Woolf, West, and the Conundrum of Veterans

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry, circa 1917


Jacob's Room
by Virginia Woolf
Hogarth Press, 1922

The Return of the Soldier
by Rebecca West
Century Press, 1918

Men at War: The Best War Stories of All Time
Edited and with an introduction by Ernest Hemingway
Bramhall Press, 1955 (reprint of the 1942 edition)


Veterans Day has always posed something of a dilemma to writers, especially to those who deal, however fretfully, with the subject of war. In short, this is because very few veterans, if any, have ever written successfully about war. Hemingway, among others, acknowledged this fact in his magisterial and probably not unironically titled 1955 volume, Men At War, where, in the introduction, he ceded that “there was no really good true war book” written during the Second World War. He said more or the less same for the first: “The writers either wrote propaganda, shut up, or fought. Of those who fought many died and we shall never know who were the fine writers who would have come out of the war who died in it instead.”

Implicit in Hemingway's introduction, a good part of which is bluster, albeit fiercely entertaining, is the subtle acknowledgment that he too might have seen far less combat than some of those whose writings pepper his pages: F. G. Tinker, Jr., Richard Aldington, Frank Richards, and so forth. Naturally, these are also the names that have faded from the canon. Others in his volume—Faulkner, Crane, Kipling, Stendhal, Tolstoy, and Hugo—have remained, even though, as any scholar of war writing will attest, barely any of them fought, let alone donned a uniform. Hemingway himself, as Kenneth Lynn, a biographer, notes, occasionally exaggerated his service, and it's worth remembering that Hemingway, in spite of his claim in the introduction that he “took part and was wounded in the last war to end war,” served as an ambulance driver, not a combatant. He was passing out chocolates at the front when he was hit by a shell. As Jeffrey Meyers, another biographer, points out, Proust spent more time in the army. Yet that didn't stop Hemingway from offering advice to partisans in the Spanish Civil War, where he was widely alleged to have fought. Who and how much are not clear, but it is safe to say that his actual deeds probably fail to mimic those of Robert Jordan, the American volunteer in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). That also hardly stopped the author from perpetuating what can only be described as the wonderful Hemingway Mystique.

George Orwell, who actually did fight as a foreign volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, and earned a bullet through the neck for his efforts, once remarked on the irony of good writing about combat. He was defending Rudyard Kipling, a writer who was frequently derided for his colonial politics, along with his supposed armchair militarism. Against these charges, specifically those of T. S. Elliot, who also thought Kipling couldn't write, Orwell claimed:

Like most people capable of writing battle poetry, Kipling had never been in battle, but his vision of war is realistic. He knows that bullets hurt, that under fire everyone is terrified, that the ordinary soldier never knows what the war is about or what is happening except in his own corner of the battlefield, and that British troops, like other troops, frequently run away.

To modern-day readers, this might sound obvious, raised, as we've been, on films by Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma, where soldiers are frequently depicted as cowards and then rise, in ever-true, Hollywood fashion, to save the day with their heroics. Yet to British and American readers in the Forties, whose propaganda reels gleamed with images of Gary Cooper vaulting past German machine guns, Orwell's admission was shocking, much as Kipling's was half-a-century earlier, and however unheeded it might have gone.

Ironically, the one element of Kipling's art, as Orwell saw it, that has most escaped modern filmmaking is the conviction that the “ordinary soldier” knows nothing outside “his own corner of the battlefield.” While hand-held cameras and low, grainy shots have frequently followed Spielberg's lead in Saving Private Ryan (1998), where we get the ground-level views of combatants, nearly every war film made today, and even the second half of Private Ryan, afford us omniscient views, so that we see where the soldiers are positioned, who is doing what when, and how the outcome of the battle takes shape. This is such an astonishing departure from the actual conditions of combat that nearly every veteran has to wince when watching Hollywood films, even if they find them engrossing.

Perhaps the one film that does come close to depicting the limited and immensely bewildered perspectives of soldiers—of the sort that Orwell describes—is Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1989), an adaption of James Jones' heavily autobiographical novel (1962) of Guadalcanal. During the raid on Hill 210, for example, we have not a clue where the enemy bunker lies, much as in the novel, and our only insight comes from the very perspectives of the Japanese gunners, holed up, as they are, behind narrow and reedy embrasures. This is extremely unsettling for the viewer, and perhaps it helps to explain why critics such as Janet Maslin found the film so “disjointed,” as she put it. Real combat cannot be depicted from above, much as a real war story, to the extent it can exist, cannot encapsulate the drama from afar. Again, this is not to say that grand and omniscient views of battle, such as those in War and Peace or The Iliad, aren't marvelously drawn, nor even entirely inaccurate. It's simply to say that they have little to do with what an actual soldier feels on the battlefield, as jaded and confined as she is there. To the degree that visual media captures this confusion, it does so most frequently in video games, particularly first-person shooter ones, and not in the sweeping aerial shots of the sort one finds in Pearl Harbor (2001) or Flags of our Fathers (2006).

Arguably the two most immediate—and in my judgment, truest—books from the Great War, in spite of Hemingway's assertion that there were none, were written by authors who not only never set foot on the battlefield; neither of them was a male.

Virginia Woolf's 1922 novel Jacob's Room will strike most readers, especially those coming home from a war and desiring the clear, clean prose of a Hemingway, as entirely unreadable. “Slowly welling from the point of her gold nib, pale blue ink dissolved the full stop; for there her pen stuck; her eyes fixed, and tears slowly filled them,” blathers the second sentence. Moreover, as if war weren't disorienting enough for the reader, the protagonist, Jacob, is barely given a full sentence in the novel, much less an account of his death. Instead, he's revealed through a series of scattered and posthumous flashbacks. Conceived more as an experiment with form than any anything, and written before her monumental, though in many ways less compelling, Mrs Dalloway (1925), Jacob's Room dwells almost entirely on the civilians' reactions to Jacob's death, and through them, we get only the briefest sense of who he was. Implicit in this is an acknowledgment by Woolf, if not a firm rejoinder to the throngs of Britons, particularly women, writing sentimentally about soldiers at the time, that the human psyche, especially that of the soldier, is entirely opaque, albeit worthy of sympathy.

Ironically, one of the most scathing reviews of Woolf's book would come from that other mordant Brit, Rebecca West, who claimed, however contradictorily, that Woolf is “at once a negligible novelist and a supremely important writer,” although West would later alter her views. Her 1918 novel, The Return of the Soldier, is equally unsettling for the veteran reader in so far as Chris Baldry, the traumatized protagonist, while technically alive, barely makes an appearance in the novel, despite being talked about constantly. His motives in romance become an endless source of fascination for the women to whom he's returned, and their plotting—and incessant gossiping—actually call to mind why Odysseus might once have set sail. “Wife,” he tells Penelope upon his return, “we have not yet reached the end of our troubles. I have an unknown amount of toil still to undergo.” One almost envies the late Jacob.

Even worse, West's novel ends—and pardon the spoiler—with a miraculous cure from psychology. Freudian therapy, which was then coming into vogue, becomes an all-too-easy panacea, and legions of critics have attacked the book for that. One only wonders what Virginia Woolf would have thought. Yet, for one, the ending is plausibly facetious, as several critics have pointed out. Two, apart from the last twenty pages, the novel offers some of the most lucid and lasting descriptions of soldiers ever penned. Among them:

In the deep daze of devotion which followed recollection of the fair down on his cheek, the skin burned brown to the rim of his gray eyes, the harsh and diffident masculinity of him, I found comfort in remembering that there was a physical gallantry about him which would still, even when the worst had happened, leap sometimes to the joy of life.

This is also probably the last time in fiction that the words “masculinity” and “leap” would be used within the same sentence. More notably, both Jacob's Room and The Return of the Soldier refuse to put us in the soldiers' points of view, opting instead for detachment and allowing the reader to reflect. Both bestow a certain faith in the reader, as if challenging her to read into their protagonists, all the while acknowledging that the truth itself won't come out—or, in Chris' case, not without psychic intervention. Both are essentially post-modern in that regard, acknowledging the limits of narrative. But they're also both truer, it would seem, to the reality of what combat entails. Those who have lived through it can't talk about it. If they do, they do so sparingly, and, as Tim O'Brien once remarked, in The Things They Carried (1990), “nobody listens” to them, anyways.

Thus, about the only moral to be gleaned for Veterans Day is that those who write, at least about war, are undertaking an impossible task, assuming they've lived to see any of it. Which few of them have, in fact.



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