I’ve had half an eye on reading something by Alexander Baron since a couple of commenters recommended him last year. That was in response to a post on Bernard Malamud, and Baron was suggested as an Anglo-Jewish writer to balance all the American- and European-Jewish ones I’ve been reading. Really it’s The Lowlife I’ve been looking out for, but when I saw that Sort Of Books were reissuing this one with their usual attention to detail (photographs, afterword, properly reset text unlike some publishers we could mention), I decided to start here.
There’s No Home (1950) is a war novel without any war. Its subject is that theatre of male aggression but many of the most important characters are women. And it deserves better than the awkward title Baron lumbered it with, which, although ripped from a relevant source (Hamish Henderson’s ‘The 51st Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily’), to me seems neither use nor ornament.
The novel tells us about the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, and how the British troops occupy themselves in the town of Catania when there is no fighting to be done. Baron opens with a curious authorial intervention (“Which war? It might have been any war. … But since most people like to know where a thing happened, and when, let it be recorded that this story takes place on…”). Thereafter the style settles down into plain, unobtrusive prose, which is one way of saying that on the evidence here, he is no stylist. (For that matter, the Anglo-Jewish aspect doesn’t much come across either, though I’m not sure what I was expecting.)
Being a representation of the experiences of a company of infantry, the stories of numerous characters are here, but dominating the narrative are Sergeant Craddock and Private Jobling. Jobling goes AWOL after his brother, also in the company, dies an accidental but preventable death; his grief drives him to determine revenge. Craddock, meanwhile, occupies himself the way we expect more of his colleagues to do: by shacking up with a local young mother, the beautiful Graziella. (By ‘attention to detail’ above, I mean things like the inclusion in this edition of a photograph of a girl, found among Baron’s personal papers after his death, who is believed to have inspired the character of Graziella.) Craddock joined the army having”lost track of his future.” His and Graziella’s fumblings toward an accommodation are nicely observed. There are tensions as the two try to avoid either the locals or the soldiers from finding out about their liaison, and the expected emotional tug as their story reaches its conclusion.
John Williams in his afterword makes a good case for Baron to be considered a feminist writer. He was a supporter of the Communist Party, and had long conversations (“all these discussions were serious”) with his fellow troops when training in the Pioneer Corps on what he called ‘The Woman Question’. (“I started by asking if it was right to refer to a woman as a piece of cunt.”) The women in There’s No Home are standing still, awaiting the return of their men, and trying to strike a balance between accepting the allied troops as their liberators and understanding that their husbands are, or were, the allies’ enemy. The few Italian men who remain see the allies as “men of war” and one sarcastically recites the list of great Italian buildings destroyed while the allies supposedly bomb the Germans.
Like this, the nicest touches in the book generally are cold-eyed rather than warm-hearted. There is a cynicism worthy of Catch-22 (but a decade before Heller’s book) when a senior officer composes letters of condolence to dead servicemen’s families:
‘He was loved by all who knew him.’ That was the usual thing. And ‘he died instantly, without any pain.’ Perhaps, ‘he gave his life trying to help a comrade.’ That was a laugh.
Later, the one thing that perks up the soldiers as they while away the days is the sudden feeling that the war has returned, when a German bomb explodes in a rubbish heap. When the tone becomes more sincere, there are occasional problems, such as an implausible scene where a mother who has recently lost her son becomes suddenly “emptied of her grief” through the rituals of religious ceremony and burial after death. “She walked lightly; her head was proud; there was a blind radiance in her eyes.” Perhaps this was supposed to show a delusion or delay in the return of grief, but it made me feel that the pages should have had one of those footnotes like an iPhone advert, saying “Sequence has been shortened.”
There’s No Home is, as indicated above, a book about war which is not about war. This is not just because it is set in a rest period and contains no fighting, but because the period of stasis which the men endure represents something more general. “Men can cope with the grimmest of prospects if they know what awaits them.” Like Sergeant Craddock, the men here – men and women everywhere – have “lost track of their future.” Those foolish enough to have expectations are brought down to earth by the more experienced and cynical. “Do you want to go back to the old grind after the war?” asks a young sergeant to his captain. “After the war?” comes the response. “Anyone can see you’re new to the game.”
Sounds interesting; the quotes you use sound a bit like Isherwood for some reason. Great review.
Parts of it sound wonderful, particularly the quotes. But the overall feeling/image of the book that I infer from your review is something in the line of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Do you think that’s a fair comparison?
It is a pretty lousy title… I like the new cover, though.
As always, an impeccably fair and thoughtful review, especially as regards the way expectations influence our reading. I was tipped off about this book, and inspired to publish it, by the surprising even-handedness with which Baron dealt with the relationships between working class British soldiers and the impoverished Sicilian women they met during the campaign. The fact that this was written in the 40s (and published in 1950), long before the boom in travel writing, makes this particularly impressive. And the authenticity rings out in each telling detail – particularly about the pressures on men ‘lost’ in war.
Thanks for the comments everyone. (I should clarify, in case it’s not immediately clear, that Natania Jansz is the co-founder and publisher of Sort Of Books.)
Tolmsted, I am afraid that I have always had a bit of a blind spot with Ernest Hemingway – never been able to get on with him. So I can’t answer your question!
I’ve read a fair bit of Hemingway, but not that particular one. It doesn’t sound much like those I have read though.
I have a copy of The Lowlife at home and reading this I’m glad it’s that one I’ve got. This sounds enjoyable and nicely observed but as if there’s otherwise not that much to say about it. Is that fair?
That is fair, Max, though I did get a greater appreciation for the depths of the book from the afterword by John Williams (which is why I gave it specific mention in the review). He is very good on Baron, and indeed I think he wrote the intro for The Lowlife too.