A French novel originally published in 1930 suggests that war is hell, in any century, in any country.
The first American publication of this novel—by a French author known mainly as a satirist (Clochemerle, 1934)—marks the centennial of World War I. Its first-person narration by a young soldier who, like the author, was wounded in battle, hospitalized, returned to the front and remained an infantryman until the armistice reads like a cross between the darkest humor and the bleakest reportage. At the start, he seems clueless: “I was, in particular, very bad at marching.” By the end, he has become hopeless: “I have fallen to the bottom of the abyss of my self, to the bottom of those dungeons where the soul’s greatest secrets lie hidden, and it is a vile cesspit, a place of viscous darkness....I am ashamed of the sick animal wallowing in filth that I have become.” In between, he witnesses an onslaught of carnage and death, matter-of-factly and often graphically, while caring little about whether he lives and almost welcoming death as an escape. His wound provides temporary respite: “A hospital is the promised land, the greatest hope for millions of men. And for all the pain and suffering and harrowing sights it can contain, it is still the greatest happiness that a soldier can imagine....After I’ve paid my debt of pain every morning (the cost of my board and lodging), I really do feel as if I’m on holiday.” Chevallier (who died in 1969) said in the preface to a 1951 edition that he would have written the story differently later. But the themes of what he calls “this anti-war book” are timeless: the folly of nationalism, the foolish pomposity of military leaders, the arbitrariness of death, the madness of war.
In tone, much of this novel feels very modern.