In this book we explore the parallels between CT and Jesus Christ at the same time as having a detailed commentary on the chaos of organisation that is the military in a war and an examination of the public school system of morality.
In Part One, mostly told as a stream of consciousness from CT's point of view and thus allowing confusions to creep in to the narrative (for example CT initially thinks that Captain McKechne is called Captain Mackenzie), CT is performing miracles of multitasking, issuing orders, helping men to write their wills, calming half-mad senior officers and even writing a sonnet to order in three minutes. Then a messenger whom he refused leave (woman trouble, a theme which reflects CT's own and which is repeated for many of the other soldiers) is killed in an air raid in front of him. Although he realises that 09Morgan would have survived had he sent him home, CT washes the blood from his hands.
The stream of consciousness technique enables FMF to show the chaos and confusion around Tietjens and to impress upon us how overworked he is and how easy it is for him, even someone as brilliant as he is, to make a mistake. This also means that the reader is (probably) aware before Tietjens that the woman waiting at the gate is Tietjens’ own wife (whom he supposes to be in England, causing scandals). This revelation is voiced by the staff officer
Great lines in Part One:
- “Men you worried over there. Each man a man with a backbone, knees, breeches, braces, a rifle, a home, passions, fornications, drunks, pals, some scheme of the universe, corns, inherited diseases, a greengrocer’s business, a milk walk, a paper stall, brats, a slut of a wife.”
- “That place was meant for the quiet and orderly preparation of meat for the shambles.”
- “pack a million and a half of men into and round that small town was like baiting a trap for rats with a great chunk of rotten meat.”
- “These immense sacrifices, this ocean of mental sufferings, were all undergone to further the private vanities of men who amidst these hugenesses of landscapes and forces appeared pygmies!”
- “The red viscousness welled across the floor; you sometimes so see fresh water bubbling up in sand. It astonished Tietjens to see that a human body could be so lavish of blood.”
- “He hoped he would not get his hands all over blood, because blood is very sticky. It makes your fingers stick together impotently.”
- “Why did they shoot them at dawn? To rub it in that they were never going to see another sunrise. But they drugged the fellows so that they wouldn’t know the sun if they saw it: all roped in a chair . .. It was really the worse for the firing party.”
- “Captain Mackenzie in the light of a fantastically brilliant hurricane lamp appeared to be bathing dejectedly in a surf of coiling papers spread on the table before him.”
- “English people of good position consider that the basis of all marital unions or disunions is the maxim: No scenes.”
- “He would, literally, rather be dead than an open book.”
- “The lady, Mrs Tietjens, was certainly without mitigation a whore.”
- “On the Somme, in the summer, when stand-to had been at four in the morning, you would come out of your dug-out and survey, with a complete outfit of pessimistic thoughts, a dim, grey, repulsive landscape over a dull and much too thin parapet. There would be repellent posts, altogether too fragile entanglements of barbed wire, broken wheels, detritus, coils of mist over the positions of revolting Germans. Grey stillness; grey horrors, in front, and behind amongst the civilian populations! And clear, hard outlines to every thought . . . Then your batman brought you a cup of tea with a little—quite a little—rum in it. In three of four minutes the whole world changed beneath your eyes. The wire aprons became jolly efficient protections that your skill had devised and for which you might thank God; the broken wheels were convenient landmarks for raiding at night in No Man’s Land. You had to confess that, when you had re-erected that parapet, after it had last been jammed in, your company had made a pretty good job of it. And, even as far as the Germans were concerned, you were there to kill the swine; but you didn’t feel that the thought of them would make you sick beforehand . . . You were, in fact, a changed man. With a mind of a different specific gravity. You could not even tell that the roseate touches of dawn on the mists were not really the effects of rum .” A wonderful description of the effects of alcohol on how one views the world.
- “I remember the thoughts I thought and the thoughts I gave her credit for thinking. But perhaps she did not think them.” A clever way of underlining the unreliability of all narration.
- “Nothing but the infernal cruelty of their interview of the morning could have forced him to the pitch of sexual excitement that would make him make a proposal of illicit intercourse to a young lady to whom hitherto he had spoken not even one word of affection. ... And without doubt Sylvia had known what she was doing. The whole morning; at intervals, like a person directing the whiplash to a cruel spot of pain, reiteratedly, she had gone on and on. She had accused him of having Valentine Wannop for his mistress. She had accused him of having Valentine Wannop for his mistress. She had accused him of having Valentine Wannop for his mistress” The effective use of repetition.
- “That was the right of the Seigneur in a world of Other Ranks.”
- “All those millions were the play-things of ants busy in the miles of corridors beneath the domes and spires that rise up over the central heart of our comity.”
- “a line of ghosts that were tents, silent and austere in the moon’s very shadowy light”
- “getting cattle into condition for the slaughter-house ... But it’s better to go to heaven with your skin shining and master of your limbs than as a hulking lout.”
Part Two is described from the point of view of Sylvia (Mrs) Tietjens again starting from a third person and then zooming in to her stream of consciousness to the point where I got muddled about what she said to herself and what she said aloud.
Sylvia is sitting in a hotel lounge with Perowne, the man who brought her to France and the man with whom she ran away to France with years ago when she first left Tietjens. She realises that Perowne is no sort of man. Compared to Tietjens no man seems worth having: “almost always taking up with a man was like reading a book you had read when you had forgotten that you had read it. ... You knew the opening, you were already bored by the middle, and, especially, you knew the end”. But this is a problem, Because he infuriates her. He is so good. She is like the woman taken in adultery and she thinks: “And women taken in adultery . . . All of them . . . Like . . . You know Who . . . That is his model . . . ’ She said to herself: ‘Curse him! . . . I hope he likes it . . . You’d think the only thing he thinks about is the beastly duck he’s wolfing down.’ . . . And then aloud: ‘They used to say: “He saved others; himself he could not save . . .”
Later, having a meal with CT and a sergeant-major, she starts to compare Tietjens to Jesus more explicitly. Tietjens is omniscient, the soul of charity, refuses to condemn anyone, lives chastely (after his early marriage and even though he wants to sleep with Valentine), annoys the powers that be but helps everyone and is adored. However, when Sylvia compares her CT to JC the sergeant-major demurs: “‘Ma’am,’ he said, we couldn’t say exactly that of the captain . . . For I fancy it was said of our Redeemer . . . But we ‘ave said that if ever there was a poor bloke the captain could ‘elp, ‘elp ’im ‘e would . . . Yet the unit was always getting ‘ellish strafe from headquarters . . .” Yet somehow, ‘getting strafe from headquarters’ (annoying the established church?) makes CT seem even more Christ-like. And when When Sylvia, mainly from mischief, tells the General that her husband is a socialist, she makes explicit comparisons. “‘He desires,’ Sylvia said, and she had no idea when she said it, ‘to model himself upon our Lord . . . ’ The general leant back in the sofa. He said almost indulgently: ‘Who’s that . . . our Lord?‘ Sylvia said: ‘Upon our Lord Jesus Christ . . . ’ He sprang to his feet as if she had stabbed him with a hatpin. ‘Our . . . ’ he exclaimed. ‘Good God! . . . I always knew he had a screw loose . . . But . . . ’ He said briskly: ‘Give all his goods to the poor! . . . But He wasn’t a . . . Not a Socialist! What was it He said: Render unto Caesar . . . It wouldn’t be necessary to drum Him out of the Army’”
Lines I loved in Part Two
- “an immense castle that hung over crags, above a western sea, much as a bird-cage hangs from a window of a high tenement building”
- “Do you know the only time the King must salute a private soldier and the private takes no notice? . . . When ‘e’s dead . . . ’”
- “These horrors, these infinities of pain, this atrocious condition of the world had been brought about in order that men should indulge themselves in orgies of promiscuity . . . That in the end was at the bottom of male honour, of male virtue, observance of treaties, upholding of the flag . . . An immense warlock’s carnival of appetites, lusts, ebrieties
The morning after. Tietjens is under arrest back at camp. The reason (as with all FMF narratives) slowly emerges from a muddle of statements. Last night he was in his wife’s room when Perowne came in wearing his dressing gown; he mistook him for room service and violently ejected him; Perowne made loud moan and woke General O’Hara who came to see what the fuss was about and was also pushed out of the room. Tietjens is thus under arrest for striking a superior officer.
Parallels with Jesus recur, for example when Tietjens says: “And then: ‘Oh, yes! I forgive . . . It’s painful . . . You probably don’t know what you are doing.”
The final chapter is a dialogue between Tietjens and General Campion (his godfather; wow, another parallel) in which the General acts rather like Pontius Pilate, desperately trying to find a way to help CT but in the end only coming up with the idea of sending him to a front-line regiment, despite his medical exemption, where he will probably be killed during the next German push. The General is, in effect, condemning CT to suffering and death and, kind man that he is, is desperately trying to get CT to help him find a way out of this. But CT refuses to take an easy option.
Lines I loved in Part Three:
- “The beastliness of human nature is always pretty normal. We lie and betray and are wanting in imagination and deceive ourselves, always, at about the same rate. In peace and in war!”
- “enormous bodies of men . . . Seven to ten million . . . All moving towards places towards which they desperately don’t want to go. Desperately! Every one of them is desperately afraid. But they go on.”
- “What the hell is language for? We go round and round.”
- “all men will go to hell over three things: alcohol, money . . . and sex. This fellow apparently hadn’t. Better for him if he had!”
A stunning book about war and a clever allegory about Jesus. July 2018