to disembark, and rushed back to the streets of Dublin to find they are being used in the quelling of the Easter Rising, required to use their arms on their own countrymen; the rebels’ pro-German rhetoric left little choice.  (Yeats’s ‘terrible beauty’; you can see why that was a centenary mutely celebrated).

Then it’s off to the slaughter in Europe again.  This all makes for a confusing and distressing time for Willie.  News of the execution of the republican leaders of the rebellion by the English government filters through to the men, and all is grey:

The executed men were cursed, and praised, and doubted, and despised, and held to account, and blackened, and wondered at, and mourned, all in a confusion complicated infinitely by the site of war.

One of Willie’s younger comrades is arguing the rebel’s cause.  He’s getting on people’s nerves, he won’t let it lie:

‘Can’t you just eat your maconochie like the rest of us, Jesse, and to hell with Ireland and this Ireland and that Ireland? You’d give a saint a headache with that talk, man dear.’ [p157]

Why should he pay him any heed in the upshot?  There had been thousands of deaths just in the last days over by the ruinous river. Two thousand Irishmen of the 36th alone. He thought Jesse Kirwan was all twisted up in a rope of his own making; he knew he was. He had made a trap for himself in the wood of his own heart. He was the snare, the rabbit, and the hunter all in one. [p159]

Jesse does more than just preach though, and death by firing squad is his reward.  Willie, with a good voice, sings a requiem:

Poor Jesse. He hardly knew him, but he felt brotherly about the matter. He sang both verses of the hymn. The moon was quite playful among the August clouds. As Willie Dunne was no fool, he knew that he wouldn’t be the same Willie Dunne he had been before this happened.

He’s sung the Ave Maria twice before in the book – as a boy at a singing contest, and at an earlier quiet interlude in the trenches, as related here:

Ave Maria, gratia plenis, full of grace, and many of the men caught that it was just the Hail Mary all dressed over in another lingo, the prayer of their childhoods and their country, the prayer of their inmost minds, that could not be sundered, that could not be violated, that could not be rendered meaningless even by slaughter; the core inviolable, the flame unquenchable.

Here’s the craft of Sebastian Barry: he doesn’t try to explain the situation regarding Irish independence – we just get to see it through the soldiers’ and others’ understanding of what is going on.  Nothing is really spelt out, and there’s no discussion of nationalism as such – ‘this Ireland and that Ireland‘ – but the sense of a country coming into being, of a national identity forming, seeps through.  It’s all left hanging, and the swiftly changing situation, and the situation in the trenches, does not help Willie Dunne:

He knew he had no country now. He knew it well. Finally the words of Jesse Kirwan had penetrated deep into the sap of his brain and he understood them. All sorts of Irelands were no more, and he didn’t know what Ireland there was behind him now.

A long long way is a remarkable novel, both in its vivid portrayal of what ordinary soldiers went through in the Great War, and in its capturing the uncertainties of one individual – a good man – caught up in and living in a time – a moment even – of great social change.  Sadly, tragically, Willie didn’t survive to see what happened next; you weep for him, for the bad timing of his end.  That this novel can go back to then, its pages (it would appear) untainted by authorial intervention of what we know of what follows (and is ongoing) in Ireland, is a striking achievement.  Sebastian Barry is a great writer and a fine chronicler of the human condition.

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Sebastian Barry‘s Days without end (Faber, 2016) is one powerful piece of writing, the best book I’ve read in ages.  And in a while to come too, I’ll wager.  The sustained rhythm of the prose – the language of the first person narrative lyrical, vivid, visceral, engrossing – is an accomplishment of wonder.  There aren’t many long words, but paragraphs cover pages because they have to, to do justice to the vision, to all of what our man saw and felt.  It just flows, carries you along.  He’s telling us his story a long time after the events, but it’s like we are there.

The paperback blurb gives a reasonable brief outline of the action:

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Then, when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

But there is so much more going on.  Narrator McNulty and Cole are more than brothers-in-arms but the achievement of Days without end is that no big deal is made of this and what follows; there are no physical details, you just feel the love.  They met and teamed up as 13 year olds, when things are not going well for either of them.  They join the army because as they grow they can no longer pass as paid female dancing partners – in full garb, but no funny business – in a frontier dance hall.  Thomas doesn’t mind being in the dresses and this theme develops as the years and events pass.  Extraordinary to have just read this as Donald Trump tweets away about trans people having no place in the US armed forces.  In what follows, Winona is the young Indian girl of the blurb, who has witnessed terrible events herself, and Thomas is at this point disguised in women’s clothes:

Winona loosening too, and laughing now. She just a girl and should be laughing regular. She should be playing maybe if she ain’t too old. Certainly acts the lady and knows how. We like mother and child right enough and that’s how it plays.  I give thanks for that. Maybe in my deepest soul I believe my own fakery. I suppose I do. I feel a woman more than I ever felt a man, though I were a fighting man most of my days. Got to be thinking them Indians in dresses shown my path. […] I am easy as a woman, taut as a man. All my limbs is broke as a man, and fixed good as a woman. I lie down with the soul of a woman and wake up with the same. I don’t forsee no time where this ain’t true no more. Maybe I was born a man and growing into a woman. Maybe that boy that John Cole met was but a girl already. He weren’t no girl hisself for sure. This could be mountainous evil. I ain’t read the Book on that. Maybe no hand has ever wrote its truth.

And that’s as much of a questioning as occurs.  It’s beautifully done.  I hope you won’t see this as a spoiler; I’ll bet if you start reading Days without end you’ll have forgotten you read that earlier here pretty soon; until it hits again.

Meanwhile, there’s no shying away from the horrors of the soldiering.  There are brutal and savage passages relating his involvement.  And we get to experience the camaraderie, the hard drudge and boredom of military life.  The betrayal of the Indian Nations is laid bare in specific events, not evangelised.  But, you know, life can be beautiful.  The evocation of nature’s wonders and the passing of the seasons is never far away in the relation of events.  Normally in these reviews on Lillabullero I will pick out some quotes to give a flavour but with Days without end it’s so hard to know where to start from and where to end.  It is such an enervating – exciting, absorbing, relaxed in turn – total ride.  Here, from the final devastating confrontation with a proud Sioux chief:

Sometimes you know you ain’t a clever man. But likewise sometimes the fog of usual thoughts clears of in a sudden breeze of sense and you see things clear a moment like a clearing country. We blunder through and call it wisdom but it ain’t. They say we be Christians and suchlike but we ain’t. They say we are creatures raised by God above the animals but any man that has lived knows that’s damn lies. We are going forth that day to call Caught-His-Horse-First a murderer in silent judgement. But it was us killed his wife and his child.

This is a novel about the making of the USA, a literary spaghetti western – the later Sergio Leones – told in a vernacular by a Huck Finn who came over the Atlantic as a boy from Ireland.  And, though not obvious from what I’ve said here, there is, rest assured, a measure wit and humour in Thomas’s telling too.  I hear echoes of Mark Twain’s judgments on his land too.

When that old ancient Cromwell come to Ireland he said he would leave nothing alive. Said the Irish were vermin and devils. Clean out the country for good people to step into. Make a paradise. Now we make this American paradise I guess. Guess it be strange so many Irish boys doing this work. Ain’t it the way of the world. No such item as a virtuous people. Winona the only soul not thrown on the bonfire.

Almost at random, if you want the experience:

Big train blowing steam and smoke at the depot. It’s like a creature. Something in perpetual explosion. Huge long muscle body on her and four big men punching coal into her boiler. It’s a sight. Going to be dragging four carriages east and they say they’ll go good. The light pall of snow hisses on the boiler sheets.

Days without end is a profound and consistently brilliant piece of writing.  I love this book.  It will stay with me for a long time; I feel a Sebastian Barry binge coming on.

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And now for something completely different …

July’s Book Group book was a Marmite book.  Some hated it, others thought it had its moments and weren’t sorry to have read it.  I liked it well enough.  Meg Wolitzer‘s The wife (2003) is narrated by the wife of one of the (fictional) big beasts of post-war American literature.  On the plane  on their way to the presentation ceremony for the fictional Helsinki (one down from the Nobel) Prize for Literature (“this award for a long hard labour on the fiction chain gang …”) she decides she is going to leave him.  What follows is a skillful telling of their marriage, family and careers going back and forth between the past and present, from their first meeting in 1956 – Joan a talented student, Joe the tutor on a creative writing course – to the acclamation his pretty much career full stop.  This is the beginning of a new phase, Joan,” he tells her.  Yes, the insufferable phase,” is her response.

 

Now, even the Book Group people who didn’t like The wife could see the big twist coming from a mile off, so it’s not really a spoiler to reveal about Joe that:

All he had was the look. The attitude, the reverence and the desire to be a great writer, but that was meaningless without what he called “the goods”

and that, presented with the proud draft of his first novel – effectively about his divorce and their coming together – Joan is dismayed to discover how lifeless it is and edits it so heavily as to effectively have written it herself.  Being the ’50s, and having been told that being a woman novelist was a loser’s game by a bitter woman novelist, she is happy for the illusion of his authorship to be maintained and continued.  This is not actually revealed till quite late on, which I suppose you could say is cheating.  Anyway, the story behind that first novel, The Walnut, or rather the story of the actual walnuts, is an amusing little diversion in itself, while what happens to their two daughters and the problem son – the children of a celebrated writer – give the tale more depth.

So The wife is an insightful, sour and witty look at the American literary life in the ’50s and early ’60s, the rivalries, infidelities and jealousies as the men joust and put themselves about. “Wives are the sad sacks of any writers’ conference,” she opines at one point.  Given she was born in 1959 one wonders how much of it Meg Wolitzer got from her novelist mother.  Joe and Joan’s early struggles in a New York garret, taking fun in late fifties Greenwich Village is nicely done too.  With the social changes of the late ’60s and the emergence of women writers as serious players you could say that The wife is the starting point for a literary equivalent of Mad Men.

How about this, one of the reasons he’s up for the Helsinki, for Joan’s disaffection?   And probably at least a sad half-truth:

In America it had been a year of literary deaths, one after the other, men whom Joe had known since the fifties, when they used to gather sometimes for socialist meetings. A decade later they gathered at marathon, all night readings whose purpose was to protest the war in Vietnam, and suck all the energy out of the audience.

For what it’s worth, the very first original hardback book I ever bought was Norman Mailer‘s groundbreaking account of the march on the Pentagon, Armies of the night (1968).  I’m long over him now, but still, Ouch!  He gets it in the neck again later too, the only one of those big beasts to actually get a real life namecheck.

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