When Henri Barbusse enlisted in the French army he was 41 years old, he had worked as a civil servant first, before turning to journalism, had already published four books, including two novels, and had developed strong socialist views against militarism. But this was the autumn of 1914 and a whirlwind of patriotic nationalism swept the country into such an irresistible frenzy that even a middle-aged pacifist was caught up in the swell.
He wasn’t the only one either: almost two decades later Louis Ferdinand Céline would describe with characteristic facetiousness in his notorious novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932) the episode in which his protagonist (and alter ego) Ferdinand Bardamu joined the ranks. Bardamu discusses abstract political concepts with his friend Arthur when
“who should come marching past the café where we’re sitting but a regiment with the colonel up front on his horse looking nice and friendly, a fine figure of a man! Enthusiasm lifted me to my feet […] and off I go to enlist, on the double.”
To go by Barbusse’s reaction once he found himself in the trenches, his decision to join the front might not have been as whimsical as Bardamu’s. As a committed socialist—he would join the communist party in 1923—he might well (and I’m speculating here) have intended to gauge the mood of the troops and even influence their political consciousness, but as a writer he certainly intended to document everything he saw from the first moment he got there.
Barbusse completed 18 months of active service starting from December 1914, and he made scrupulous note of his experiences in a war diary throughout 1915, before he was removed from the Western Front due to serious illness. During his time in hospital Barbusse began drafting his account of life in the trenches—more a novelized rendition than a journalistic reportage—which he was able to publish by installments in the radical socialist daily L’Oevre, under the somewhat misleading title The Story of a Squad.
First published in book format in December 1916, Under Fire: The Story of a Squad merited Barbusse the prestigious Goncourt prize in 1916 and became an instant sensation—not only because it introduced a dissenting voice (despite censorship) right in the middle of the conflict but, perhaps more importantly, because it altered the public’s romanticized perception of what it was like to live and die for the country in the trenches.
Focusing on the day-to-day penuries of a squad stationed in the Pas-des-Calais area in northern France, the narrative is singular in its unfiltered portrayal of hardship. Its gritty realism would have shocked contemporary readers, anaesthetized as they were by official propaganda and a deeply rooted desire (the sort of desire that engenders conviction) to believe that things weren’t, really, so bad. In Barbusse’s account things aren’t just that bad, they’re worse—but the accomplished craft of a writer with two decades’ experience behind his back allows him to find a balance between gory realism and lyrical recollection, entwining beautiful images with torrid violence, touching moments of contemplation with sequences of frenetic action in a balancing act that is meant to persuade readers to keep reading, almost despite themselves.
The problem with reading Under Fire 100 years after the end of the First World War, though, is that the modern reader will have become familiar with so many horrors, unthinkable just a century ago, that Barbusse’s catalogue becomes predictable rather than shocking.
In this respect Céline’s strategy is more effective, perhaps because unwittingly it foreshadows the direction postmodern literature would take. Only about one fourth of Journey to the End of the Night is concerned with Bardamu’s involvement in the First World War, but crucially it’s the opening section of the book, the one that sets its tone and internal structure. Famously misanthropic, Journey to the End of the Night is hard to process precisely because of its negative stance towards just about everything society holds dear. But while Céline’s (or Bardamu’s) misogyny seems visceral and his racist portrayal of the fictional French African colony of Bambola-Bragamance is desperately flat, he is able to inject nuanced depth in his anti-nationalist views (Céline is simply anti-everything) by equipping Bardamu with a coherent yet antagonistic moral code that revolves around cowardice.
The result is a devastating and surprisingly amusing representation of the folly of 1914–1918. Céline’s audacity is perfectly complemented by his caustic wit although perhaps it helps that in hindsight (and by 1932 he would have partaken in some of this hindsight already) the idiocy and ineptitude of those at the helm of the warring powers was so all-encompassing it left little room for anything other than ridicule—and grief.
Comparing Under Fire with Journey to the End of the Night is like comparing hibiscus with hyenas, not least due to the very hindsight that informs the latter, but from a superficial perspective the reading experience of both novels is symmetrically opposite. Céline’s begins with an explosion of sarcasm and dynamism that is progressively diluted by his untenable ideology and his excessive bile. Meanwhile, Barbusse’s burns slowly, almost tediously, towards its climax in the heat of the battle.
Though it comprises 24 chapters, Under Fire really comes to its own in the final two, which nonetheless take up more than 100 pages (roughly a third of the novel). Whether genuine or fictionalized, Barbusse’s depiction of the scene as the squad is mobilized to charge the German trench is quite simply heart-rending—even by today’s standards. The anxiety experienced by his characters as they seek (and fail) to take their positions in the darkest darkness of night, the revulsion they endure as they are forced to crawl through the trench sewage, the excitement that keeps them going as they step into almost certain death—No-Man’s-Land—the murdering instincts that lead them to kill, sometimes in man-to-man combat, fellow human beings they hadn’t even seen before in their lives, the astonishment they feel when they find night turned to day by the incessant explosion of shells aimed at them, the paralyzing fear and the horrifying recognition of death as it stares them in the eye, as it claims their comrades, as it envelops them and everything around them is overwhelming on the one hand, but it’s also humbling and edifying.
Beyond the ideological message that pervades the final pages of the novel, beyond the controversy over whether or not Barbusse was faithful to his experience, this ability to transport us to a distant time—so very different to ours—this ability in fact to produce empathy in the reader makes Under Fire an essential book not just to understand the Great War in particular but human nature in general.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday May 19, 2018.