Book Corner – March 2020 (3)

The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane

A strange book, this. It is undoubtedly powerful and was ground-breaking in its time but for all its classic status, it has been a staple in the syllabus of American literature courses and has never been out of print, I found it a tad dull.

Crane died tragically young at the age of 28. He was not a victim of the carnage of the American Civil War which is the canvas for this book but in a German sanatorium from tuberculosis in 1900. As he was born in 1871 Crane had no direct experience of the horrors of that particular war, although it is fairly certain that he interviewed and obtained eye-witness accounts from some who had fought.

It is not unusual these days for an author writing about war to have no specific personal experience, relying on primary sources from the time they are writing about and, if possible, accounts from surviving combatants. But at the time The Red Badge of Courage, in 1894, initially serialised in the Philadelphia Press, Crane’s lack of first-hand knowledge of warfare was something critics seized on. And the furore rumbled on, Hemingway sniffily remarked, “Tolstoi made the writing of Stephen Crane on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles and seen the Brandy photographs that I had read and seen at my grandparents’ house”.

This was Crane’s second book and, despite his critics, it was well received, making his name. Although he doesn’t specify the battle, it is thought that the action in the book centres around the Battle of Chancellorsville fought out in the northern part of Virginia between April 30 and May 6th. 1863. It was one of the bloodiest encounters of the war with some 24,000 casualties and was notable not only for victory for the Confederate army but also the death of Stonewall Jackson, hit by friendly fire and then succumbing to pneumonia eight days later.

The protagonist in Crane’s book is Henry Fleming, a young farmhand from New York State, who, against his mother’s wishes, and fired by a naïve form of patriotism, enlists for the Union forces. As one of what the gnarled veterans called “Fresh Fish” Fleming wonders how he will react when liberated from the grinding monotony of camp life he faces the enemy’s guns for the first time.

Indeed, whilst the battle serves as the backdrop to the book, much of the narrative concerns itself with Fleming’s mental turmoil; will he be brave and earn his red badge of courage (a battle wound) or will he turn tail and run? The book explores the fine line between cowardice and heroism and the fears and hopes of a novice soldier entering the fray for the first time. The battle scenes are written in an impressionistic style, there is little sense of the broad sweep of the battle but rather the narrative concentrates on those pockets of action that Fleming experiences.

Inevitably, as you would expect if you have ploughed through the first hundred pages or so, Fleming does turn tail and flee but his escape route takes him to the back of the Union line where he encounters the wounded who ask him uncomfortable questions about where he was hit. In a tragi-comic moment, Fleming watches one of his comrades and friends, Jim Conklin, struggling to keep marching whilst visibly dying from the wounds he has sustained. It dawns on Fleming that war is a particular form of hell, but his experiences persuade him to return to the frontline. Ironically, he does sustain his red badge of courage, but it is when one of his own side hits him on the head to get him out of the way.

In subsequent skirmishes Fleming plays a prominent role in the action, being the flag bearer and being instrumental in the capture of the enemy’s flag. Within his regiment Fleming attains hero status.

It is a thought-provoking book and is interesting in that it shines a light on the horrors of war a couple of decades before the brutal slaughter of the First World War began. Rather like military life there are long stretches of tedium in the narrative before a burst of action. I can see why it became a classic but I’m on Hemingway’s side.

Book Corner – May 2018 (2)

Afternoon Men – Anthony Powell

Humour is such a personal thing that I generally run a mile from a book described by some critic or other as the funniest thing you will ever read. But at least the tag, the funniest book you have never read, has a hint of mystery and intrigue about it. I am a fan of Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time series and am slowly working my way through some of his other works. Afternoon Men, published in 1931, was his first novel.

Probably like much of Powell’s work, it is like Marmite – you will either love it or hate it. There is no middle ground. In some ways it is much ado about nothing as very little of note happens as the subject matter is the aimless socialising of a group of vacuous promiscuous, privileged bohemians who are trying to make their way in the world of art, literature and journalism. This is classic Powell territory as are the plethora of characters who drift in and out of the book and the grand set pieces such as the drunken parties held in London, Mrs Race’s party which features a particularly dreadful batch of Balkan liqueur, a visit to a boxing match and a country house party.

Another Powell trait is that the narrative is seen through the eyes of a central character, William Atwater, who is a cynical and somewhat jaundiced commentator on the events going around him. The book is split into three parts – Montage, Perihelion and Palindrome – and there is a certain circularity that we come to expect of Powell’s later works in that at the end of the book the same group of friends, with one exception, meet in the same dreary club and make plans to attend yet another party without any degree of enthusiasm.

There are moments of comedy, particularly around the abortive suicide attempt of Raymond Pringle, a struggling painter, who had caught his friend, a better painter, in flagrante delicto with his mistress. Rather like Reggie Perrin he walks into the sea, leaving his clothes on the beach. His actions are observed by Atwell and Pringle’s mistress but they merely comment on his poor physique and, when he gets into trouble, his “pretentious side stoke” and how his head resembles “some curious red fruit floating along in the water.” Inevitably, Pringle is late for lunch, the guests find his suicide note and, then, in a moment of pure comic genius, Powell writes, “hungry, but thinking it hard to eat while their host’s body was driving down the channel, Atwater said: what shall we do?

Much of the book is taken up with dialogue, most of it inconsequential, but then most of our own dialogue is, somewhat oblique and full of knowing comments. It reminded me of Hemingway but without his portentousness. The longest speech begins ostensibly as a defence of friendship but then broadens out to a condemnation of the lives they are leading; “all the thousand hopeless, useless, wearying and never to be sufficiently regretted pleasures of our almost worse than futile lives inevitably lead us to.” In any other writer’s hands, the book could have become a bleak and wearying affair but Powell’s lightness of touch makes it an enjoyable read.

For those of sensitive dispositions there are moments of anti-semitism and male chauvinism but this was written at the start of the 30s, so I guess we have to expect it. The book reminded me of a gentler, archer, more knowing version of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. They both moved in the same circles, after all. An interesting book that can be read in an afternoon, if you can be bothered.