Nineteen Twenty-OnePublication date: 06/04/01
It is the freakishly hot, drought summer of 1921; there are dust-storms in London, and the parched earth of England is cracking open. Holed up in a cottage in the Chilterns, young Joseph Munrow is trying to write the first great novel of the War – the war he effectively missed. When he goes researching among the hallucinatory wreckage of Flanders, Joseph finds himself devastatingly distracted by two very different women – Tillie, the creamy English rose, and Marda, the dark widow – and the demands of love and lust begin to drag him from his purpose. The questions he begins to ask are the questions we ask still: In what sense can art be made of such horror? And in what manner can love survive?
This re-creation of twenties England seeks to touch the marrow of this jazz and death-haunted time – ironically, the most excitingly creative of the century. In a language immersed in the period, and by means of a story which gradually haunts its own process, Nineteen Twenty-One is a thrilling study of one man's guilt and desire against the backdrop of a maimed, broken civilisation.
1921 was the year in which T.S. Eliot composed The Waste Land – through a nervous breakdown. I read this poem at school and it changed my life. I had always wanted to write a novel about the Great War, which killed my great-uncle and damaged my grandfather. To avoid the usual clichés, I approched it via the aftermath, and the key question: who cleaned up the mess? We are still cleaning up the mess.
Stephen Blanchard: July 04, 2001
Having narrowly missed action because of a gassing accident during training, Joseph Monrow settles in a decrepit cottage in the Chilterns and attempts to write a novel about the horror and stupidity of the war just past. After opening mildly with sparring Oxbridge chums, the book (Thorpe's) receives a massive charge from a weekend visit to Flanders organised so that grieving relatives can visit war graves and the scenes of battle. Thorpe's Ypres is an exotic mixture of death, sex and carnival - more Ibiza than Flanders - as Monrow becomes involved successively with young chapel-girl Tillie, a couple of Belgian whores and Marda, a German widow in search of her dead son.
Back home in the drought summer, the work still misfires and feelings of guilt and desire distract him. Thorpe takes us through Monrow's agonies with a heady relish, recreating the atmosphere and voices of that time but then moving into stranger regions. A snail becomes a bit-player when Monrow visits Tillie's room, and a flock of sheep moving through Piccadilly fills him with feelings of prescience. One novel mirrors the other with false starts and excursions (Thorpe admits in the acknowledgments that he almost abandoned the project at one point) and the crippled and war-affected come to taunt and reproach him. An odd alter-ego appears and the clothes of the vanished village schoolmaster are found caught in the blades of a threshing machine. Thorpe throws off ideas with terrific energy and the book often has a feeling of risky improvisation. In the end the journey is so strange and interesting that it doesn't seem to matter that you're not quite sure where you are. A naked madman runs through the trees and the final laughter might be joyous or despairing or both.
Carl MacDougall: June 30, 2001
IT'S easy to see why the First World War has become something of a fictional resource. It is almost impossible to understand in any other context. Statistics do not explain why young men marched to near certain death while young women cheered. We cannot twin the oppositions of ordinary heroism with the mind-set of a class which continually informs us they were born to lead and whose actions in the role of leader suggest exactly the opposite.
As with any form of genocide - perhaps the Holocaust is another example - we understand the larger devastation through individual tragedy, which offers scale and context rather than facts.
Adam Thorpe appears to turn this notion on its head by suggesting nothing can represent war. It is beyond description. His story begins in an extraordinary hiatus when the war has been won and when a sense of loss dominated society. Joseph Monrow understands the enormity of the epic. He feels "dwarfish against the chaps that saw action, felt the heat".
He and his school friend, Baz, almost made it to the front. Both had been called up and were ready to fight when peace was declared.
Baz's brother, Henley, was expelled from school, so his name was excluded from their roll of the honourable dead. But Baz considered he had laid down his life and should therefore be numbered with the fallen. The school initially dug in its heels but a compromise was reached. His name was carved on a bench.
Thorpe does not labour this point. It indicates Baz's character and contrasts him with poetic, high-minded Joseph. But it's an important signal.
Thorpe's First World War is not like any other. One imagines it is as close as we can come to understanding the aftermath, the sense of achievement and loss that pervaded a society unable to face its grief or explain its mourning. While it embarked on eulogy, the reality was almost as horrific as what had gone before.
Joseph moves to the Chiltern Hills in 1921, where he intends to write the first great novel of the war. His local pub landlady believes her son died a poetic death, his wound like a rose petal on his brow. We later find he fell, drunk, off a troop train. Thorpe is concerned with the fiction, the myth-making and lies. And Joseph fails because his task is too great. The more he learns, the further he moves from actually writing the book.
But his research reveals the awful truth. He takes us through an extraordinary landscape that defies understanding or explanation. At first, details suggest what's to follow, but nothing can prepare us for the Grand Guignol effect of the Great Eastern Railway tours to the front, where grieving relatives visit the place their loved ones fell, and buy postcards of the ruined landscape, or whores perform in what used to be a field hospital, bloodstains still on the walls.
D. J. Taylor: July 28, 2001
Without wanting to turn hugely reductive, there are perhaps two main procedural difficulties involved in writing the kind of historical novel which it is possible to respect. The first is the problem of sensibility: did the inhabitants of Ancient Rome, Saxon Dorset or Dreyfus-era France really think and speak like this? The second - and quite as obtrusive if it goes wrong - is the problem of artefacts, in other words furnishing your recreated world with items that are appropriate to the milieu without conveying a sense of removal men shifting things into place. To put it another way, there were other records on the juke box in 1963 apart from 'She Loves You' and other topics of conversation at 1956 dinner tables than Nasser.
If nothing else, Adam Thorpe's new novel deals efficiently with both these problems. However firmly embedded in that groaning genre of novels about the First World War, or rather the First World War's aftermath, Nineteen Twenty-One carries its research lightly. Its dialogue is dialogue rather than socio-historical stage direction, and even the reference to Mr Joyce scribbling away at his extraordinary book is forgivable in the context of the hero's literary ambitions. Joseph Monrow, Thorpe's protagonist, has, too, sufficient distinctiveness to lift him out of the genre rut. Now in his early twenties, he is a veteran with a secret: originally exempted from military service on medical grounds, called up in the last months of the war, his ravaged lungs the result of panic in a gas attack exercise rather than enemy action.
Gauche, keen and reclusive, Monrow is an ambiguous figure and part of his appeal - particularly in the conversations with his friend Baz - lies in the thought of a character whose attitudes are not yet fully formed.
Holed up in a remote cottage in the Chilterns, Joseph is laboriously at work on the great Flanders novel. These early scenes - the pen scratching quietly under the eaves, the enigmatic rural types going about their business, flaring heat beyond the window - are convincingly done, full of neat little descriptions of scene and incident, culminating in Joseph's dealings with the son-in-law of the village publican's widow. Brooding Walter, raptly confidential about the Flanders flies ('Millions of eggs they lay. Very impatient to lay 'em') claims to have been standing next to the late Mr Hamilton when a German bullet took him: avid to put this in his book, Joseph is conscious that the truth may be less clear-cut.
Shortly afterwards, in the interests of his research, Joseph accompanies Baz on a grave-visitor's trip to France. The love interest (godfearing teenage Tillie) makes its appearance, and there follows a not wholly plausible evening in which Joseph narrowly fails to seduce her, watches a couple of local prostitutes gamely pleasuring each other and finally ends up in the passionate embrace of a mysterious German widow met among the graves.
The remainder of the novel - quite a long remainder - unravels some of the emotional knots thereby brought into being. Baz throws over his blameless fiancée and elopes with Tillie, while further confusion is sown by the reappearance of Hubert Rail, Joseph's Café Royal-haunting doppelganger, previously met on a sketcher's trip to Cornwall. Among other aspects of the denouement, the great Flanders novel narrowly avoids the flames. If Nineteen Twenty-One sometimes seems to lose its way a little - Thorpe has the irritating habit of cutting short chapters that are crying out for immediate resolution - it is full of arresting moments: Joseph's embarrassed meeting with his double in a restaurant full of prurient fellow-artists; a weird encounter amid the post-war trenches when a Chinese labourer beckons him into an abandoned dug-out to 'shake hands with General Haig' (a khaki-clad skeleton with a whisky bottle for a face); the deranged village schoolmaster bobbing restlessly through the long summer grass.
Patrick Gale: June 30, 2001
IN THE fiercely hot, dry summer of 1921, Joseph, a young would-be writer, takes up the offer of a peppercorn rent on a tumbledown cottage on a friend's estate in the Chilterns. There he aims to live with admirable simplicity, off porridge, arrowroot biscuits and nightly stews at the village pub, while he writes the first great novel inspired by the Great War.
In other hands, Joseph would have become a purely comic character. Not quite a pacifist, not quite a conscientious objector, he was called up but saw no action because of a panic attack during a gas exercise which left him hospitalised for lung damage. For Adam Thorpe, however, he is the very type of the new modernist anti-hero, confused, well-meaning but unheroic.
Struggling with the novel, desperate for inspiration, Joseph escapes his leafy, faintly sinister place of exile to go join a sketching party to Lamorna Cove, where he meets his decadent artist double, then to join an old schoolfriend on a trip to the battlefields and emerging war cemeteries around Ypres.
There he becomes besotted with Tillie, a god-fearing but original young woman he is enchanted by and sleeps with a mysterious German, in mourning for her husband and son. Returning home, he finds that these two women and the nightmarish memories of the corpse-haunted trenches have unlocked both his failure to progress with the novel and his inability to relate to the close-knit community around his cottage.
1921 is a significant year for Adam Thorpe to have settled on for this novel, because it saw the production of The Waste Land. T S Eliot is fleetingly referred to and Thorpe's narrative is saturated with imagery that might equally have inspired the poet. There is a hellish London of commuters, second-hand books, lost women and grubby boarding houses.
Around the scenes of battle Joseph encounters a cultural melt-down, with Chinese bomb disposal units, Irishmen salvaging metal, Indians, Germans, English and Americans, all caught in a landscape reduced by war to the point where life's impulses - sex, food, religion, death - are crudely exposed. "Sheets of tarpaulin or white cloth flapped in the night's gusts, gramophones gasped out dance tunes, people laughed and waltzed and squeezed each other in the shadows. A couple jittered about to an urchin clapping on an oil drum beneath a sign saying Field Cashier. Occultish diagrams with exclamations in German."
Thorpe's conscious echoes of Eliot and, indeed, of Joyce distract the reader from noticing at first that his hero is a Lawrentian figure. Every inch the scholarship boy (his late Jewish dad sold carpets in Matlock), Joseph is at odds with his socially sure-footed contemporaries from university but no more at home with the rough-tongued country folk in the Chilterns. Keeping his distance from a "whining" mother, he narrowly avoids becoming involved with an ambivalent Frieda figure in the shape of the tarot-reading Marda, whose head is full of Blavatskian "philosophy" and heart of her dead son. The novel ends in a slow-building blaze of epiphany that might have come from Lawrence's The Rainbow.
As always, Adam Thorpe displays a gift for revealing the suggestively sinister in a pastoral setting. On his strolls between leafy Heathrow and rural Rickmansworth, Joseph encounters a peculiarly English form of country grotesque - a jabberingly insane schoolmaster famous for whipping, the ghost of a baby who died from sucking matches, a simple-minded lad punished for catching the clap off a Flanders whore by having his penis enclosed in a savage metal device that he calls his "Get Religion".
As in Thorpe's previous novel Pieces of Light, irrational elements like these convey a character's emotional disarray. As Joseph wrestles with his sense of artistic and sexual inadequacy, so his fears are reflected in the landscape and his oddball neighbours.
A stylistic tic of turning sentences in on themselves ("Bang upright, he was") is intended, perhaps, to convey the Matlock in Joseph, but it proves maddening. This is a minor quibble, though, when talking of prose that frequently pulls one up short with its precise beauty. Tillie's sudden mention of duty, for instance, is described as "some little musty whiff that blew from her then, as if she had just crawled out from behind a chapel organ".
By contrast, her rival leaves a smell on Joseph's bed linen, "like an autumn church, all mothballed coats and violet drops." Wonderful stuff.
Joanna Griffiths: June 24, 2001
C. DAY LEWIS once said that World War I made Wilfred Owen a poet. Once it began, a sharp distinction was forged between writers who fought and those who stayed home. Not to fight was to suffer a sort of paralysis; it became common for non-combatant writers to bemoan an inability to write on the war.
In August 1914, Henry James wrote that 'my sense of what is generally happening all about us here is only unutterable,' while T.S. Eliot felt the war to be too 'real to me', making it 'hard for me to write interestingly about (it)'. Meanwhile, war poets poured scorn on ignorant fantasies: invalided home, Owen thrust pictures of mutilated soldiers at visitors, while Sassoon sneered at women who 'love us when we're heroes'. The 'pity of war' was a subject for those who had been there, and as that was the subject of the age, not to speak on it was to fall silent.
Adam Thorpe's latest novel, Nineteen Twenty-One, is a tale of war-induced writer's block. Thorpe's mournful protagonist is Joseph, an Oxford writer who missed the war through luck, and finds himself lurching around postwar London, short on money and ideas. Disliking his fellow non-combatants, the condescending Bloomsburys, he is tormented by soldier-poets back from Flanders. Worse, he can't get published.
Joseph hides away, rather like Robert Graves did, in a practically rent-free cottage, and embarks on what he hopes will be the great postwar novel, 'one so caustic it'll burn a hole in the fabric of hypocrisy and stupidity that the war did absolutely nothing to tear'. He hopes it will have 'the force of a nature myth; so it raged and devoured today's rottenness like a great ritual fire but always, always poetically'.
Joseph's advantage over his battle-scarred peers - relative sanity - is the source of his writer's block. He takes to embellishing his work with dark tales told by deranged locals, who treat him to a grotesque parade of war wounds. Next, Joseph enlists on a tourist outing to the still-savaged fields of Flanders, corpses a few inches under the surface, with disconsolate relatives of the dead on day trips.
Thorpe creates a house of mirrors: a writer who didn't experience the war writing about a writer who didn't experience it writing a novel about the war. He turns Joseph into a bemused Georgian poet, who finds he has an almost exact twin, Hubert Rail. This penniless louche, and fiery genius, proposes that 'we must first of all decide that life has no meaning'. Joseph falls in love with a robust Christian woman, who surprisingly falls for his dissolute double. A German woman rambling through the Flanders graveyards mistakes Joseph for her son, and falls for him.
The novel is an almost flawless pastiche of the style of the times, but fails quite to recreate the understatement of the Sassoons and Graveses. Sassoon, describing the first dead German he saw as having 'bristly cheeks, a grinning blood-smeared mouth and clenched teeth', merely added that this was 'a bit of a shock'. Joseph reels vomiting from his only brush with a war corpse, in a twisted freak show in Flanders; his experience sends him into gabbling histrionics and frantic carpe diem libidinousness. Thorpe offers an immaculate re-recording of long-dead voices, honed to contemporary ears: a feast for more Georgian tempers.
Wendy Holden: June 22, 2001
THE action takes place in 1921 when Joseph Monrow, a sensitive student who missed the war by a whisker, is determined to write the Great War Novel and leave his mark on literature. He buries himself in the country where, amid a sinister cast of locals, the connection between his inability to write and his lack of experience of his subject becomes apparent.
Joseph longs to express 'the pity of war'.
Pumping the locals for memories of the carnage, however, he finds only bathos - soldiers falling drunk off trains rather than gloriously in battles, a quartermaster who stole petrol, a private who lost his privates. In search of inspiration, he visits the barely cleared battlefields (the middle section of the book fascinatingly re-evokes the post-Great War tourist trade).
Standing before a tourist kiosk at Ypres, he sees bullet-cases arranged like flowers. While fellow group members remark that the countryside looks like Rickmansworth, he is appalled at the end-of-the-pier vulgarity and lack of feeling for history.
The author, however, has none of the preciousness of his character; his complex, beautifully written, witty and insightful novel never loses sight of its theme - that great and tragic events comprise thousands of individual, unheroic and sometimes hilarious ordinarinesses. Moreover, history never feels like history at the time.
Adam Piette: June 11, 2001
MODERNISM still means the writing of Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence and Woolf, and its high point is still 1922, the year The Waste Land, Ulysses and Proust's A la Recherche were published. Adam Thorpe returns to the year leading up to this annus mirabilis to investigate the relations our culture has with high modernism in this ambitious and demanding historical novel. 1921 is also exactly 80 years ago, roughly a lifetime: Thorpe wants to engage with cultural circumstances that might still be running our world within generational memory.
The style of the novel is oddly out of sync with the experimental writing we might expect from Thorpe - the Americanese of Still, the historical Englishes of Ulverton, the uncanny ventriloquism of his short stories. The style of the novel is uneasy because it seems to be mimicking Orwell or Lawrence - tough, bare and slightly jejune autobiography of burgeoning artist as in Sons and Lovers or Keep the Aspidistra Flying! - but bursts into occasional extraordinary passages of psycho-mythological writing which rewrite Eliot, or the late Lawrence.
Nineteen Twenty-One follows a radical young writer, Joseph, who just misses combat in the First World War, but is obsessed by the disaster. He visits Flanders with his friend Baz, as the killing fields are being cleared of their lethal junk and the dead are being memorialised, and falls in love with two very different women, a German widow and a beautiful Christian Northerner who has lost her brother. The plot turns on sexual rivalry over the latter, and is further complicated by a subplot, in which Joseph encounters an artist who is his spitting image. The uneasy stylistic mix is compounded by the ambition of the novel.
It attempts to argue, very obliquely and with considerable difficulty, that the immediate aftermath of the First World War issued in the ecological disaster we are undergoing now. The war announced the millennial catastrophe of our time, the mad, cruel hedonism of the Twenties - the heartless way people danced on the graves of the war dead - finding its summation in our own sex-obsessed, politically illiterate generation as we dance on the landfill we have turned the earth into.
The problem lies with the narrator, Joseph. Though a committed pacifist with an imagination that can predict the shambles and wasteland the earth is being turned into, he is too absorbed in his novel project to do much about it.
He withdraws into a wild tramp-like, nature-boy identity in a cottage retreat in the heart of England, going to earth, as it were, in a desperate and disturbing attempt to write poisonous humanity off the face of that same earth.
As a result, the upbeat conclusion of the novel, a quasi-supernatural hymn to peace and hope, is broken by suspicion that he might simply have gone down the anti-humanist, proto-fascist lane that did for DH Lawrence.
What is so baffling about the novel is maybe what makes this the most passionate statement Thorpe has yet made about our ecological responsibilities, now and in England and on this earth. In its very confusion, broken complexities and strange mysteries, Nineteen Twenty-One tears at your conscience, its nightmare seeping like a wound in the brickwork of our safe houses.
Alice Ferrebe: June 10, 2001
THE Second World War is easy to read as the triumph of good over evil. As soon as it was over, mythic images of communal purpose and Blitz spirit were used to gild the inauguration of the British welfare state. The process of simplification continues today, although with a different agenda, in the recent inane inaccuracies of Hollywood versions of the conflict. World War One has tended to avoid such pat simplification. Indeed, its fascination for contemporary authors and their audiences might be attributed precisely to the atmosphere of ambiguous disillusionment that continues to surround it. In a post-Cold War era without unequivocal aims or enemies, nothing is so comforting as ambiguity.
In Nineteen Twenty-One, Joseph Monrow is struggling in his attempt to create the first great book of the Great War. Holed up in a cottage in the Chilterns during a fiercely hot summer, his drive towards searing realism is complicated by his own experience of the conflict. Joseph arrived at the Front just as peace was declared: "he could not get away from the fact that he had missed the show. By a whisker." No missing limbs or lobes, no convulsions or night-sweats - Joseph's narrative flow is hampered by guilt, and his descriptions of horror are tempted towards the sentimental.
Adam Thorpe's novel is similarly riddled with blind alleys. Mythical symbols - a burning tree, a naked man leaping through the undergrowth - promise deeper meanings but never deliver. Familiar literary devices - an elusive doppelgänger for the hero, a double and antithetical love-interest - withhold their anticipated conclusions. The potential for regeneration in a pastoral setting is mocked by the cracked earth of the drought-ridden countryside. Thorpe offers us all the traditional artistic comforts and solutions to war, only to demonstrate their inadequacy. The novel weaves together Joseph's boyish optimism and lilting, dated speech-patterns with the compassionate cynicism of a narrator who, like us, knows only too well what to think of his mother's judgment: "Wars are finished. They're last year's model."
Although lucid lyricism might prove impossible in Joseph's novel, Thorpe lavishes it upon his own narrative. He captures precisely the sense of freedom and unease of a stranger settling into a close-knit rural community, whose inhabitants are fraught with their own varied experiences of war. Most notably, the eponymous date of the novel's setting allows an astonishingly innovative landscape of war to emerge. The London of the time was plastered with Great Eastern posters advertising £18 15s excursions by rail to the battlefields. The Flanders Front that Thorpe gives us is one of tourist trenches. The mud has now hardened, and Wipers is full of souvenir stalls and embarrassed mourners wandering amidst the endless gravestones. The 'Picturesque Postcards' stand sells compositions of blasted trees reflected in stagnant water. War widows act as tour guides in ostrich-feathered hats. It is a deeply affecting image of bereavement and incomprehension.
Adam Thorpe's earlier novels - Ulverton in particular - were lauded for their experimental brilliance. Nineteen Twenty-One is created from the assumption that further experiments in representing the conflict itself are doomed to failure. Yet in the strange, still, post-war world of hiatus and loss that it creates, this complex and lyrical novel proves that the demonstration of futility need not be a futile exercise.
David Robson: June 10, 2001
NEARLY 10 YEARS have passed since Adam Thorpe burst on the literary scene with Ulverton. Nothing he has written since has scaled the same heights and it was beginning to look as if, like other English writers who have decamped to France, he had lost his edge. One imagined him whiling away his days buying garlic and playing boules in the village square.
Nineteen Twenty One is not just a welcome return to form, but one of the finest novels of the year to date. In his earlier work, Thorpe showed his flair for ventriloquy, enjoying the challenge of telling a story through a medley of different voices. This novel is simpler, clearer, more direct. It tells one man's story with verve and conviction, engaging your interest both in the character and the world he inhabits.
The action takes place in the sweltering summer of 1921. Joseph Monrow, holed up in a cottage in the Chilterns, is trying to write The Great War Novel, but is comically unprepared for the task. His own war was a fiasco. He went up to Oxford in 1914, toyed with being a conscientious objector, chickened out of that, and was then saved from active service by the Armistice.
As he struggles to put flesh and blood on his fictional soldiers, his country-bumpkin neighbours trump his efforts with grotesque real-life stories from the front: maggots crawling out of dead men's brains; freakish bayonet wounds; "war heroes" who have met their death falling blind drunk from troop trains.
Desperate to get closer to the texture of real experience, Joseph joins one of the pilgrimages to Flanders being run by enterprising travel companies for relatives of the war dead. It is a brilliantly conceived episode, the centrepiece of the novel. High tragedy alternates with low farce as Joseph tries to make sense of Ypres nightclubs, dusty battlefields and stentorian guides with ostrich feathers in their hats. He also finds true love - twice. But which woman is worthier of his affections? Tillie, the English rose, with her solid Methodism? Or Marda, the German widow, with her solid thighs?
The First World War has proved a rich seam for contemporary British novelists - Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks, to name but two. Adam Thorpe belongs in that exalted company. Nineteen Twenty One is a terrific read: thrillingly exact in its use of detail and shot through with real poetry.
Phil Baker: June 10, 2001
From Pat Barker to Blackadder, the First World War is well-trodden fictional territory. But, as with the Holocaust, there is a nagging sense that it was just too unquantifiably horrific to be captured by art, and that anything with a satisfying form (most much-loved first-world-war poetry, for example) might be guilty of unwittingly taming and beautifying it.
The near impossibility of doing fictional justice to the war stands at the gaping centre of Adam Thorpe's powerful book. It follows a young man, Joseph Monrow, trying to write a novel about the conflict he barely saw. Monrow goes to Flanders in 1921, viewing scenes that will be a revelation to most readers: we forget that there was something like mass tourism to France and Belgium in the aftermath of the war (bereaved parents wanting to see where their sons had died) and that enormous labour gangs of Chinese coolies were used to clear out shells and mines.
Joseph becomes enmeshed with two women, Tillie, who is English, and Marda, a bereaved Indo-German who follows him to England after a fumbled episode of battlefield copulation. Joseph's research never amounts to anything useful, and the more he discovers, the further he seems to get from writing his book. "The way he went were a poem", says a grieving northern mother about her son, "with the rose petal on his brow."
"You could write a nice poem on that," she adds for Joseph's benefit. "A very nice patriotic poem on that." But Joseph meets a man with another account of the son's death, not by a neat bullet to the forehead but by falling out of a troop train while drunk.
Nineteen Twenty-One is superbly and even claustrophobically accomplished in its sense of period. Thorpe does an extraordinary job of trying to feel the war back in its own modern era. Dark and densely packed, his book has the quality of a bad dream, with an almost hysterical luxuriation in trauma that occasionally verges on grand guignol. Whores with polished cartridge-case earrings perform for a shocked Joseph in a damp, half-lit room, with copper-brown stains all over the walls: it is a former field-operating theatre. A laughing Chinese coolie leads Joseph to shake General Haig's hand ("Near, Near! Gennel Haig, his han"). It turns out to be the hand of a corpse sticking out of the ground, with an empty bottle of Haig whisky where the face should be. Back home, no less horribly, Joseph is invited to inspect a man whose damaged penis is sheathed in a hideous metal contraption. These things are horrible, but then a book about the First World War should be disturbing, and nothing if not over the top.
John Burnside: June 9, 2001
Much has been written about the damage war does to human populations, to the men in the field, to civilians, and to those displaced by the conflict. What it does to the land - and to our relationship with that land - has been less often considered. Yet the great central myth of European chivalry is one in which human strife is reflected in a sick environment: the Grail knights' quest to restore their wounded king is, in fact, a quest to heal the poisoned earth.
Similarly, Greek tragedy does not speak only of the brave or ignoble deeds of its warlike heroes, but constantly refers back to the natural world in which these heroes live: the winds they pacify by human sacrifice, the seas on which they must sail, the Trojan earth soaked in blood. In a drama which bears comparison to the Grail legend, Sophocles speaks of a sick man - the wounded archer, Philoctetes - who must be restored to health, in order that the war may end. In both cases, the stricken hero is both an embodiment and a victim of the earth, or rather, of humankind's disregard for the power in the land - and the task of negotiating with this power, rather than of destroying an enemy, is the hero's essential work.
In his new novel, the brilliant and harrowing Nineteen Twenty-One, Adam Thorpe considers the aftermath of the war that was famously intended to end all wars. As his debut, Ulverton, demonstrated, Thorpe is a keen and sensitive observer of history, but he is also aware of the subtle and deceptive interplay between history and myth, between what we consider "hard facts" - the documented, the reliable, the first-hand - and the power of hearsay, make-believe and imagination. Ulverton took in a vast sweep of time, from the English Civil War to the yuppie 1980s; in Nineteen Twenty-One Thorpe focuses on one man, a struggling writer named Joseph Monrow, who, though he did not see action, has been wounded by the war in the mystical, emblematic manner of The Fisher King or Philoctetes - poisoned, in fact, by gas he breathed during a training exercise.
Interestingly, this exercise is conducted underground, in a tunnel dug into the earth: "It was stifling down there. He was short of breath. He looked about him and the familiar faces of fellows he knew were now blurred and monstrous, terrifically primitive, something out of nightmare with black round eyes. Then the iron door clanged shut on the sergeant's grin. Clang. Pitch dark." Haunted by this memory, and by his guilt at having played no part in the conflict which had killed and maimed so many others, Joseph begins work on an ambitious novel about the war. Partly as research, and partly for deeper psychological reasons, he joins his friend Baz on a tour of the battlefield. This visit brings home the real damage wrought by the years of trench warfare: what is striking in the vivid battleground imagery is the sheer scale of the destruction and the urgent need for a renewal of the natural world itself, reminiscent of The Rite of Spring: "The moon was coming up the other side, a proper harvest moon, corn-coloured and full. The group strolled in twos and threes through the broken wintry remains of Ploegsteert Wood: a few, a very few, birds, flitting between the odd claw of a branch. Otherwise, quite still between the ivy-clad stelae. As if the place was waiting for something, some savage rite to bring up the sap again."
On the battlefield, Joseph has three significant encounters: with a German widow in search of her lost son; with the English girl, Tillie, who is looking for her dead brother's grave; and, in a grotesque scene where he returns to the underworld with the buried spirit of "General Haig." When he returns to England, all Joseph's illusions are shattered. What he has seen convinces him that the world he had known is done with: "Civilisation's neck is broken and we do not know it yet," he tells himself, "anything might jolt it to complete fracture, paralysis or death."
At the same time, he is vouchsafed a fleeting but vivid sign, a suggestion of the possibility of some healing rite arising from the land itself: "As he was murmuring to himself, he imagined he saw a head pop out of the grass, a wild-haired thing that might have been human. Then it vanished, back into the grasses it resembled, like the spirit of the grass itself ... Pan, he thought. It is a sign. The spirit of Pan is what we need. And he felt a surge of electrical current pass through him from head to foot, out of the very earth itself."
Of course, there is a rational explanation for this vision - as there is for everything - in the "humdrum world" to which Joseph immediately returns. This, in fact, is one of the novel's strengths: there are no answers, no solutions. Joseph finds nothing in the given world to heal his pain, though he seeks it both in the two women he encounters, and the war narrative he is trying to construct from rumour, guesswork and anecdote. Like his novel, the Pan he conjures up is an imagined spirit, just as healing itself is imagined, in the full, magical sense of that word. Faced with the hard world of official fact - the account of the victors embodied by the Cenotaph - the best he can come up with is "an invented prayer that he immediately felt shy about, and yet too superstitious to deny". With no easy answers to offer, Thorpe's own novel of war is a dark and haunted work; nevertheless, as it moves towards its enchanted and artistically daring conclusion, it reveals a profoundly humane vision. Nineteen Twenty-One is, quite simply, a tour de force: a necessary masterpiece from one of our finest writers, writing at the very top of his form.
Esther Godfrey: June 15, 2002
Joseph Monrow didn't fight in the Great War. First hampered by half-hearted conscientious objection, then accidentally gassed during training, he wept when peace was declared. Now, at 23, he yearns to write the first great novel of the war and shock the world to rights. Holed up in a mouldering cottage where he struggles with the words, he is isolated by his own thoughtfulness. A package tour of the battlefields of Flanders reveals a country turned upside down - the barren landscape rich with grisly souvenirs, whores with bullets dangling from their ears - but shot through with life. In the graveyards he finds two women, a German widow mourning her son, and an English girl with "no low detail", who has lost her brother. Stumbling in and out of love with both, Joseph engages with life and the war, finding that neither can be separated from the low details that make them up. Thorpe's style is coloured by Joseph's vernacular, which takes some getting used to, as does the hero's exasperatingly paltering nature. But gradually Joseph emerges as a wonderfully believable character, and the novel as a large and compelling one.
Trevor Royle: June 10, 2001
EASY enough to start a war; as history reminds us, any fool can do that. Ending one is another matter, for peace is not just the absence of war, it is something much less tangible, as much a state of mind as a state of existence. The problems begin as soon as the guns fall silent - coping with all that absence of noise and tension, letting go of the everyday fear of death or disfigurement, coming to terms with the fact that the intensity of being alive has lost its edge.
Nobody who has lived through that strange transition could fail to recognise the symptoms. One day they live in a world which has been turned upside down, then they find themselves in its polar opposite but without the saving grace of normality. For soldiers, at least for those who have survived battle, it is a rite of passage, an experience which seldom makes sense but has to be accepted. When Lieutenant Peter White, 4th King's Own Scottish Borderers, heard in May 1945 that the fighting in Europe had ended he had just returned from a combat patrol which had almost cost him his life, yet the announcement of the ceasefire left him strangely detached. "I felt tremendously tired. It was not just the tiredness due to our long nervy patrol. It seemed to be the tiredness of all the sleep we had lost over the last few months, yet curiously more of the mind than the body. With it, however, came a paradoxical feeling of lightness as though a heavy weight were slipping off one's consciousness, a weight so long a part of life that at times it was almost impossible to imagine it hadn't always been there."
White's posthumous diaries from that period have just been published under the title With The Jocks: A Soldier's Struggle For Europe 1944-45 (Sutton Publishing), but it is not just his graphic warts-and-all account of Scottish soldiering that makes this one of the best books about the battlefield experiences of ordinary men caught up in scenes of unimaginable violence. After all, that is the soldier's stock in trade. What lifts these military memoirs above the commonplace is White's gradual awareness that other people - helpless civilians and their families - are sharing his Dutch battlefield and that they, too, are part of the equation.
Some are allies delighted to be liberated, proferring "ersatz coffee and equally synthetic cakes, both in any case really awful" or simply lining the road as the Scottish armoured columns rumbled on towards the Rhine. Others were enemies, German civilians, who greeted the advancing army with a mixture of fear and sullen defiance, emerging from the rubble to gaze "in mute horror at the changed appearance of the town since last they saw it intact". Still more are casualties, pathetic bundles of humanity like the intact corpse of the local schoolmistress killed by a bomb blast, her body unmarked by wounds but still dead. "Poor wee lassie," blurted out one of White's Jocks as they buried her. "She's o'er young fae such an end."
However hard they tried, the advancing Scottish troops found it difficult to come to terms with the ranks of civilian dead, "women, children, old people and animals who were killed or hurt in this senseless business in which they seemed to play little part but as sufferers". Seeing dead soldiers was one thing - that came with the job - but the blank eyes of the ordinary people of Holland and Germany produced memories which most soldiers wanted to forget. They were the lucky ones who were allowed to go home once the fighting was over, leaving their battlefields to people who had no option but to stay, pick up the pieces and get on with whatever remained of their lives.
Almost 60 years on, White's war is history. Britain is now an ally of Germany, reined in by economic and military ties which are well-nigh unbreakable, and both are friends of the Netherlands which provided the killing grounds and the spectators. As for the participants in the battle most are old now and most were Scots serving in their country's great fighting formations - the 15th Scottish Division, 51st Highland and 52nd Lowland, all supported by the tanks of the Royal Scots Greys and the Scots Guards. There should be no point of connection other than old soldiers' stories and the memory of unhappy far-off things and battles long ago but some memories were laid too deep to be casually wiped from the memory-bank. It might have been the timid smiles of children as they accepted the benison of chocolate or the sullen face of a farmer tilling the frozen fields, but many soldiers have admitted that the images of that ilk returned to haunt them at unexpected moments, long after the fighting in the Low Countries had become a fantastic memory.
This week the Scots and the Dutch will join hands again when The Liberating Scots Trust unveils a permanent exhibition in the Dutch National War and Resistance Museum devoted to the campaigns of 1944 and 1945. Pipes will be played, the Dutch band will don the Leslie tartan of White's old regiment, a few tears will be shed and veterans will shake hands. An important, though neglected, moment of Scottish military history will be commemorated and, as one of the organisers put it, there will be time to ponder the fact that the freedoms we now take for granted were hard won.
That is how it should be, but the remembrance of war does not just affect squaddies; civilians too are on the roll of honour even though, all too often, they played a supporting role. While researching the background for his latest novel Nineteen Twenty-One (Cape), Adam Thorpe discovered that after the fighting stopped on the Western Front very few people in the area paid any attention to the shattered landscape, the destroyed towns, the blighted lives and the damnable machinery of war left behind. Normality had returned in that the abnormality of war had ended but life had become horribly artificial - as if having lived on the brink for four terrible years it proved impossible to return to the daily round. In its place came a shrill gaiety, restaurants and brothels flourished amid the ruins, some blankly accepted the destroyal of their lives, many more capitalised on it and made small fortunes. The armies had dissolved, the captains and the kings had departed but those left behind had to find their own salvation in a ruined country which bore all the scars and the continuing dangers of the conflict - even today the harvest in the Somme valley yields rusting shells and shards of skeletal matter.
That is the main problem with what has become known as "conflict resolution", a subject so nebulous that it has spawned seminars and created all manner of degree courses for the inquisitive and the acquisitive. It deals with the immediate problems which apply when peace prevails but it lacks long-term definition. Its practitioners can range from non-governmental organisations and charities to smaller and equally committed groups of individuals such as Helping Hands, whose therapists are still working to take the stress out of Sarajevo, but all too often they are spitting into the wind.
Partly the problem lies in the intractable nature of warfare; partly, too, the multiplicity of modern conflicts is too overwhelming to allow for any remedies, quick-fix or otherwise. But the main difficulty is time itself. Civilians caught up in combat come to believe that war is the only reality and its absence is a vacuum which can never be adequately filled. While the soldiers are allowed to go home they, the non-combatants, must remain and even if a vicarious normality returns, somewhere in the background the guns still rumble, bombs drop in vertical terror and white crosses dot the landscape. As people caught up in wars from Holland to Kosovo know only too well, peace can bring both relief and a life sentence.
June 02, 2001
My grandfather was a second lieutenant with the 2nd Hampshires on the Somme and at Passchendaele, where he was gassed and shell-shocked. He would suffer from what he termed "black moments" all his life, and the cure was to shut himself away with his piano and play Chopin. His adored younger brother emigrated to Canada in 1918, returned six weeks later as a private in the Canadian Infantry, and was killed two months before the Armistice.
On my father's side, Great-Uncle Fred returned to Derbyshire intact but with his lungs "all green", according to my grandmother. He died, "after terrible suffering", a year later, in 1919. His brother, Stan, was luckier: I remember his big, white moustache, his grin and his asthmatic wheeze. I was told he had been an ambulance driver "on the front", but I was never quite sure what this was until, leafing through one of the first Sunday supplements, I came across a startling image: a sea of white crosses. From that moment on (after due explanation), I was hooked.
Whether from a sense of inherited grief, or from sheer guilt - the feeling of just piffling about in the wake of my predecessors' grandiose historical roles - I have always felt very close to the Great War (perhaps memory itself can be inherited, since I have a similar feeling, through my father, for Second World War aerodromes and Lancaster bombers). Documentaries about the conflict reduce me to tears, and I can't talk about my grandfather or my great-uncles without feeling choked. As a boy, I had a repeated dream in which I was a soldier among flapping canvas tents; it rained, there was mud, we were soon to go up to the Front. I never dreamed of the Front itself.
I have similarly bucked the trenches in my novels. My first, Ulverton, devotes one chapter to the true story of a recruitment meeting in the village. The first version of my second novel, Still, was a straightforward tale of an Edwardian family destroyed by the war - 350 pages in, with my main character about to go up to the line, I gave up. I rewrote it from scratch as the attempt by a failed movie director to make the greatest Great War film ever (we never see most of it). My next, Pieces of Light, begins in the 1920s, with a father and an uncle damaged by the war; damage that the present-day narrator inherits.
With my new novel, Nineteen Twenty-One, I have come a little nearer to the source: it concerns a young writer who just misses the front. An angry young man of his time, he craves (like Ricky in Still) to fashion a masterpiece from the war, a novel that, in its gruesome plain-speaking, will shock and horrify the country out of its dismal complacency, brute materialism, and sickly tomb-building sentiment. His problem is both his and mine: he has not been in the trenches. He is of the aftermath, and his struggle is to return imaginatively to the war's present.Aftermath is unfashionable, of course. We prefer immediacy, the sexy moment of action. Today's headlines are tomorrow's withered blooms. Consequences are rarely examined because they belong to that slow, unfilmable complexity of things. Contemporary events have to have a kind of celebrity status, beneath which nastier growths emerge undetected.
Similarly, with the Great War, we have allowed ourselves to become besotted by the familiar images of mud and shell-holes and scattered corpses; of Tommies shivering in a flooded trench; of blinded poilus walking in a line through a wasteland of shattered trees. To write a First World War novel these days (with or without the obligatory romance), is to risk emblemising the horror, to wheel it on as a picturesque backdrop; the open, suppurating wound becomes a handsome scar. How to keep the wound fresh, so that it continues to disconcert, to teach us that war in whatever form is always this ghastly pain, this horror?Researching some years ago in the Imperial War Museum, I came across a remarkable 500-page document written by a medical officer, one Captain Gameson. These typewritten sheets had languished, probably unread, among the million other documents in the archives - and yet they went further to expose the horror than anything else I had ever read. (I use some of Gameson's extraordinary details in Nineteen Twenty-One.)
What this account made me realise is that, for non-veterans, the image of war is always both less gruesome and less fantastically surreal than the reality - and fiction is bound to falter at its gate. Indeed, fiction may be responsible for diluting the horror, making it palatable or even glamorous. I knew I had to find a different route by which to disconcert the reader, to dust off this particular war and show it as fresh and livid. I found it when I thought of Great-Uncle Fred.I have always been intrigued by the way the familiar world of the trenches abruptly ends on November 11, 1918: after the last boom, the silence - that famous silence. But what about poor Fred's lingering agony? He didn't fit in with that neat close, those dates I had learnt at school. He came in late, did Fred. There was no one there to applaud. It seemed to me, as a boy, even crueller than my Great-Uncle Malcolm's last-minute, rotten-luck death. And it had something to do with my grandfather's mental agony, the hours of Chopin through the closed door.
So I began to research, in a very concrete fashion, the aftermath: into what the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme were like after the last shot, the last boom. An unholy mess, yes, but what about the cleaning up? What happened to the smashed villages and torn fields and shattered roads? What was done with the thousands of tons of metal, the unexploded shells, the millions of corpses, the gallons of liquid gas left in the soil? On each visit to the old battlefields, I would ask myself the same question.
What I found was that, amazingly, local folk did return in droves down the wrecked roads the moment peace was declared. Camping among the ruins of their homes, penniless and hungry, they scrabbled for sustenance in the birdless quiet of the desert that had replaced their woods and fields. The more fortunate rebuilt their houses or lived in home-made wooden shacks. The others were put up (eventually) in curved Nissen huts painted a vile maroon colour, rows and rows of them between the rubble of walls. Big sprawling sheds housed schools and shops. And the villages remained in that state, through lack of funds, until the mid-1920s.
Ruined towns such as Ypres or Péronne became feverish hives of activity, like gold-rush settlements in America. Metal-pickers and builders and stonemasons from all over Europe converged to make their fortune. The job of dealing with the unexploded shells was given to the Chinese, who suffered more victims after the war than during it. In Captain Dunne's classic account of the actual fighting, The War the Infantry Knew, I read how "The Chinese... laugh when any of their number are killed." Wishful thinking, perhaps. Other unpleasant tasks were handed over to the Indian detachments of the British Army, or the Egyptians - and the French had the Moroccans, the Annamites and the Senegalese to take the brunt. The place was a seethe of people from all over the world, among whom morose German prisoners laboured and refugees trundled little Miele handcarts. Cafés, restaurants and above all brothels thrived in the wreckage. "Picturesque postcards" of the battlefields were sold, along with "authentic" souvenirs. There was a ruthless gaiety about it, this sudden show of life in a place of so much death - the kind of contradiction that a novelist thrills to. And it went on for more than 10 years.
Bluffs of rusting shells and hills of scrap metal rose beside the craters, tough men grinning beside them in the photographs. As for the human waste - the early, impromptu cemeteries were often mongrel affairs: German, French, British. It took years to shuffle them into their sacred national corners. Local children, eager to earn a few francs, hunted for metal bits or brought in shells: people were killed and maimed hoeing their cabbages, or picking dandelions, or ploughing their fields. It is clear from the local newspapers that the weekly toll was substantial.
In 1921, the landscape was still dangerous and devastated, the lovely churches in ruins (and the ruins themselves falling down), the trees still skeletal, the ancient requisitioned Prussian trains with their cattle-truck interiors and black livery still wheezing gingerly over bridges made unstable by the war's endless vibrations.
Yet railway companies as early as 1920 offered "Weekend Tours of the Battlefields of Belgium" for about £8. Loved ones could be mourned, the tragic sights picked over. I found out that the summer of 1921 was unusually hot, the rivers ran dry, there were dust-storms in London, the Flanders mud was stiff as rock - and T S Eliot wrote The Waste Land.
Then I read, in The Times of July 14, 1921, how a headmaster - a veteran - has disappeared, suffering from "loss of memory from the heat. The tips of his thumb and forefinger are missing." No mention of the war itself, no mud.