Monday, November 3, 2014
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“DEATH OF A HERO” by Richard Aldington (first published 1929)
I think I’m right in saying that Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero is one of those novels that thousands of literate people have heard about, but not all that many actually choose to read, although it has been reissued many times. Indeed this year, as everybody commemorates the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, Penguin Classics have chosen to include a new edition of Death of a Hero among a set of novels related to that war.
Usually Death of a Hero features as a title in literary histories, and in lists of books that reflect the anti-war mood that had developed by the late 1920s. Given this, it’s quite possible that many people believe it’s an “anti-war” story mainly about soldiers, along the lines of All Quiet on the Western Front. A reading of the novel quickly shows that this is not the case, although what was then still called the Great War looms large in the novel and is the subject of the last third.
As always, a word about the author. Richard Aldington (1892-1962) [his given first names were actually “Edward Godfree”] was a man ofslender means who had to spend much of his life doing journalistic hackwork to support himself. He was also notoriously prickly, bad-tempered and prone to biting the hand that fed him. In much of his writing (fiction and non-fiction) he produced negative caricatures of literary friends, which effectively ended the friendships. He first made his name as an Imagist poet (with Ezra Pound and others) just before the First World War and married the Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle who preferred to sign her works “H.D.” They remained officially married until the late 1930s, although by then they had long since separated, “H.D.” having first had another chap’s child and then deciding she was a lesbian. The heterosexual Aldington himself had many affairs with women and was eventually married three times.
More pertinent to Death of a Hero is that, despite already being immersed in London’s literary scene, Aldington volunteered for war service and had a very bad time of it on the Western Front in 1916-17, being eventually wounded and invalided out.
Along with Death of a Hero, his other best-known book (and he published over forty books before he was done) is Lawrence of Arabia – A Biographical Enquiry, published in 1955, Aldington’s debunking biography of T.E.Lawrence, which caused a great scandal upon publication. Personally, I still have a lot of time for this iconoclastic work, to which I give shelf-space, as I think it was a necessary corrective to the uncritical and inaccurate heroic view of Lawrence that then prevailed. Even so, I agree with Aldington’s critics who say that it is excessive, ranty, sometimes vindictive and always unprepared to concede any good points to T.E.Lawrence. As we will see, Aldington’s abiding fault was the tendency to overstate his case, even when it was a good case, and to rant and rave. This is also true of his biography of the “other” Lawrence, D.H., called Portrait of a Genius, But…(first published in 1950) to which I also give self-space. In the case of D.H.Lawrence, Aldington is passionately defending D.H. and rantily attacking his critics, with the same lack of restraint he shows in his other books.
To get back to Death of a Hero. Many people have suggested that Aldington’s rage against the legend of Lawrence of Arabia was at least partly fed by his sense that soldiers on the Western Front (such as Aldington himself) had suffered worse things than Lawrence did in his “sideshow”. This anger about the war fuels Death of a Hero, but so do Aldington’s attitudes to London’s literary scene. It is probably also pertinent to note that Aldington had had a nervous breakdown in 1925, four years before Death of a Hero appeared.
So, in reading Death of a Hero, we are reading a novel by a man angry about the war – a man damaged physically, fragile psychologically, and alienated from most of London’s artistic and literary set.
Death of a Hero begins with a “Prologue” in which the omniscient first-person narrator tells us that the “hero” George Winterbourne died on the Western Front in the last year of the war, and suggests that George, in effect, committed suicide by exposing himself to machine-gun fire because he found his life, and other people, so intolerable. The narrator proceeds to give unrestrained opinions about all the people who had an effect upon George in his life – his parents and wife and mistress and artistic friends and the army – all the while suggesting that George was too meek and forbearing for his own good and much put upon. This clumsy prologue tends to spike much of the narrative by signalling too clearly what is to follow.
What does follow is, in three parts, the whole story of George Winterbourne’s life, only the last of which deals directly with the war. The Prologue has been subtitled Allegretto, and each of the novel’s three parts is also given a pretentious musical subtitle.
Part One (Vivace) concerns George Winterbourne’s Victorian-Edwardian upbringing and childhood. George’s failed artist father and his sexually-promiscuous mother are both presented unsubtly as fools and hypocrites, who have not succeeded in breaking with the false values of their parents despite their pretensions to be bohemians. George himself gets a conventional education at a minor public school, which he comes to despise. He objects to military drill (O.T.C.) at school, manages to get exempted and spends his time reading acres of poetry and developing a poetic and artistic sensibility.
Part Two (Andante Cantabile) is about George attempting to be an artist in London just before the First World War, mixing in fashionable artistic circles (there are thinly-disguised caricatures of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence and Ford Maddox Ford) and acquiring both a wife (Elizabeth) and a mistress (Fanny) and an ‘open’ marriage. But things become shrill and unpleasant.
And so to the last third of the novel, Part Three (Adagio). George Winterbourne joins the army early in the war, and despite having been to a public school (which would at once place him in the “officer class”) chooses to go off to France as a private soldier. However, on the Western Front the attrition rate of officers is so high that he is soon promoted to officer anyway. He is killed in the last week of the war almost as if, sick of the whole thing, he has chosen to die. This we knew was coming as we were warned, not only by the novel’s title, but also by the Prologue.
There are indeed in Part Three some harsh and unheroic things on display in Aldington’s version of the war. Presumably it would have had a similar shock value to other war-related books of its day. The final note is of heavy, black irony. Aldington closes with George’s horrible death:
“Something seemed to break in Winterbourne’s head. He felt he was going mad, and sprang to his feet. The line of bullets smashed across his chest like a savage steel whip. The universe exploded darkly into oblivion.”
And here the novel should properly end. Except that Aldington can’t pass up a chance for sarcasm, so he follows this death immediately with an official communiqué from Marshal Ferdinand Foch, praising the soldiers for saving “the liberty of the world” and promising them “immortal fame”. We are invited to see the hollowness of these phrases beside the raw fact of battlefield death. And then, by way of an epilogue, there is a poem referencing the War of Troy in which it is suggested that it is better to forget wars, which turn their survivors into grey-haired old men by the time they are 40. (Aldington wrote this in his late 30s).
It should be noted at once that neither George Winterbourne nor his friend the omniscient narrator is angered by the war alone. Somewhere in Part Three, George goes home on leave and finds the arty society of London as obnoxious, false and uncomprehending as he finds the war grubby, unheroic and destructive. On one level, this is like Siegfried Sassoon’s rage at “Blighters” who lived comfortable lives at home and made light of soldiers’ sufferings (“I’d like to see a tank come up the stalls…” etc.). Yet it is clear that Aldington, by the time he was writing the novel (and self-exiled in Paris), was enraged at the turn the avant-garde literary world was taking anyway. When I read the “home leave” sections of Part Three, I can’t help feeling that Aldington is actually reflecting the London literary scene of the 1920s, by which time Aldington had lost many of his former literary friends and become a marginal figure, rather than that same group during the First World War. He has projected his 1920s observations back onto 1917, and busily settles some scores. The “home leave” is almost like a plunge into the world of the post-war Bright Young Things, vigorously and promiscuously bedding with one another.
There is another fairly obvious point. George Winterbourne is as much Richard Aldington as the omniscient narrator is. It is well–established that George’s mistress Fanny is based closely on Aldington’s first wife “H.D.”, while George’s wife Elizabeth is based on one of Aldington’s mistresses. In one sense, then, George Winterbourne is Richard Aldington purging his own past – writing out of his system a fantasy of his real self “dying” in the war and saying Goodbye to All That. This tends to work very much at cross purposes with what I think was his intention – to present George Winterbourne as a representative figure of the arty English middle-classes, amiable but easily persuaded to float along on received opinions – including the received opinion of wartime patriotism. Hence George is no “hero”.
I have said a number of times in this notice that Aldington has the tendency to rant and to overstate things. I can find no way of illustrating this more handily than by quoting from the Prologue, which gives a fair taste of the style that is to come.
By Page Two we are aware that this is not a writer who knows the virtue of understatement, or who knows that characterisation is not quite the same things as invective. The narrator is commenting on the death of George, and how George’s father reacts to it. This is what he says:
“Possibly old Winterbourne would have felt and acted differently in his reactions to George’s death, if circumstances had been different. But he was so scared by the war, so unable to adjust himself to a harsh, intruding reality – he had spent his life avoiding realities – that he took refuge in a drivelling religiosity. He got to know some rather slimy Roman Catholics, and read the slimy religious tracts they showered on him, and talked and sobbed to the exceedingly slimy priest they found for him. …”
Three “slimy”s and a “drivelling” in one paragraph?
Erm, can one infer from this that Aldington didn’t like Catholics?
It isn’t exactly subtle, is it?
But then the narrator’s Prologue continues throwing similar invective at just about every group or political persuasion then existing. Everybody is a pitiable and intellectually inadequate wretch according to Aldington’s alter ego. A few pages further on in the Prologue we have this description of George’s wife and mistress:
“Elizabeth and Fanny were not grotesques. They adjusted to the war with marvellous precision and speed, just as they afterwards adapted themselves to the post-war. They both had that rather hard efficiency of the war and post-war female, veiling the ancient predatory and possessive instincts of the sex under a skilful smoke-barrage of Freudian and Havelock Ellis theories. To hear them talk theoretically was most impressive. They were terribly at ease upon the Zion of sex, abounding in inhibitions, dream symbolism, complexes, sadism, repressions, masochism, Lesbianism, sodomy etcetera. Such wise young women, you thought, no sentimental nonsense about them. No silly emotional slip-slop messes would ever come their way. They knew all about the sexual problem and how to settle it.”
And so on for a paragraph at least as long again as the part I’ve quoted. Again, such mockery isn’t exactly subtle, is it? Indeed, the narrative tone of this novel is often that of a playground bully swinging wildly in all directions.
As my last example, note how the Prologue introduces what is ostensibly the novel’s main theme, the making of the death of George Winterbourne:
“The death of a hero! What mockery, what bloody cant! What sickening putrid cant! George’s death is a symbol to me of the whole sickening bloody waste of it, the damnable stupid waste and torture of it. You’ve seen how George’s own people – the makers of his body, the people who held his body to be theirs – were affected by his death. The Army did its bit, but how could the Army individually mourn a million ‘heroes’? How could the little bit of Army which knew George mourn him? At dawn next morning we were both hot-foot after the retreating enemy, and did not pause until the Armistice – and then we had our own lives to struggle with and disentangle.”
“Bloody, sickening, putrid cant”? I fully understand the outlook that brought Richard Aldington to this view. I think a man who had suffered hell on the Western Front had every right to do his block about the war and the false and stupid ways in which it had been interpreted, largely by non-combatants. But alas, not only does this passage announce with absolute clarity where the novel is going to go, but it also sets a tone of ranting overstatement, which rarely abates.
Aldington can’t turn his voice down. It’s as if he is shouting at us the whole time. In fairness I have to note that the tone becomes a little different in the last part of the novel, where he gives the horrors of war in a more matter-of-fact documentary style, despite the odd burst of heavy irony or sarcasm. Even so, reading Death of a Hero is a wearing experience, and it is easy to see why this novel has not worn as well as some of its contemporaries on similar themes.
Idiotic Footnote: Before Death of a Hero was first published in 1929, Aldington’s publishers’ declared that they would not publish it unless Aldington expunged certain passages that were considered obscene or indelicate. Anxious to see his book in print, Aldington bowed to their conditions and expunged the said passages. But he insisted that the publishers include rows of asterisks, in bold type and square brackets, to show where the deleted passages had been. And he added a prefatory note registering his protest at how he had been censored. I first read Death of a Hero in a battered old Penguin paperback printed in the 1930s. It was expurgated as the first editions were, and this was the only form in which the novel could be read for many years. Halfway through reading it, I switched to an unexpurgated recent edition, and diligently checked out all the passages that had earlier been expunged. Expecting to find effings and blindings and maybe explicit sex and violence, I was highly amused to find that most of what had been edited out consisted of the mildest of soldiers’ cuss-words (“Bugger” etc.) and in some cases indelicate or satirical comments about Queen Victoria and Britain’s royal family and other toffs. Noting that little that had been censored added a great deal to the novel, I can register this only as an amusing and silly episode in the history of censorship.