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by Geoff Dyer

Pub Date: Aug. 9th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-74297-1
Publisher: Vintage

An idiosyncratic exploration of the meaning and formal remembrance of British participation in World War I.

British novelist and critic Dyer (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, 2011, etc.) describes this brief but challenging work as “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…” In this context, mediation refers to the filtering of experience through the eyes of another. Dyer argues that our perceptions of the WWI are shaped by impressions of the war presented through the literature and public statuary (and, to a lesser degree, photography) produced within 15 years of the Armistice. The dominant theme of these cultural works is not victory or glory, but sacrifice as a virtue in itself and its formal remembrance, and he believes this was evident even in works produced at the very beginning of the war. The theme of sacrifice is an enduring “means by which the incommensurability of the Great War is acknowledged and expressed” long after sloganeering about the War for Civilization has lost its sheen. Dyer intertwines the story of his travels with two friends to visit monuments and military cemeteries of the Western Front with perceptive observations on statuary by Charles Sargeant Jagger, the poetry of Wilfred Owen and the literary criticism of Paul Fussell, among others. As he ponders the war solely through the lens of these works, the sacrifice of the dead becomes unmoored from the war’s military and political objectives, to which he makes no reference. As a result, the war sometimes seems disconcertingly to become an intellectual concept rather than a historical event, permitting Dyer to discuss it as though it might be a work of literary art made real. Yet the horrific facts keep pressing in upon the narrative, and Dyer displays a deep sensitivity to the reality and scale of the Great War’s human tragedy.

An unusual but forceful interpretation of the ongoing significance of a war that has now passed beyond living memory.