Tuesday, August 03, 2010
History is a relay of revolutions.
Bottom of the stairs looking up. Carruthers Building, St Johns Park, New Town. July 2010.
Last Friday I was on the [second] bus on the way to work – the Glenorchy via New Town Road – when I found myself rapidly approaching the emotional climax of the book I was reading. For those that don’t know (and you would be forgiven for not knowing of it), The Middle Parts of Fortune by the little known and long dead Australian expat Frederic Manning.
Men and war, war and men. That’s the plot. While this book is a record of experience on the Somme and Ancre fronts of World War One, there is far more waiting around than actual battle. Just like a real war.
That said; if you know anything about the Somme, you know that there will be blood. Perhaps the most striking thing about the book is the voices. Manning served in the ranks, a gentleman amongst men. The dialogue strikes one as ‘true’, and it is as if in recording the conversations of ‘the ordinary soldier’, it seems at times as if one is hearing the voices of ghosts.
The upper-middle classes had no lack of voice when it comes to the experience of the First World War. That is less so true for everybody else. It seemed that by the time it became ‘okay’ for ordinary people to speak about the war, they were dead. Most of us know them best through the mute, exhausted faces that stare out at us across time from black-and-white Great-War-era photographs.
That is what makes Manning's novel so special to me. Published in a limited edition during 1929, he captures their voice. The book gives the reader an atypical and vivid indication of what trench life and fighting felt like from the viewpoint of people that we might actually be able to relate to (being from such stock myself). More importantly, the book delivers some idea of the emotional and physical costs of battle. It explores the ways that men related to each other and to their superiors. As a reader, it takes it out of you.
But the point of the post is not to inform you of this most excellent book. The point was to regale you with a tale.
There is me on the morning bus to Glenorchy (although getting off in New Town), filled to the brim with school kids, reading this book. So I get to the real kick in the guts, the emotional and literal climax, and I’m welling up.
Fair dinkum, I thought “I’m not sure that I want to start bawling in front of all these people”, and set the bugger aside and looked out the window until I could get off and finish the chapter.
That’s the sign of a decent read.