PLEASE NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
With a sort of trepidation, I have next to my computer keyboard a copy of the Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, edited by Jon Silkin. I quail, I fear to open this book, because, from its pages, I know will emanate the disgusting trenches of a century ago, the stink of the corpses, exposed and sliced apart, clothes and skin ripped away, and the reason for such carnage?- the cruel, murderous arrogance of governments and generals.
Wilfrid Owen’s victims of incompetence, brutality, and massacre, will spill out from this volume.
We might all wish we could shut the past out, but nightmares from centuries ago have the habit of returning. History is tragically cyclical; maybe we- ‘homo sapiens’- have some inbuilt self- destructive urge to revisit the mistakes our ancestors made, to repeat the unending folly of division and conflict. And it is forgetting- forgetting why people long ago let their lives become awkward, awry, indeed apocalyptic- it is forgetting that makes us stupid. When we do not remember and study our ancient errors, they are bound to reassert themselves, willy nilly.
I dare to enter into this verse about murder and pain, and, as if I am transported back to 1917 or 1918, I feel the soil smashed into by enemy shells and mortars, the bullets and the barbed wire, the terror that nearness to death will always produce. I reach Siegfried Sassoon, and his short quasi- sonnet (it is ten, not fourteen lines), entitled ‘Base Details’, with another ten- line poem, ‘Lamentations’, beneath it. ‘Base Details’ criticizes the uniformed bosses at the Base, scarcely brave in the fray themselves. These pompous monsters in charge are without compassion, and expect to ‘toddle safely home and die- in bed’. Meanwhile, they coldly send out young soldiers to perish in the trenches. ‘Lamentations’, with its sour sardonic final line, condemns ‘patriotic feeling’ as an inhuman, frigid, crooked framework for individual grief and mourning.
Where Wilfrid Owen emphasizes, with a sense of tragedy matching the Greek, the ‘horror of war’, Sassoon opts very often for satire. Sassoon’s verse at times reminds one of the sly, hopelessly slick doggerel on current political and social themes that was produced in this era in the now defunct journal, ‘Punch’- but Sassoon’s ideas are necessarily more twisted, warped, uncomfortable than anything to be found amidst the smug High Victorian pages of ‘Punch’. In terms of imagery and technique, Sassoon is the inferior poet to Owen- but, working within the boundaries of his not altogether honed skills, Sassoon cuts us deep with his combination of humour and horror.
It was the New Year. 2018. The Reading Group in the French Institute. The chill outside of mid- January lay across South Kensington like a frosty shroud. The Salons, our customary haunt, were closed to us, with the redecorating there being difficult and lengthy, and so we were in the neighbouring Mediatheque instead, seats arranged in a circle at one end of which was the moderator, Dominique, who came a little late. Alas, the delays, the perils, resulting from London’s crammed traffic!
The book, ‘The Great Swindle’, by Pierre LeMaitre, deals with events from a hundred years ago- it is now the centenary of the last year of the ‘War To End All Wars’- a ghastly misnomer, in actuality. Wars don’t stop, and they will never stop. We have gone from 1918 to 2018, and man’s longing to kill has not abated, not one jot.
LeMaitre is very much an echo of Sassoon. LeMaitre’s favourite method is chilling satire, which he deploys to attack wealth, to condemn war, to show that human connections matter more than abstract nonsense such as ‘motherland’, ‘the flag’, ‘the nation’. In ‘The Great Swindle’, LeMaitre provides us with a now comic, now tragic, critique of ‘patriotism’ as essentially a fraud extending to vast dimensions, a greedy bloated lie eating up life after life. The context is the First World War. I suggested to the Reading Group that the appropriate maxim for this book would be ‘Patriotism is the last Refuge of the Scoundrel’, from that rotund and eccentric 18th century sage, Samuel Johnson. Scoundrels and rogues- some less pleasant than others- abound in this book about falsehood and the flag.
Dominique handed out excerpts from an interview with Pierre LeMaitre, underneath a potted biography of this author (Parisian, born in 1951, a crime writer, and appears to have been showered with prizes). Pierre LeMaitre is seen in France as a ‘popular’ writer- some high- brow critics might sneer that his style lacks intellectual polish-and France is a country where not emphasizing the intellectual is very much a vice. But I would say that LeMaitre is refreshingly unpretentious. He is a veteran of the ‘polar’, or crime novel, which really cannot function without a clever plot- which is obviously a feature of ‘The Great Swindle’. His prose appears refreshingly functional. I went through ‘The Great Swindle’ in translation- and nearly every translation I come across upon the semi- varnished shelves of the Mediatheque is usually inferior to the original French. This translation- by Frank Wynne- did look convincing, and, briefly studying another of LeMaitre’s works in French, I found that Wynne, to a degree, gives us a sense of how LeMaitre writes.
The plot of ‘The Great Swindle’ seems as intricate as the circuits on a silicon chip. The producer of ‘polars’, LeMaitre emphasizes to his unsettled readers that chauvinism is ultimately a matter of crime, despite all the pretentions- medals, rank, honours- of the national tribe. Start, middle and end of ‘The Great Swindle’ interlock- to make us laugh, and also, devastatingly, to make us weep. Three key personalities loom amidst the coincidences and the contradictions: Albert Maillard, Edouard Pericourt- both ordinary soldiers- and their commanding officer in 1918, Henri d’Aulnay Pradelle. Pradelle, the total villain, is reminiscent of the corrupt ‘Ancien Regime’ as portrayed by LaClos in ‘Les Liaisons Dangeureuses.’ He represents patriotism gone wrong, the exploitation by an unscrupulous elite of national myths, the greed of the lying chauvinist, the contempt for principle and scruple that is the definition of the aristocrat.
The start of this novel defines it. The war has reached November, 1918; it seems obvious that fighting will end very soon. The cunning, ruthless Lieutenant d’ Aulnay Pradelle needs to use these final days for the sake of (hideously immoral) post- war profit. He secretly shoots two of his own men in the back in ‘No Man’s Land to provoke his own outraged brigade to storm, rather pointlessly, the ‘Boche’ on Hill 113- Pradelle’s selfish concern being for his own dubious ‘glorious reputation’. He wants to look like the hero in 1919 and beyond, even at the price of some ruse that murders his own men. Chauvinism, LeMaitre reminds us again and again, is the prerogative of the parasite, and the vulture.
Albert Maillard discovers Pradelle’s brutal trick, and is pushed into a shell hole by the ruthless officer, about to lob in a grenade- when a shell totally buries Albert. Albert is assumed to be dead. Pradelle departs, to kill some Boche in addition to his own troops. Meanwhile, another soldier, Edouard Pericourt, has witnessed some of this incident involving Pradelle and Albert. Edouard, leg smashed by a bullet, crawls up to the shell hole, and digs out his fellow ‘poilu’, only for a shred of shrapnel to rip his lower face off. The ‘recompense’ for rescuing Albert is that Edouard will be horribly disfigured. Le Maitre seems convincing in this book with his insistence that goodness alas is often to be punished- goodness, yet also hubris, pride, the bigotry of the tribe.
Discussing the rest of the plot in detail would be rather tedious; it should be repeated that Le Maitre, as a crime novelist, has imposed on his characters a sequence of incidents, paradoxes, chance events that appear to fit together as neatly as the filaments in a spider’s web. Alongside the emphasis on plot, Le Maitre also dishes up for us personalities that obviously have depth. While Pradelle is the stark villain, upper class and ruthless, as greedy as he is promiscuous, the two ‘heroes’- Edouard and Albert- engage in a fraud that exploits ordinary villages wanting a memorial for the dead. Edouard, a rebel artist who specializes in the obscene, produces pompous designs for such memorials, then money is sent in to a fake address, and pocketed by Edouard and Albert- while the actual memorials are never built.
There is a hint - nothing more - of some manner of homoerotic bonding of Edouard to Albert.
What Pradelle is questioning through this ‘memorial scam’ is the maybe bogus nature of ‘remembrance’. I always feel, on November 11, that the pompous collection of ‘worthies’ gathering at the Cenotaph to lay wreathes and display official grief are exactly the type against which Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon railed. There is something tribal, unwholesome, about the ceremonies on November 11. Edouard is a ‘hero’ (anti- hero?) who has saved Albert under fire, but there is no medal for him- only the devastation of his body and a terrible anonymity, his fate hidden by his machinations from his own family. Albert too is a ‘hero’, but not recognized as such, through continuing to assist the stricken Edouard, who, in total pain all the time, acquires a morphine addiction.
Across villages and towns in England, there are First World War memorials; I commented to the Reading Group, in the sour sardonic manner of LeMaitre, that one stark message of such memorials is: ‘We beat the Krauts’ and ‘God is on our side.’ Are such memorials an almost malevolent gesture, in that they reinforce tribalism while not recognizing the dead on all sides, but sadly only on ‘ours’, as it were? They also provide the impression of society ‘caring’ for ‘our boys’- when the reality is that shattered survivors such as Albert and Edouard were absolutely disregarded by the French mainstream after 1918. Again echoing LeMaitre’s cynicism, I argued that soldiers receive the same contempt (and fear) as prostitutes- both groups may be necessary, but neither are liked. Soldiers are nothing more than conscripted killers in the end, and who wants a killer in the vicinity?
LeMaitre indicates that even dead ‘poilus’ were not honoured as they should have been- as all those who have departed from us should be. He is recycling from the vaults of history, he says in his conclusion, the actual ‘military exhumations scandal’ in 1922, through Pradelle, a high- born crook who has been tampering with names on graves and with sizes of coffins for the sake of money. Cash is sadly Pradelle’s number one motivation. So, in this manifestly clever plot, all three central characters are exploiting people’s patriotism as a weakness, in order to make a lot of francs. Someone at the Reading Group argued that, morally speaking, Edouard and Albert are not superior to Pradelle- the three are all crooks, maybe. But, whereas Pradelle is a blue- blooded animal, with his string of mistresses and his total disrespect for the dead under his veneer of working for the flag, one must concede that Albert and Edouard add an albeit bizarre humour to their own scam, which is really due recompense against ‘the cause of France’- the root of such grief and humiliation for them.
In any case, there seems to be an actual honest hero for this story- the civil servant in the war grave inspectorate, the irascible Joseph Merlin, whose foul- smelling neglect of his hygiene and his clothes is matched by a manifest probity on his part, the opposite of the disgusting cupidity of the all too smooth Pradelle. Predator Pradelle appears as handsome as his heart is underhand.
LeMaitre’s wrenchingly sophisticated plot reminds one of Greek tragedy, of Greek tragedy’s terrible twists and fatal coincidences. Consider the conclusion, where the smug rich and well- connected father Pericourt kills his own son, Edouard, in a car accident- something reminiscent of the agony of Oedipus, if in reverse- for Oedipus slays his own father unintentionally. Edouard seems to come from a wealthy family, but his rather skewed and less than wholesome desire to be an artist, coupled with his disfigurement, makes him opt for seclusion, with the assistance of Albert. Another cruel irony of the plot is that Edouard’s sister, Madeleine, marries Pradelle- to her eventual regret! With half his face slashed away by shrapnel, Edouard makes and wears paper masks. Masks, of course, were crucial to Greek theatre. Edouard’s facial injuries are an echo of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’- of catastrophic change warping personality and fate.
Dominique, the moderator, commented that a sequel had just come out to this book, in which Madeleine, Edouard’s sister, appears to be central.
Nearly everyone is corrupt or corrupted to some degree in this novel. Albert is (relatively) innocent, but unfortunately weak in terms of personality- so he is roped in by Edouard into the ultra- dodgy memorials scheme. Albert, the pathetic ingénue, appears to achieve a modicum of happiness- escaping overseas, away from France, with the grubby loot, and his new and bewildered girlfriend, Pauline- on, of course, Bastille Day, the Day of the Patriot!
To reiterate, solely Joseph Merlin is a crusader- albeit an unlikely one- for truth and decency. Merlin hunts down Pradelle with a doggedness that must be described as admirable. Pradelle’s attempt to bribe Merlin is a darkly hilarious failure. Merlin, unlike other characters in this tragic- comedy, decides to reject the lure of money ‘in toto’. Again, we have the echo of classical Greek literature, in that Merlin embodies the figure of Nemesis, who brings down the proud. Merlin is Pradelle’s Nemesis. And handsome, disgusting Pradelle deserves his ultimate ruin.