Authors and Soldiers
October 26, 1918. If a man who knew no books, but who became serious when told of his emptiness, and showed eagerness to begin to fill it, were confronted with the awful strata in the library of the British Museum, and were told that that was his task, he might fall unconscious. But what cruelty! He could be warned that the threat has little in it; that the massed legions of books could do him no harm, if he did not disturb them. It could be whispered to the illiterate man--whose wisdom, it might chance, was better than much scholarship--that it is possible to read the best of the world's drama in a few months, and that in the remainder of the year he could read its finest poetry, history, and philosophy. I am but paraphrasing what was said recently by an Oxford professor. I would not dare to give it as my own opinion, within hearing of the high priests.
Yet the professor's declaration may be not only outrageous, but right. It is a terrible thought, except to those who are merely bibliophiles just as some little boys are lovers of old postage-stamps. I think he may be right, for I have a catalogue of all the books and documents prompted by the War and published before June, 1916. It runs to 180 pages of small type. It contains the names of about 3,500 books and pamphlets. Now, let us suppose a student wished to know the truth about the War, for perhaps a very youthful student could imagine it was possible to get the truth about it. The truth may be somewhere in that catalogue; but I know, for I have tried, that it has no significant name to betray its pure gold, no strange brilliance to make the type dance on that page as one turns the leaves with a hopeless eye. There are, however, two certainties about the catalogue. One is that it would require a long life, a buoyant disposition, and a freedom from domestic cares, to read every book in it. And the other is that there are no more books in it--which we ought to count as books--than one evening would see us through, interruptions and all. The books in that mass are as dead as the leaves of their June of the War.
I must confess, though, that I am a bibliophile with War books. Any book about the Great War is good enough for me. I am to that class of literature what little boys are to stamps. Yes; I know well the dread implication. I am aware of the worm in the mind; that I probe a wound; that I surrender to an impulse to peer into the darkness of the pit; that I encourage a thought which steals in with the quiet of midnight, and that it keeps me awake while the household sleeps. I know I consort with ghosts in a region of evil. I get the horrors, and I do not repel them. For some reason I like those ghosts. Most of them have no names for me, but I count them as old friends of mine; and where should I meet them again, at night, but amid the scenes we knew?
And what do I look for in these War books? It is not easy to say. It is a private matter. Songs the soldiers used to sing on French roads are often in my head. I am like the man who was once bewitched, and saw and heard things in another place which nobody will believe, and who goes aside, therefore, unsociable and morose, to brood on what is not of this world. I am confessing this but to those who themselves have been lost in the dark, and are now awake again. The others will not know. They will only answer something about "Cheering up," or--and this is the strangest thing to hear--"to forget it." I don't want to forget it. So if in a book I see names like Château Thierry, Crépy-en-Valois, Dickebusch, Hooge, Vermelles, Hulluch, Festubert, Notre Dame de Lorette, Ligny-Tilloy, Sailly-Saillisel, Croiselles, Thiepval, Contalmaison, Dompierre, then I am caught. I do not try to escape.
Yet these books rarely satisfy me. Is it not remarkable that soldiers who could face the shells with an excellent imitation of indifference should falter in their books, intimidated by the opinions of those who stayed at home? They rarely summon the courage to attack those heroic dummies which are not soldiers but idols set up in a glorious battlefield that never existed except as a romance among the unimaginative; the fine figures and the splendid war that were air-built of a rapture. These authors who were soldiers faced the real War, but they dare not deride the noble and popular figments which lived but in the transports of the exalted. They write in whispers, as it were, embarrassed by a knowledge which they would communicate, but fear they may not. To shatter a cherished illusion, to expose the truth to a proud memory, that, I will confess, is always a task before which a sensitive man will hesitate. Yet it is also part of the test of a writer's courage; by his hesitation a soldier-author may know that he is in danger of failing in his duty. Yet the opinion of the public, which intimidates us, is no mere bugbear. It is very serious. People do not enjoy the destruction of their cherished illusions. They do not crown the defamers of their idols. What is it that balks a soldier's judgment when he begins to write about the War? He is astonished by the reflection that if he were to reproduce with enjoyment the talk of the heroes which was usual in France, then many excellent ladies might denounce it indignantly as unmanly. Unmanly! But he is right. They not only might, but they would. How often have I listened to the cool and haughty contralto of ladies of education and refinement who were clearly unaware that what they were encouraging, what to them afforded so much pride, what deepened their conviction of righteous sacrifice, was but an obscene outrage on the souls and bodies of young men. How is one to convey that to ladies? All that a timid writer may do is to regret the awful need to challenge the pious assurance of Christians which is sure to be turned to anger by the realities.
I have read in very few books anything that was as good as the gossip one could hear by chance in France. The intimate yarn of the observant soldier home on leave, who could trust his listener, is superior to much one sees in print. In that way I heard the best story of the War. If it could be put down as it was given to me it would be a masterpiece. But it cannot be reproduced. It came as I heard it because, remembering his incredible experience, the narrator found himself in secure and familiar circumstances again, was confident of his audience, and was thinking only of his story. His mind was released, he was comfortable, and lie was looking backward in a grim humour which did not quite disguise his sadness. His smile was comical, but it could move no answering smile. These intelligent soldiers, who tell us the stories we never see in print, are not thinking about their style, or of the way the other men have told such tales, but only of what happened to themselves. They are as artless as the child who at breakfast so tells its dream of the night before that one wants to listen, and Tolstoy says that is art. The child has heard nothing of the apocalyptic visions, and does not know Poe, Ambrose Bierce, or Kipling. He is concerned only with his own sensations, and you listen to him because you have had such dreams, and he recalls a dark adventure you had forgotten.
But the difficulty in the writing of such stories is that the narrator, as soon as he begins, becomes conscious of the successful methods of other men. I have been reading a number of War stories published recently, and it was painful to see how many were ruined by Kipling before this War began. Kipling was original, and his tricks of manner, often irritating, and his deplorable views of human society, were usually carried off by his genius for observation, and the spontaneity of the drama of his stories. But when his story was thin, and he was wandering in an excursion with his childish philosophy, he was usually facetious. As an obvious and easily imitable trick for dull evenings, this elaborate jocularity seems to have been more enjoyed by his disciples than his genius for narrative when he was happy, and his material was full and sound. Yet his false and vulgar fun has spoiled many of these volumes pollinated from India. They have another defect, too, though it would be unfair to blame Kipling for that when it may be seen blossoming with the unassuming modesty of a tulip in any number of Punch. I mean that amusing gravity of the snob who is sure of the exclusive superiority of his caste mark, with not the trace of a smile on his face, and at a time when all Europe is awakening to the fact that it sentenced itself to ruin when it gave great privileges to his kind of folk in return for the guidance of what it thought was a finer culture, but was no more than a different accent. It was, we are now aware, the mere Nobodies who won the War for us; and yet we still meekly accept as the artistic representation of the British soldier or sailor an embarrassing guy that would disgrace pantomime. And how the men who won must enjoy it!