“In the lane, I had already lost a boot and fallen on my knees so that now my trousers were soaked and one of my socks was sodden and the bottoms of both my sleeves were freezing against my wrists.”
This is Timothy Findley, writing in his journal in November 1976, describing his experience in the mud.
He was researching his WWI novel, The Wars, attempting to duplicate soldiers’ fighting conditions: an impossible task, but one undertaken with determination nonetheless.
He had planned to stay at the end of the lane in the mud for 24 hours, in weather and conditions which matched those Robert Ross experienced in the novel, as best as the author could replicate them.
But of course Findley was not being fired upon, and the mud “was only ankle deep and, at its worst, it rose to halfway up my shin — which is to say — I sank down halfway up to my knees”.
He lists all the tasks that he carried out there and what he learned, including that it was “impossible to sleep”, “being out of doors in a freezing, driving rain, when you cannot hide from it, reminds you very quickly how vulnerable your face is”, “peeing is a mix of comedy and pain”, and there is “nothing for the mind to do but feed on present circumstances”.
[By the time I read this, in Inside Memory (1990), I had already read The Wars for the first time, but when I learned that the author had spent time in the mud to write it, I felt as if I had always known it; The Wars made for visceral and memorable reading, and that remained true for it on re-reading this month too.]
But although the author has accepted an unusual degree of responsibility for re-creating such visceral experiences for the reader, there is a great deal of responsibility left for the reader of this work as well.
In fact, the reader plays an essential role in The Wars, often being directly addressed in the narrative.
‘You’ make an appearance on the third page of the novel, and its final sentence is for ‘you’ as well. In between? More of that.
“As the past moves under your fingertips, part of it crumbles. Other parts, you know you’ll never find. This is what you have.”
What you have is an assembly of parts, fragments presented for you to observe, inhabit fleetingly, set aside, muse upon, revisit, and reconsider.
You are standing apart from the past, however. You are turning the pages of this novel, looking for a way into what has happened. Sometimes you need explanations, actual facts that aren’t readily understood so many years later.
“Lest Robert’s having to ask for his own side arms make no sense to those of you who weren’t around or haven’t read this part of history, it should be pointed out that this was a ‘people’s army’ – not an army of professionals.”
This is certainly helpful. But most often you need to understand what it might have felt like. You need to imagine the facts into something with emotional heft.
“There is no good picture of this except the one you can make in your mind.”
Outright, the kinds of gases employed in warfare during the Great War are listed. And that’s useful, for you, of course.
But what remains, most fervently? Passages like this: “The gas drifted down in Robert’s direction – but this was a distance of five miles, south-west – so all they got was the taste of it on snowflakes.”
How can we trust anything other than the taste of it?
We are immediately informed that the way in which the past is recorded is often contradictory; the truth isn’t something whole and certain, but something shifting which must be assembled from fragments.
Even Robert Ross’ own accounts don’t necessarily reveal the truth of his wartime experiences.
For instance, readers familiar with the scenes on the ship, in which he has suffered in the underworld (below deck) and been unflinchingly exposed to the horrors of war, are startled to learn that he summarizes them in a letter to his parents as follows:
“here we are at last! It was an evil trip. I caught a cold and the doctor thought it might become bronchitis. There were storms. Someone put me in charge of the horses….”
(It’s clear early in The Wars that neither the four-legged, winged nor two-legged will be spared suffering in this story.)
Assembling something-akin-to-truth requires a kaleidoscopic perspective on events.
And some of the most colourful bits in the pattern are provided by the memories of Lady Juliet d’Orsey, “the most vivid and personal we have”, presented in the form of transcripts, though the tone of her voice cannot be captured in print.
Juliet was twelve years old at the time, so her commentary comes complete with its own commentary; she does share her memories ofher younger self’s perspective on Robert Ross, but she observes from her 70-year-old self’s perspective as well, in terms of how reliable these recollections might be.
She, like the reader, now inhabits the present and observes the past from a distance.
(Though the reader is one-step removed yet again, observing the observer in this case. And, technically, the reader is observing the observer who observes, but that’s perhaps best left unexplained, for some aspects of this novel’s framework are not fully understood until its final pages.)
Others’ observations are also alluded to (like the war poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and Robert Graves) in the text and the author’s bookish research (out of the mud) included reading not only letters written during this war by his uncle but the works of these published wartime writers as well.
The Wars is structured in five parts, reflecting the author’s dramatic experience, with content alternating between the domestic (which set the scene, also with tragic elements) and the military conflict and struggle.
Not only does this alternation afford the reader a degree of respite (luxurious moments out of the mud), but it reminds reader that suffering comes in all shapes and sizes, on the homefront, in No Man’s Land, and behind-the-lines.
(Most often, technically speaking, the most horrendous scenes are written in the most elementary form: short sentences built of brutal words, one after the next. The clipped prose belies the weight of its content.)
The scene which some argue is the novel’s most haunting is the one for which this book still makes an appearance on lists of challenged/banned books in Canada: the rape scene.
Even before publication, the author was challenged for this aspect of his work. He agreed with those (like Margaret Laurence) who felt that the point that this generation of men had been violated was made consistently and clearly throughout the work elsewhere.
“But I cannot remove it. As a scene, it is intrinsic — deeply meshed in the fabric of the book as I first conceived it. I cannot cut away its arms and legs — no matter how convinced other people are that the book will stand and function without them.”
He speaks of the diplomatic suggestions made in hopes that he would choose to cut the scene: “a campaign of quiet but urgent persuasion”. But, ultimately, “It was rape. The scene stays.”
But surely anybody coming to this story does not expect it to be filled with pretty images and promises.
This passage concludes the novel’s fourth part:
“So far, you have read of the deaths of 557, 017 people — one of whom was killed by a streetcar, one of whom died from bronchitis and one of whom died in a barn with her rabbits.”
The deaths considered in isolation are not, one might argue, key to the story told in The Wars (Robert’s uncle, Robert’s peer, Robert’s sister). This might seem ironic, but underscores the idea that the wars considered in this novel are not only the political conflicts which play out on the main stage.
And each one of those losses — those unfathomable losses, only quantifiable in numeric form — each might well be accompanied by a work like Timothy Findley’s in attempt to put a single life, a single loss, into some sort of context.
For, at the end of The Wars, you will have read of 557, 018 deaths, and there is still so much which has not been understood about that single story.
And the reader is left breathless: choking on the mud, the rain, the gas, the flames.
The elements pull the life out of characters like Robert Ross who inhabit the printed page.
But Timothy Findley invites readers to breathe life back into them by turning those pages.
The pages of memory, the pages of history, the pages of fiction.
(Note: Originally I was re-reading this with Danielle (who has also posted about it at A Work in Progress), and then learned that she was reading it for Caroline’s readalong, so I was inspired to post about it sooner rather than later. Isn’t that often how it goes: one person’s reading plan slips a book into another’s stack, and so on, and so on…)