A poetic personal reflection of events that unfolded in the life of a British officer, John Guest, during the Second World War. Guest composes lengthy letters to a fellow soldier he met early in the campaign, the poet Christopher Vernon Hassall. While the war progresses slowly in the background, the journal/letters are a spot where Guest reconnects with his real self, to have an actual conversation with someone (albeit through letters). His lyrical descriptions make you scramble back for a re-read. He discovers how much he likes being alone only after joining the army. His descriptions are best when most personal, the barber who sings opera loudly in his ear, meeting another kindred spirit on the beach but discovering he can’t be friends with the man since Guest was an officer and the other man a private, climbing to the tops of the cliffs to watch the moon and sea, being irked that Americans ran Rome and thus Brits were offered 2nd class accommodations.
A few things rankled me, despite the gorgeous prose. In one breath, Guest describes the poverty and wretchedness of the natives whose country he has invaded. In the next, he’s off to an officers’ dinner with champagne, linen napkins, etc. He participates in looting china and glasses, and acquires several prints in Italy at discounted prices. He fails to see himself as a vulture of war, ripping open the carcass of Africa and Italy to take his spoils. He also appreciates some ridiculous Chinese wisdom (“a man cheating on his wife is like spitting from the house into the street. a woman cheating on her husband is like spitting from the street into the house,” or something to that effect), but as (an implied) homosexual, I suppose misogyny is to be expected. He also kvetches about his troops always asking for leave, but in the next missive, we find he’s just back from a 5 day holiday on the coast.
His view on being stationed in Lancashire, England:
Though there is still great wealth here, many of the larger houses are neglected, all their ugliness emphasized. Such places, built probably in the ‘sixties, have a far more haunted and tragic look than abandoned houses of an earlier period. The fine conservatories which once heard so many proposals of marriage, which once were filled with such sumptuous banks of flowers, are now derelict– panes of broken glass, a few brown stalks in pots, and a water-tank covered with green scum. The sewing women and governesses, the housekeepers and gardeners, have all long since died. But I prefer even the tragic look of these places to the gimcrack smart new houses here. Often when I pass in the evening their drives are filled with chromium-plated cars and hard-faced women in slacks and tight pullovers. Radiograms blare from the open windows and cocktail cabinets flash inside the rooms. Everything seems to proclaim a terrible instability, a mad scramble for pleasure, for social position, for more money, as though at any moment in the sinister game someone will shout out “Time!”
This hit home with me about my own selfishness in letter-writing:
Lying in bed last night I was thinking a little about these bulletins I send you, and was depressed by my conclusions. They are all so introspective, so lacking in ideas and thoughts. They record only what interests, amuses or hurts me – all impressions, impressions – nothing but arid description. There is no fusion of impressions into a thought or an idea: it seems that nowadays I don’t think, just feel. All this again is introspection. But I have an excuse, a reason – if selfish – for writing at all. It is that I must talk intimately to someone or burst.
His tone-deaf transition from native poverty to invader luxury (p 163-4):
For the first time in my life, I saw hunger… I saw a man and a woman there in appalling rags, both- I should imagine- feeble-minded, carrying a baby in a piece of dirty woolen rag. The child was barely alive. I thought with a feeling akin to hope and longing that it would die soon, for its present and future existence was the tragedy, not its probable death. It was abnormally small, the colour of lard, very dirty and dead-looking. It was about a month old and the woman was crumbling an army biscuit into its mouth which it just mumbled but couldn’t swallow. The man and the woman looked round, smiling at the soldiers – not smiling continuously, but the flickering twitching smile of people who smile automatically when they are very frightened.
One afternoon we went to the San Carlo Opera House to see Cavalleria Rusticana… the orchestra was very good.
Discovered from the great Neglected Books site.