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Archive for the ‘War Literature’ Category

In J.L.Carr’sA Month in the Country‘, the narrator and one of the main characters are soldiers in the First World War, and that experience leaves a permanent impact on their psyche. After I read the book, I thought I’ll read a First World War memoir to understand this more and I picked up Edmund Blunden’sUndertones of War‘.

I discovered Edmund Blunden when I was in school. An excerpt from his book ‘Cricket Country‘ was one of the lessons in our English textbook. In that section, Blunden talks about the beauty of the English cricket season and mentions the great allrounder Frank Woolley. After I read that excerpt, I wanted to read the book. But I discovered that ‘Cricket Country’ was long out-of-print. Years later I searched for it in Gutenberg and at other places online and it was still not possible to find. But while looking for this, I discovered that Blunden has written a First World War memoir. I was amazed! I always thought that Blunden was a cricket writer. It turned out that he was a poet who fought in the First World War. Blunden’s cricket book is almost never mentioned anywhere and it seems to be just a footnote in his career. I am not giving up though – I’ll still keep looking for it.

On the book itself, ‘Undertones of War‘ is regarded as one of the great memoirs of the First World War. It has been compared to Robert Graves’Goodbye to All That‘. Blunden is frequently mentioned together with Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon as the three poets who fought in the First World War and survived to tell the tale.

Blunden’s memoir is not long. The edition I have is 190 pages long. Blunden doesn’t beat around the bush and start the book from his childhood and describe his family to us. He just gets to the point and describes how he signs up and gets called up to serve in the army. This happens on the first page. The rest of the book is about his war experiences. The book ends with Blunden coming back home, and the war not being over yet.

So what do I think about the book? Blunden is a poet, and it shows in every page. If it is possible to describe something in plain language and describe the same in poetic language, Blunden almost always chooses the second option. So there are many beautiful sentences and descriptions in the book. Sometimes it feels like we are reading a Wordsworth poem. For example, these lines –

“I heard an evening robin in a hawthorn, and in trampled gardens among the language of war, as Milton calls it, there was the fairy, affectionate immortality of the yellow rose and blue-grey crocus.”

And these lines –

“The village was friendly, and near it lay the marshy land full of tall and whispering reeds, over which evening looked her last with an unusual sad beauty, well suiting one’s mood.”

Even when he describes the war, he describes it like this –

“On the blue and lulling mist of evening, proper to the nightingale, the sheepbell and falling waters, the strangest phenomena of fire inflicted themselves. The red sparks of German trench mortars described their seeming-slow arcs, shrapnel shells clanged in crimson, burning, momentary cloudlets, smoke billowed into a tidal wave, and the powdery glare of many a signal-light showed the rolling folds.”

Blunden describes nature poetically at every opportunity he gets. This book has been described as an extended pastoral elegy in prose, and that is what it is.

There are, of course, descriptions of war, and shells exploding, and people getting killed, but those descriptions are not graphic or gruesome but brief, unlike war memoirs which might be written today.

Blunden also has a wonderful sense of humour and that peeks out at many places in the book. For example in this sentence –

“The weather had turned heavy and musty, the pre-ordained weather of British operations.”

And this sentence –

“No protection against anything more violent than a tennis-ball was easily discernible along that village street…Our future, in short, depended on the observance of the ‘Live and Let Live’ principle, one of the soundest elements in trench war.”

I laughed when I read that 😁

Blunden also describes incidents in the book, which can only be called dark humour of the Kafkaesque variety (or the Coen brothers’ variety). I don’t want to mention them here and spoil the surprise for you. I’ll just say that they are funny, but also tragic. Blunden also describes many of the people he worked with during the war and some of them are fascinating. My two favourites were Corporal Worley and Colonel Harrison. A couple of dogs also make their appearance in the story at different times, one of whom is adopted by the army and another who is adopted by Blunden.

When he ends the book, Blunden calls himself ‘a harmless young shepherd in a soldier’s coat.‘ It made me smile. I couldn’t resist comparing Blunden with Pierre from ‘War and Peace‘ – both nice people, both fight in a war, both have a dog, both are harmless young shepherds.

Undertones of War‘ is like no other war memoir I’ve read. It is beautiful and poetic, it demands attention and involvement, and it bestows rich rewards if one reads it slowly while savouring and lingering on its beautiful sentences. The book also has a forty-page poetry section in the end, which has poems which cover some of the same themes and sometimes events described in the book. I didn’t read that part, but have saved it for a rainy day.

I loved ‘Undertones of War‘. I am glad I read it finally. Now I want to read Robert Graves’ ‘Goodbye to All That‘ and compare it with this. And I’ll continue my search for that elusive pearl, Blunden’s ‘Cricket Country‘.

Have you read ‘Undertones of War‘? What do you think about it?

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