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The Ultimate Sacrifice – Virago Author of the Month

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The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Following on from the LibraryThing Virago group’s choice of Vita Sackville-West for January, our author of the month for February was the great Rebecca West. I struggled to get onto reading one of her books last month, finally picking it up right near the end; so a little belatedly, here is my review of her first  (and probably most well-known) work of fiction, “The Return of the Soldier”. Billed as a novel, at 160 pages with big type it’s a book you can read quickly; however, it gives much food for thought and I can see why it’s so highly regarded.

return-of-the-soldier

West is an author I’ve only read a little of (my review of her “The Harsh Voice” is here) but I have a large number of her books on the shelves. Had time been on my side I would have liked to spend time with one of her more substantial works – but then, this book has more substance to it than you might expect. “The Return of the Soldier” was written while the Great War was still taking place and published in 1918; narrated by a woman called Jenny, it tells the story of the return of her cousin Chris Baldry from the Front, back to his beautiful home on ‘the crest of Harrow-weald’ and the welcoming arms of his beautiful wife Kitty and of course Jenny (who appears to live with them).

As the book opens, the women are living in their gilded cage, relatively untouched by the War but surrounded by absence. As well as the fact that Chris is away fighting, they are also haunted by the loss of Chris and Kitty’s young son; the nursery has been left untouched and Kitty is often to be found in the room as if seeking comfort. The women have prepared an immaculate nest for their man and themselves, one that he was apparently sad to leave; it seems perfect, idyllic and slightly unreal, given what is happening in other parts of the world.

Strangeness had come into the house and everything was appalled by it, even time.

Crashing into this glittering facade comes a woman from the nearby town of Wealdstone; the place is described in stark terms as something of a blot on the picturesque local landscape, and Mrs. Grey is set forth in a cruel and patronising way. In fact, the reaction of Jenny and Kitty quite shocked me until I realised I was seeing her through the filter of their eyes; the descriptions of a working woman are harsh, representing her as a stereotype with cheap clothes and accessories, and worn face and hands, and I found their reaction hard to take.

Mrs. Grey has, somewhat surprisingly, come with news that Chris is ill. Why she should know and not his wife and cousin is not revealed at first, but as we read on we find that Margaret Grey, when she was a young innkeeper’s daughter, knew Chris Baldry very well. In fact, unlikely as it seems to Kitty and Jenny now, she was his first love and as he’s suffering from shell-shock and has blotted out the past 15 years, he’s pining to return to Margaret and the affection of his youth.

So Chris is brought home and despite the evidence before his eyes is unable to accept the reality of where and who he is. He cannot remember Kitty; Jenny is a childhood playmate; and to the astonishment of these sophisticated women, he has an instant bond with Margaret despite the coarsening effects upon her of age and a hard life. Chris is happy with Margaret and his life in the past; but can he be allowed to stay there or will the doctors brought in to treat him be able to bring him back to the present and the prospect of the return to battle?

For that her serenity, which a moment before had seemed as steady as the earth and as all-enveloping as the sky, should be so utterly dispelled made me aware that I had of late been underestimating the cruelty of the order of things. Lovers are frustrated; children are not begotten that should have had the loveliest life, the pale usurpers of their birth die young. Such a world will not suffer magic circles to endure.

“The Return of the Soldier” is a powerful first novel, and surprisingly complex for such a short work. West brilliantly builds up the initial setting, painting a picture of the lovely world created (mainly by Kitty) for Chris and initially as I read I accepted (with Jenny) that the house and location was wonderful and that all three were happy there. However, as I read on, the appalling snobbery of the women made it clear that this was a shallow, stale and worthless environment to live in, and the contrast of the superficial falsity of the controlled life Kitty had created, cold and barren, was made with the real, deep emotional life of Margaret. Jenny finds out the back-story from Margaret, and the relationship between her and Chris is touchingly revealed. The latter only seems to come properly alive when he’s with his first love, his attitude to Kitty (and all other beautiful women) seeming more as that of a man being very careful with a piece of fragile china. Little details, such as the fact that Chris had not even given his home address to the authorities when he enlisted, reveal how little attachment he had to his wife and home, and it’s clear that his life with them was meaningless.

The young Rebecca West

The young Rebecca West

Kitty herself is a clever and unpleasant creation; self-absorbed, controlling and ultimately selfish, she would rather Chris was made well to return to the battlefield and possible death, than stay in his happy world of 15 years ago with Margaret. As for the latter, she’s a fascinating creation; Jenny manages to recognise her worth, despite her prejudices, and she’s obviously a person of much more substance than the rich women. Her lot in life shows the difference that circumstances can make to a person because had she had the money and comforts Kitty and Jenny had, they would not have been able to make such harsh and hideous judgements about her.

Surely she must see that this was no place for beauty that has not been mellowed but lacerated by time, that no one accustomed to live here could help wincing at such external dinginess as hers…

The title of the book obviously has a double meaning; initially there is the physical return of Chris to his home, but there is also the eventual mental return from his place of safety to normality so he can tragically return to the fighting. Although the women are somewhat cut off from the War, they have their own kind of battle for Chris and it’s painful to watch. All of this is conveyed in beautiful, evocative prose and West’s writing is magnificent. To get so much into such a short book is a remarkable achievement, and reading “The Return of the Soldier” has really convinced me that I need to pick up more of those West books languishing on Mount TBR.

Dipping into Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories

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“Dipping” is a word I’m trying to introduce into my reading vocabulary at the moment, as I seem to have got myself into a mindset of having to finish a book at a time, regardless of what it is. And when it comes to poetry and short stories, this isn’t necessarily the best way to read, so I’m going to attempt to be a little more flexible, picking up volumes of poems and shorter works when the mood takes me and not fretting about when I finish them. And I was gifted with some lovely volumes at Christmas, so this would be the ideal way to start exploring them.

A book I’ve been keen on getting for a long time is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Selected Stories in a lovely Virago volume, and my Secret Santa Trish kindly came up trumps with this one. The stories are chosen by Susanna Pinney and William Maxwell, STW’s literary executors, and having only read one of her books before (“Mr. Fortune’s Maggot”) I was interested to see what her other work was like.

stw-stories

So far, I’ve read a few stories and they really are good. In particular, “The Love Match”, the first story in the collection, is a real gem and a wonderful way to open the book. Telling the story of Celia and Justin Tizard, a brother and sister who come to live in the little town of Hallowby, it initially seems that Mr Pilkington, who brings them there, might be the focus of the story or heavily involved. In fact, he plays a minor part, and STW twists and subverts your expectations with a dark little tale about a very strange relationship between the wars and how it plays out. I was left with a *lot* of questions about Celia and Justin, about what really *had* been going on in the town, and also thinking about what happens behind closed doors and beneath the surface.

I shall carry on dipping into this book whenever the fancy takes me, as it seems that I’m going to be guaranteed something interesting. Now I just have to get myself into this mindset as regards poetry: should I read chronologically? Open the book at random? Search for titles that are recommended or highly thought of? Any suggestions gratefully received…

Virago Volumes: A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn

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What was I saying about being a trivial reader? That’s perhaps the wrong word – fickle might be a better word; for example, there are many, many books I’ve had on my shelves for 30 years and *never read*! I’m trying to rectify that at the moment (Proust being the main example); but Martha Gellhorn is another case in point. However, paradoxically, the book of hers I chose to pick up was this one, “A Stricken Field”, one of my more recent Virago acquisitions. I thought the subject matter (Prague in 1938) might fit better with my current mindset, and Gellhorn was on my mind from reading about her in Sybille Bedford’s “Pleasures and Landscapes”. So there you are – I’m following my random reading muse as usual!

stricken

Gellhorn, of course, is as fascinating a character as Bedford. A war correspondent from a young age, witnessing the Spanish Civil War amongst other things, she’s cursed with often being remembered only for having been married to Hemingway – although pleasingly Wikipedia put her other achievements first: Martha Ellis Gellhorn (November 8, 1908 – February 15, 1998) was an American novelist, travel writer, and journalist, considered by the London Daily Telegraph, among others, to be one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century. She reported on virtually every major world conflict that took place during her 60-year career. Gellhorn was also the third wife of American novelist Ernest Hemingway, from 1940 to 1945. At the age of 89, ill and almost completely blind, she committed suicide. The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism is named after her.”

So Gellhorn was obviously no ordinary woman and had no ordinary life – in fact, I imagine that a biography would be a really good read! However, apart from her reporting she also wrote fiction, and this book is her first full-length novel, published in 1940 when war was beginning to tear Europe apart; and also after years of conflicts on that continent, in Spain, and also in Germany, where the Nazi regime had been gradually developing an iron grip. The novel opens with Mary Douglas, an American journalist, flying into Prague in 1938. Munich pact etc. Mary is young, but she’s not naive, having seen the Spanish Civil War, and she knows that the creeping menace of the Nazis threatens the countries and people she loves. She’s hoping to find her friend Rita, a left-wing German who’s fled to Prague in search of safety, and they do indeed meet up early in the story. Rita lost her brother to the enemy’s brutality, and works for the resistance in Prague, trying to help fellow refugees survive. She has also found a fragile kind of happiness with a fellow worker, Peter; but they are living on a knife-edge, like every other enemy of Fascism at large in a country now being dominated by the jackboot. All the refugees are being forcibly repatriated to places where they will be tortured, put in concentration camps, and most probably die horribly. Can Mary and her journalist friends do anything to help – or is the impending cataclysm too much for any humanitarian efforts?

ASF is a remarkably powerful and moving novel; to be frank, it’s gut-wrenching, both in the emotional sense (as we ache for the suffering of the refugees) and the literal sense (there are references to torture, and one particularly awful interrogation scene). If I’m honest, the book as a novel is not particularly accomplished – the regular shifts in perspective are clumsy at times and hard to follow; the character of Mary never really develops much; and the group of journalists are just that, a fairly amorphous band who don’t take on much of an individual form. However, the book’s strength is in its reportage. It’s recording a piece of history, a shocking and horrible time, but one that needs not to be forgotten. The story of Rita and her lover Peter stands for any number of stories, for the thousands of people who suffered under oppression (and indeed those who still do). Gellhorn captures haunting images: Rita staggering down dark streets in Prague, not knowing where she’s going or why; the bundled up humans at the railway station being forced into trains taking them to their doom; those who cannot cope with the thought of leaving and take another way out…

“She thought: there will have to be a terrible justice, blowing over the world, to avenge all the needless suffering. Thus far, she had seen the innocent punished and insulted, pursued and destroyed; and when they tried to protect themselves, their enemies were swift, unanimous and relentless. Simple men were ignorant enough still to fight against each other instead of fighting side by side. She had seen only the triumph of the lie and the victory of the liars. It will take a long time to change this, she thought, we learn very little, we learn very slowly. She was afraid she would be reporting disaster and defeat her whole life.”

gellhorn

It’s a stark story of a stark time; Mary tries at one point to involve some politicians in her attempts to help the refugees, but even they are powerless to make any difference. There are many shocks in this book, not the least the contrast between the privileges Mary enjoys because she holds an American passport, and the lack of everything – food, money, security, a chance at life – that the expelled refugees have. But what shocked me most of all was when this book was written and published. Gellhorn wrote the book in 1939, based on her real visits to Prague, and published it in 1940. In the 1938 of this book, the concentration camps and the treatment of Jews and Socialists is common knowledge – the reporters have become almost indifferent to it. I somehow had the impression that the revelations about Nazi camps after the war came as a shock to the world, but it seems that the facts were already well-known. Which leaves me thinking about man’s inhumanity to man, and how this vicious cruelty was allowed to carry on by all the so-called civilised nations. And thus it ever was and thus it ever will be – the bigwigs make their strategies and move little models around on a plan (or nowadays a digital simulation) but these represent real people, and it’s the latter who always pay the price for conflict – a look at the news reports nowadays proves that nothing’s changed.

It was a painful experience, but I *am* glad I read this book. As Gellhorn says in her afterword “Novels don’t decide the course of history or change it but they can show what history is like for people who have no choice except to live through it or die from it. I remembered for them.” She certainly did that, and this book should continue to be read so that we never forget.

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