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The Reading Life: Geoff Dyer on 'The Missing of the Somme'

August 18, 2011 | 12:58 pm

Geoffdyer_2011 This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

It's been 17 years since Geoff Dyer published his fifth book in the United Kingdom: "The Missing of the Somme," an impressionistic look not just at World War I -- the Great War -- but also at the cult of memory that arose in its wake. Here, Dyer moves from poetry to photography to the art of the memorial, framing the war as cultural and historical artifact. "Memorials to the Missing are not about people," he writes, "they are about names: the nameless names." This observation evokes almost perfectly the tension between war and recollection, between individual tragedy and collective memory.

Two years after "The Missing of the Somme," Dyer's collection of jazz portraits "But Beautiful" introduced him to American readers; since then, he's published half a dozen titles in the United States. "The Missing of the Somme," however, has not been among them -- until now. This month, Vintage released it for the first time in America, and Dyer discussed, via email, his thoughts about the book, the war and the elusive art of loss.

Jacket Copy: "The Missing of the Somme" was published in England in 1994 but is only now coming out in the United States. Why?

Geoff Dyer: When it first came out in the U.K., no one in the U.S. wanted to publish it -- partly because I had not published anything in the U.S. at that point and it would have been a rather strange little book to have started out with. And partly because the First World War didn't have a presence in American culture and history so that in bookstores the stock would just leap from the American Civil War to the Spanish. That changed, I think, with John Keegan and Niall Ferguson's books on the First World War. Vintage first wanted to publish it in 2002 but at that time the U.K. publisher owned U.S. rights. Fast forward to last year: Same situation but Vintage U.S. negotiated rights from the U.K. publisher. So a simple observation: Back when no one in U.S. wanted to publish it, letting the U.K. publisher have U.S. rights seemed better than nothing since I was giving them something no one wanted. A major mistake and a bitterly simple lesson!

JC: Despite that lack of cultural presence, there has been some essential American writing on the war. In "The Missing of the Somme," you discuss Paul Fussell and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, of course, there's also Hemingway and John Dos Passos.

GD: Yes, the irony is that it's an American writer, Fitzgerald, who came up with the most evocative description of the effect and legacy of the Western Front, and Fussell's is the benchmark book of literary criticism. With Hemingway and Fitzgerald, it's the aftermath that is the principal concern, a vacancy symbolized, I suppose, by the way the narrator of "The Sun Also Rises" has [been emasculated] -- or whatever it is that's happened to him.

JC: Early in the book, you describe your grandfather enlisting underage, a story his death certificate refutes. Yet you make a case for the emotional truth of the anecdote, portraying your grandfather as an archetype: "everyone’s grandfather."

GD: This is the wager, isn't it: that the chances of one's being able to articulate a general truth or an emotion shared by other people are increased by remaining absolutely faithful to the contingencies of one's own experience and the vagaries of one's own character. In the case of the war this was a pretty low-risk wager because the Great War is such a key part of the collective consciousness of Britain.

Missingofthesomme JC: Is this why you focus on the role of remembrance in our understanding, or contextualizing, of the war? "The war’s true subject is remembrance," you write, a paradox that has to do with both the scale of the loss and a lack of understanding, on the part of most people, of what the fighting had been for.

GD: Well, I suppose you could say that one of the good things about the First World War is that it produced some amazing memorials! I was struck by the way this question of how the war would be remembered -- even if in its negative form: the fear that people would forget? -- was such a dominant issue right from the start of the war. And so, looking at it not as a historian but with the uncomprehending gaze of a kind of Martian, I suggest that the war was fought in order that it might be remembered. Obviously, it's a tail-wagging-the-dog type argument but I think it helps articulate the way we perceive the war.

JC: Among the most moving riffs here has to do with the line of soldiers marching past the Cenotaph in 1919. The surrogate dead, you call them -- who, in conjunction with those who went to war five years earlier, combine to form "two segments of a single picture of the long march through the war."

GD: Yes, there's the Larkin poem "MCMXIV," which depicts the "long uneven lines" of people queuing up to enlist and there’s this photo of soldiers marching past the Cenotaph after the Armistice. So it was easy to imagine the war as a kind of funnel or tunnel through which an entire generation was poured, marching four or five abreast in a single unbroken column. The difference is that those marching past the Cenotaph seem like representatives of the dead. Again it's just an impression but quite an evocative and effective one.

JC: Do you think the fact that there is a documentary record of the war -- in the form of photographs and film clips -- has helped keep it immediate?

GD: Ah, excellent -- a point we can disagree on at last! I think one of the distinguishing features of the First World War is precisely its lack of immediacy: That's why it seems so steeped in its own past-ness. Contrast it with the Robert Capa photographs of D-Day; now, there's immediacy, there's a sense of things hanging perpetually in the balance.

JC: Speaking of Capa, you cite both him ("not interested in taking pretty pictures") and Wilfred Owen ("not concerned with Poetry") to argue that the art of war, such as it is, is not actually about art but about witness.

GD: Well, of course, the rejection of pretty pictures is something with a long and distinguished aesthetic history. As is the idea of people bearing witness in the form of rather beautiful pictures of horrible things. Moving out of the realm of photography, one of the striking things about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the amazingly high quality of the literature to have come out of it, but it's literature in the form of reportage. Take "The Good Soldiers" by David Finkel. I saw an interview where he said that a given sentence reported a fact and the next sentence reported another fact (as one might say a photograph does). The result of this quite austere method of bearing witness? A stunning work of literature.

JC: I'm struck by your accounts of the shared humanity of soldiers on both sides, as well as the idea that "the deserter's grave has become a hero's grave." It brings to mind Tim O'Brien, observing, in "The Things They Carried," that his fellow soldiers in Vietnam fought because "they were too frightened to be cowards."

GD: I wonder if there's a racial point to be made here? Was it easier for the sense of shared humanity to arise between British and German because they were the same race? There was almost no evidence of that in the Pacific War: the Sledge memoir on which the series "Pacific" was partly based brings that out in the most graphic way imaginable. Maybe the connection between the First World War and Vietnam is a similar sense of futility and pointlessness: In books about either war there is always a chapter called "The Quagmire." Going back to the race question, that makes the actions of Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who intervened in the My Lai massacre, even more admirable.

JC: There's also a class issue at work, since, as you write, "[W]ar, for working-class soldiers, was a continuation of labour by other means." This plays out not just in the history, but also in much of the memorial art.

GD: A great deal of soldiering is still laboring: carrying, digging in and so on. But as Fitzgerald writes in that famous passage, the scale of the slaughter of the First World War depended on a precise relation between the ruling class and the ruled. The First World War didn't bring that to an end in Britain, but it certainly threatened it. It was only after the Second World War that we got the establishment of the welfare state and all sort of measures were put in place to increase social mobility and so on. I'm a direct beneficiary of that.

JC: That's one resonance for contemporary readers. But ultimately, we can take it or leave it, think about the war or walk away. "We gaze at photographs of soldiers in the trenches," you write. "Snow, dirt, cold, death. When we have been there long enough, we get up and leave, turn the page and move on."

GD: I think this enhances our sense of the awfulness of what people caught up in the war experienced: the way that it took on an unstoppable momentum of its own. Actually, that's slightly misleading: more like an unstoppable lack of momentum. A permanent deadlock. By 1916 people were thinking the war might go on forever, that it had become a permanent condition of existence.

JC: Isn't this always the way with history?

GD: And misfortune generally. Cf. Dylan in "Black Diamond Bay," watching the news item about "an earthquake that left nothing but a panama hat." So he turns it off and goes to get another beer.

JC: You call your book "[n]ot a novel but an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance ..."

GD: The book grew out of a visit to the cemeteries on the Somme, an experience that might have given rise to a novel -- a novel that many other people could have written. In some ways my book is an early symptom or expression of writerly -- and readerly -- impatience that has become more acute in the years since I finished it. Also of a compulsion to come up with something formally original, unique to the subject, as opposed to filling a pre-existing mold. For many writers that's what a novel is: a pre-existing mold.

JC: That novelistic impulse seems to emerge in the personal sections late in the book, which are voicy and irreverent.

GD: Generally speaking, I can't bear unrelieved solemnity or piety; nor can I bear much so-called comic writing. As in real life I like the constant shuttling back and forth between serious and comic. Ideally, I like it if it's impossible to draw the line between the two.

JC: In some sense, this helps brings the war into the present. And yet, as you point out, it can never be brought up to date. It has become timeless, with the memorials returned to meadows, metaphors not for loss so much as for inevitability.

GD: I don't think anything has changed in the years since the book came out except that perhaps more people are visiting the cemeteries. Maybe there's a sense of it not becoming more distant but, on the contrary, of the war moving into closer proximity as we approach the 100th anniversary so that between 2014 and 2018, present and past will be in a perfect planetary alignment or historical adjacency.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Geoff Dyer. Credit: Matt Stuart / Graywolf Press