November 21, 2008
Geoff Dyer: The Missing of the Somme
It was the 90th anniversary of Armistice recently which led me to revisit Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme. But he was already on my mind as I had discovered that he will soon publish his first novel in a decade. His novels are perhaps the least of him, or their punning titles are anyway: his last was Paris Trance  and his next is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009). It’s in non-fiction where he excels: the compendium of essays Anglo-English Attitudes; the study of photography The Ongoing Moment; his brilliant account of almost failing to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage. A disciple of Berger and admirer of Bernhard, Dyer is nonetheless capable of shameless silliness in a way which still manages to be charming, as in his award-winning (well, a WHSmith award. But they all count) travelogue-cum-‘memoir’, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. In that book he tells us, and it might apply to any of them: “Everything in this book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head.”
The Missing of the Somme (1994) came about because
like the youthful Christopher Isherwood who wanted to write a novel entitled ‘A War Memorial’, I wanted to write a book that was not about ‘the War itself but the effect of the idea of [the War] on my generation’. Not 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…
This is typical Dyer self-deprecation. This is a substantial book despite its page count. Everything has been thoroughly considered, down to his reasons for sticking to ‘the Great War’ rather than the coldly associative ‘First World War’ or (even worse) ‘World War I’. “Was there not, amidst all this grief, a faint shudder or shiver of excitement at the unimaginable vastness of it all? … Was there not a faint glow of pride, an unavoidable undertow of semantic approval, in terming the war ‘Great’?”
That ‘vastness’ is backed up by the figures. “In total 918 cemeteries were built on the Western Front with 580,000 named and 180,000 unidentified graves.” “By the time of the great battles of attrition in 1916-17, mass graves were dug in advance of major offensives.” “France and Germany each lost more than a million and a half men; Russia, two million. Three-quarters of a million of the dead were British.” “If the Empire’s dead marched four abreast down Whitehall, it would take them three and a half days to pass the Cenotaph.” We could read these numbers all day and never get closer, even almost a century on, to comprehending the scale of the deaths. Dyer’s method then is to deal primarily with the act of remembrance of the war rather than the war itself.
The war paralysed not only a generation and a decade, but bled back to infect the past.
Life in the decade and a half preceding 1914 has come to be viewed inevitably and unavoidably through the optic of the war that followed it. The past as past was preserved by the war that shattered it. By ushering in a future characterized by instability and uncertainty, it embalmed forever a past characterized by stability and certainty.
Aspects of memories of the war are preserved in statues, cemeteries and photographs. “Every family has an album like this. Even as we prepare to open it, the act of looking at the album is overlaid by the emotions it will engender. We look at the pictures as if reading a poem about the experience of seeing them.” Dyer’s liberal use of photographs through the text brings to mind W.G. Sebald, and it’s in his discursive manner too, the ‘narrative’ which looks meandering or random but in fact is highly wrought and tightly structured.
Dyer records the use of statues of unknown soldiers (“they are all over the country, these Tommies”) and how, “rotted by pollution, powerless to protect themselves, their only defence, like that of the blind, is our respect.”
The most common form of sculpture – a soldier, head bowed, leaning on his downward-pointed rifle – actually represents the self-contained ideal of remembrance: the soldier being remembered and the soldier remembering. Sculptures like this appeal to – and are about – the act of remembrance itself: a depiction of the ideal form of the emotion which looking at them elicits.
Similarly, “at the Cenotaph it is the act of remembering together that is being remembered.”
My usual method when reading a book is to mark the page margins with a pencil at a notable passage. Here there were so many – barely a page unmarked – that the best way of reviewing the book would be simply to type it all out again. In a sense this is what Dyer has done. The Missing of the Somme is peppered with material from other texts – the notes cite some 300 quotations and sources in a 130-page book – but it is Dyer’s triumph to bring all the elements together in an elegiac whole. This also provides a handy source of other books I now need to read, such as Henri Barbusse’s 1916 novel Under Fire, which exemplifies one of Dyer’s central ideas. Here, French troops discuss the bombardments they are enduring in the trenches.
‘It’ll be no good telling about it, eh? They wouldn’t believe you; not out of malice or through liking to pull your leg, but because they couldn’t … No one can know. Only us.’
‘No, not even us, not even us!’ someone cried.
‘That’s what I say too. We shall forget – we’re forgetting already, my boy!’
‘We’ve seen too much to remember.’
‘And everything we’ve seen was too much. We’re not made to hold it all. It takes its bloody hook in all directions. We’re too little to hold it.’
The key here is that the war was, in certain respects, being remembered even before it was fought. When Siegfried Sassoon suggested that Wilfred Owen change ‘Dead’ in the title of his poem from ‘Anthem for Dead Youth’ to ‘Doomed’, it became a memorial “to those who are going to have died.” Similarly, I was surprised to learn that Laurence Binyon’s famous ‘For the Fallen’ -
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them
- was written in September 1914: “before the fallen actually fell.”
‘For the Fallen’, in other words, is not a work of remembrance but of anticipation, or more accurately, the anticipation of remembrance: a foreseeing that is also a determining. … We will remember them.