Literature and War Readalong January 28 2011: Strange Meeting by Susan Hill

The end of the month will arrive sooner than we think and I just wanted to remind you that I am going to post on the first book in the Literature and War Readalong, Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting on January 28. I hope some of you have read it and will participate in the discussion and maybe post as well. It’s a short novel of barely 200 pages. The novel tells the story of two very different men who meet during WWI. The first four novels of this read along are all dedicated to WWI. The only one that is slightly longer (300 pages), is the April choice, Carol Ann Lee’s The Winter of the World.

To get you in the mood for Strange Meeting, here’ s a quote taken from Susan Hill’s website

My great uncle Sidney was killed on his 18th birthday at the Battle of the Somme and his photograph in uniform was on the dresser in my grandmother’s house so as a young child I always asked about him. The Great War began to haunt me from then and my interest became an obsession after I heard Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral. I knew I would have to write a novel about it but first I read everything I could – memoirs, biographies, history, letters. I wrote the novel in 6 weeks, at home in Warwickshire, and in my rented house in Aldeburgh, where I tramped across the marshes in the rain and mud and saw the ghosts of dead soldiers rising up in front of me.

But having finished it, my interest in the First World War was exorcised and it has never returned.

Another quote that seems important in the context is the poem Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen which Susan Hill certainly had in mind.

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, –
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…’

I will try from now on and post a quick note on all the books of the readalong during the first weeks of each month.

8 thoughts on “Literature and War Readalong January 28 2011: Strange Meeting by Susan Hill

  1. I really like that poem. it feels like short story rather than poem. it delivers a stong feeling.

    Good luck with the readalong 🙂 I wish I can read this one too.

    • These poets from the so-called Great War are all pretty intense. You know what is really eerie… He died in battle himself in 1918… After a stay at a hospital because of shell-shock they sent him back to the trenches and just one week before the end of the war, he died. He lives in his poems, I guess.
      Thanks for the wishes. Too bad you can’t participate… Ther is still the Endo.

    • Oh good. And it is quite slim, so there is plenty of time. I’m just reading her Howard’s End is on the Landing. There is a whole chapter on Strange Meeting in it but I haven’t read it yet.
      I am looking forward to the read along as well.

  2. I reached the point of no return with Notes on a Scandal, so I had to quickly finish it, but now that I have I can get back to the Hill book, which I am also enjoying, but as you know it is a much quieter and introspective (at least on first impression) story. I just found out my library is going to get Howards End is on the Landing, too, though it may not come in before the end of the month. Still, I will look forward to reading what she has to say about the book. Interesting quote by her and not having a desire to write about the period as well.

    • I found that extremely interesting. She could really “close the chapter”. Howards End is on the Landing is great. A bit suprising at times but overall a book lover’s book.

  3. I love the poem. WWI may have been a horrifying tragedy, but it sure produced some great poetry. Recommended viewing: “Behind the Lines”. It’s a fictionalized story featuring Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

    • Definitely true. The movie is called Regeneration in Britain (I did review it by the way, you know where), like the novels it is based on. If you haven’t read the Regeneration trilogy yet, you will have to do it. I loved it because it combines many things and, as an ethnologist, I found it fascinating to see a novel about one of the earliest enthologists, namely Rivers.

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