Susan Hill: Strange Meeting (1971) Literature and War Readalong January

 

John Hilliard, a young subaltern returning to the Western Front after a brief period of sick leave back in England, finds his battalion tragically altered. His commanding officer finds escape in alcohol, there is a new adjutant and even Hilliard’s batman has been killed. But there is David Barton. As yet untouched and unsullied by war, radiating charm and common sense, forever writing long letters to his family. Theirs is a strange meeting and a strange relationship: the coming together of opposites in the summer lull before the inevitable storm.

Strange Meeting, is set in the English countryside and the trenches in France, at the beginning of WWI. The book is divided into three parts. The first is written from John Hilliard’s point of view, the second mostly from David Barton’s and the third could be called the combined one. At the heart of the story is the juxtaposition of two very different themes; the intense and emotionally intimate friendship between John Hilliard and David Barton on the one hand, and the horrors of WWI on the other. The following quotes taken from page 158 illustrate this perfectly well:

“But they (the Germans) must know we are up to something.”

“Oh yes, though that fact is never obvious to High Command, whose faith in the Element of Surprise in the attack is really very touching and quite unshakeable.”

And a few lines later:

“Has it always been like that? Has it always been so easy for you to love people? To get on with them, to bring them out, say the right things at the right time? Have you always made friends as you’ve done out here?”

Whoever is familiar with novels or movies on wars knows that one of these two will die. It is the aim of books and movies on war to show an individual, to pick one person out of an anonymous number and to tell his story. As horrible as it is for us to know that in some offensives – especially in the early WWI ones – far over 100 000 young men were killed in less than an afternoon and millions died senselessly during the course of this war, we still need to be told an individual’s story and not only a huge number, to be touched emotionally. From the beginning of the novel until its end, the shadow of death hangs over these two young people and this is what makes it so touching. We know, one of them is doomed. It’s like a Greek tragedy.

Hilliard and Barton meet in France, during the first summer of WWI, in a bombed out village, away from the trenches and the front line. Hillard has just returned from a short sick leave to England. He is shocked to find his company reduced to a fraction. His commanding officer is drinking and seems to have lost his faith completely.

We lost three quarters of the Battalion in a day and a half. Getting on for two dozen officers. Mayor Gadney, young Parkinson, Ward – all the best. Half of them went because we didn’t get an order telling us the second push was cancelled. They just went on. You were well out of it. I’m glad you were out of it.

But Hilliard’s stay in England was horrible too. He couldn’t sleep, had no one to talk too. He showed signs of  shell-shock, only not enough to not return. The mindless cheerfulness of the people around him who had no idea what it was like to be in the trenches was unbearable. They did neither realize how useless the losses were, nor how futile the missions. The newspapers only gave a purified version and people everywhere were convinced, the war would be over by Christmas. Hilliard was suffering from this feeling of isolation and haunted by the images and smells that were stuck in his mind. He found the smell of roses revolting, the sweetness reminded him of the smell of dead bodies. He would have liked to talk to his sister, the only person from his family he felt close to, but finds her estranged. She is about to get married and he doesn’t approve of her choice until he realizes, there is really no one else left, most other young men are dying in France.

When he returns to France and finds out that most of the men of his company are dead, he also hears that there is a new guy that he will share his quarters with.  They don’t meet directly at first, instead we follow Hilliard into the room that they will share and discover Barton through his things.

The lettering (on the valise) was upright and plain and clear, done in black ink. The leather of the valise still shone, the buckles were not yet tarnished. There was a tortoise-shell backed hairbrush and comb and a slab of chocolat Meunier. A copy of The Turn of the Screw and of the complete works by Thomas Browne, and one of the Psalms, bound in navy morocco. Hilliard reached out a hand towards it, hesitated, drew his hands back.

This passage tells us such a lot in a few words. The new guy is still untarnished, naive, it seems he has prepared himself for a summer camp. Hilliard resents this at first but when he finally meets Barton and gets to know him, he understands that Barton would always have packed the same things, no matter where he would have gone. His belongings mirror his being and how he always tries to see the sunny side of things and make the best of it. Hilliard has never met anyone like Barton. He is cheerful, easygoing, open, direct and very communicative. Even though he is reluctant at first, Hilliard is swiped away by Barton’s exuberance. For the first time in his life he starts to open up to another person and speaks about himself and his feelings.

Part II is mostly told from Barton’s point of view and consists in large parts of letters home to his family. Barton writers the longest letters Hilliard has ever seen. This strikes him as his family sends expensive parcels but short, polite and distant notes.

The two friends are not at the front yet, Barton will still have to find out what life in the trenches is like but he already sees someone killed and feels responsible for the man’s death.

There is something all the men hate about this place. Now, I can sense it myself. Something old and bad and dead, a smell a feeling you get as you walk across the street. It is not simply the bodies lying all about us, and the fact that the guns are firing, it is something else, something…

Part III is set in the trenches and we see a considerably changed and disillusioned Barton who has been sent on a reconnaissance mission on which he has seen people get killed. They know by now that High Command prepares for a big offensive. Since most of these are high in losses their morale is low. Being the new guy,  Barton is sent on several reconnaissance missions without Hilliard who goes almost crazy when he imagines Barton might get hurt or killed. When the offensive finally begins the two friends are separated in the chaos and one of them dies.

Strange Meeting does an incredible job at rendering what it was like to be in France in the summer of 1914. It captures the difference between the relative luxury encountered by the companies who wait off the front line and the ugliness and ordeal of the trenches. Susan Hill describes all the details that we can also find in history books, memoirs and letters. She describes various elements that were typical for WWI, the futility and high losses of the offensives, the chaotic and bad planning, the underestimation of the situation and possible duration of the war. The trenches are rendered accurately. Once they are there we read about the constant shelling, the noise, the rats, the mud, the dirt, the stink, the wetness and the cold.

As accurately as she renders the dreary trenches and the sadness and futility of it all, it is not surprising to read the following in her afterword:

Yet I have not told the whole truth, for although I have accounted for my obsession with the First World War, I am still sometimes troubled by thoughts of those two young men of whom I became so very fond while I was writing about them and who stand for thousands upon thousands of others, so full of youth, strength and bright promise, who were slaughtered in a war perhaps more futile and meaningless than any other in history. I wrote the novel in memory of them and in tribute to them. But I hope it is not thought of only as a novel whose “subject is the war and the pity of war”, for, more than anything else it is about human love.

Srange Meeting is indeed a novel about friendship, much more than about the war. The war serves as a backdrop and an explanation for this very intimate exchange. In civilian life, men were not this close, opening up would have taken much longer. Strange Meeting excels in rendering the intensity of the feelings of two people for one another and the tragedy of their fate. As strange as this may seem, although the description of their feelings for each other can only be called love and Barton does also tell Hilliard that he loves him, I never had the feeling they were gay. Apparently Susan Hill has been asked if Hilliard and Barton did have a physical relationship and she denied this. As said this never occurred to me either. It is really about emotional love. It is sad that we immediately have to think that there must be some sexual attraction involved as soon as two people have very strong feelings for each other.

I read somewhere that it wasn’t possible to say if Strange Meeting had been written by a man or a woman. I would contradict this. I think we can feel that it was  written by a woman. This is mostly due to Barton’s narrative voice and the nature of their conversations. They constantly ask each other how they feel, speak out everything, clarify, share their emotions.

I think Strange Meeting is  a beautiful novel about a unique and fateful meeting that took place during one of the darkest moments of European history.

What did you think?

Other reviews:

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

*****

Strange Meeting was the first book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon. Discussion starts on Friday February 25, 2011 .

36 thoughts on “Susan Hill: Strange Meeting (1971) Literature and War Readalong January

  1. Your review makes me want to read it. Several things came to my mind when I was reading it.

    The first one is a feeling that we often have strong friendships with people really different from us in their “being” (I don’t know how to say “manière d’être”) but who share the same values. Someone shy will have someone more outspoken as a best friend or someone pessimistic will befriend an optimistic. Though I really see what the shy or the pessimistic gets from the relationship, I always wonder why the outspoken or the optimistic feels comfortable in it.

    You speak perfectly of that feeling of unbearable waste I have when I think about WWI. The motives for the war seem so light now, like a children’s fight that would have gone out of control and turned into a slaughter. (Then in France, there was this need to get their revenge on the Germans after 1870)

    Have you read “Paroles de Poilus”? It is composed of real letters from the soldiers. I remember I was really overwhelmed by their letters, knowing these sons, husbands,friends probably died somewhere in the East of France. Do you have a family history about this war? I don’t or at least I’ve never heard of it. One side of the family was in Italy and the other side was in Germany, as Moselle had belonged to Germany since 1870.

    Have you ever been to Verdun? Emotionally, it’s hard. You can see how the tranches have remodeled the landscape, although grass and trees have grown there. You can feel this land isn’t naturally bumpy, that the holes come from bombings.I couldn’t help thinking of all these young men who had died there. It was like something about them was in the air. And then of course, you have these endless cemeteries with aligned white crosses.

    On the last point, can’t friendship be named “love”? I think it can without any shadow of homosexuality. Or we need to invent a new word, because this deep sentiment exists.

    PS : I have the Rebecca West for next month. I’ll get to it after the tremendous Somerset Maugham and the oh-my-god de Villiers.

    PPS : I think you’d like the Perry series about WWI (4 books)

    • Yes, we often see such unlikely pairs. I do believe I see what the other one gets out of it. I have a feeling that we are all more or less complete but some parts are more active than others. We seem to need the opposite in order to express the hidden part. Or something like this. When it comes to exuberant and quiet people, I think the more communicative one does like to be listened to as well. Yes, I agree, we can call a deep relationship love but there is always this moment of doubt, especially when we see close relationships of men. In other cultures this is perfectly acceptable but we tend to jump to wrong conclusions when we see men who are emotionally close. I would argue that men are as much capable of deep and intimate realtionships but it is culturally far less accepted and easily misunderstood. I never really thought that there was a fundamental difference between men and women, it is the societey that creates the difference. I think this is something she wanted to show as well, that this very special situation, in which they were so close, and because they were officers, they had a room to themselves, made it easier to developp this friendship.
      I haven’t been in Verdun but in other places where you see the traces of WWI. The loss in lives was massive on all sides but the French soil has been ripped open and it is something I can almost feel physically. Very awful. I have no family history of WWI partcipation. My mother’s side was in Italy and my father’s family in Indochina.
      The trenches plus the mustard gas (that she doesn’t mention) are the elements that maks this war so harrowing. If you have ever seen one of the big WWI movies like Gallipoli, you see the senselessness and horror of it all even better.
      Good luck with de Villiers, hopefully he isn’t as bad as the book covers (poor you). Glad you will join for Rebecca West. I’m looking fowrad to compare the books.
      I haven’t read Paroles de Poilus, I will look it up, thanks.

      • This situation of being in the same room also happened in boarding school.
        I think that in period of great stress, fear like this, you have nothing to hide anymore or can’t hide anything anymore.The war broke boundaries.

        De Villiers is as bad as the covers suggest, I’m afraid. The language is almost painful. What we can do for children…

        • I guess that is true, only the privates who had to share rooms with many more never had the provacy needed for a very deep relaionship. I can not imagine this same type of realtionship with three or four people at the same time. maybe that is justme. I think you can only have very deep conversations when there are only two present. Probably why I’m not such a crowd person.

  2. I have an ambivalent relationship to Susan Hill’s writing, finding some of her work too purposefully bleak and dark for my tastes. But you write a beautiful review about this novel and I feel I’ve learned a great deal about it through your words. I’m interested to know how novels will compare to each other as you work your way through your challenge list.

    • I’m glad, thank you. It is maybe strange but this wasn’t such a bleak book. Very sad, but not that dark. It is a very early book and I found the writing very different from anything else I read from her, not as oldfashioned as her ghost stories. She had a few tiny artificial moments. It must have been quite a struggle for her to write this book, to incorporate all the elements. I wonder if it is read in schools. It would be useful, even in a history class and those two young men are barely older than some pupils.

      • This may be quite late to comment about, but I will anyway. It’s a very powerful book, and one which is good in telling the story of the war from the perspective of a friendship. rather than the effect on the individual, it’s about the effect on two connected individuals, their sentiments and tales they tell during the book, and the trials they go through. ‘Men are too early old and before the date of age.’ Even if Thomas Browne was the one who wrote that, I’m glad Susan Hill repeated it in the book I am in fact writing an essay on in A-level English Literature. It’s stuff which really allows you to see. I mean, a man climbing over a parapet to save a small hedgehog in the midst of gunfire is the most warming thing I’ve veerr read in a book.

        • As a matter of fact, it’s nice to get a comment on an older review.
          I cannot remember the scene with the hedgehog, strange, it’s the type of scene that usually would stick. It’s very moving, you are right.
          I guess that it is a very powerful book, one that will be worth looking at in more depth. I think I should re-read it. It’s a great choice for an A-level paper.

  3. I really loved this book. In a way it was hard to read as you knew that something awful was going to happen to one of them and the anticipation was a little excruciating for me at times, but she handled it all very well and the ending was quite optimistic, which is not always the case in stories about war. I never felt that their relationship was ever more than a deep friendship that came about because of the intense situation of the moment. Of the two I am so much more like John Hilliard and I can see exactly how he would have been drawn to David Barton and how it would be easy to open up to him and then fear that such a person, who has this wonderful innocence still, would be ruined by the war. I sort of wondered about the letters Barton wrote home–don’t you think that the censors would have cut out parts of what he wrote in order not to let those in England know the extent of the horrors the men were facing? Of course I can see why Hill put them in the book and I really liked that element of the story. I hadn’t thought about the way the book was written and whether a man or woman had written it, but I think I agree that there is a sensitiveness to it that would more likely come from a woman. Have you read many NF books on WWI? I’ll be very curious to see what you make of Jennifer Johnston’s book as the Hill reminded me of it quite a bit, though the stories are both about friendship–the Johnston comes at it from a somewhat different perspective. Thanks so much for doing this as I wonder if I would ever have picked this up otherwise and I am so very glad I did!

    • This is an excellent point, the content of the letters would very probably have been censored. I didn’t even think about it. Hilliard and Barton also stand for another topos that is very important in war stories, the person who has seen the horrors and the one who has not. This is the only thing that the older soldier never do, they never even try to describe the horror. There was one moment where I wonderd if it is possible to opn up so easily to someone but the I had to admit that it was very possible. I think Barton has a rare quality of total transparence and empathy that I have seen in very few people (men as well). I have read Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory which many authors have read, also Pat Barker, I guess. I have seen documentaries, especially on the movies I watched. I might do a post on WWI movies for those who ae interested and “strong enough” to take it. Admittedly I watched one lately that made me really, really sick and there weren’t even any battle scenes. I am very curious to read Jennifer Johston and really looking forward to it. I found this novel quite differet from other Susan Hill novel’s. The style is not oldfashioned at all, what did you think.

      • I would love it if you did a post on war movies. I’m not even sure I have seen any that refer to WWI. I tend to avoid them as they are so intense and it is a hard thing to watch, but I do (though it sounds strange) like reading the occasional book. It’s a matter of knowing you are getting attached to a character who is likely to come to a tragic end and although it is just fiction, you know that these things really did happen in some form or other. I have heard that the WWI books by Lyn MacDonald are very good. I have her “1914” to read–there are four or five of them, which I’d like to get to some day. I hope to post on the book tomorrow–I’ll be working on writing it later today. You summed it up so well I’m not sure what more I can say about it–and I’ve enjoyed reading the other comments as it is so interesting to get others’ perspectives! Am going now to read the Hill essay that I have bookmarked–thanks.

        • Gallipoli is not too bad and gives a good feel but one of the very best – for a public who does not normally watch war movies – is My Boy Jack. It’s the heartbreaking story of Kipling’s son. The end is very hard but at least not too long. And it still beautiful. And of course Regeneration aka Behind the Lines. I think I’ll post an overview indicating how hard it is to watch.
          I will check on your blog and add a link. Anna’s post is very well done and she chose totally different quotes. One that struck me a lot as well when I read the book. It is about the damage done to the earth.

          • I did see My Boy Jack earlier this month as it aired again on PBS–such a sad movie but well done, too. I had no idea Kipling even had a son. You are much more widely read on the subject than me–and have also seen lots of movies–what do you think about the representation in films and books of the war? I’ve read that modern representations are actually very cliched and not entirely accurate renderings of what the war was actually like. That it was actually much more “popular” when it was happening and even right after but it has achieved this not entirely true patina to it now. I really do need to read some good nonfiction about it. It would be interesting to think about–where truth ends and fiction starts in war novels–especially since I plan on reading as many of the books as I can.

            • I think The Regeneration Trilogy manages the best picture. And it is based on true stories, on the biographiers of those WWI poets like Sassoon and Owen and Graves, those who didn’t die wrote memoirs and accounts. I think the war was perceived in a positive way at the beginning. Many were just like Kipling but those who were there, they didn’t think of it in a positive way. Not even on the German side. Remarque wrote his book after he had participated. High Command and the politicians took an eternity on all the sides to see what they did. We also tend to forget that many other countries like Australia and Canada also had very high losses. My favourite recent movie is Beneath Hill 60. About the Australian’s tunnel fight. They believed in the war even longer than the Brits, I think. Somehow I think this has all been overshadowed by WWII. There is a blog dedicated soleley to WWI mail that is quite interesting. It’s dedicated to US participation. http://worldwar1letters.wordpress.com/

  4. That is one great review. Kudos. I am so glad you liked it, as did I. A few things I would like to say:
    1. Hilliard’s stay at home reminded me a lot of Paul Baumer’s leave in “All Quiet”. Especially the old men commenting on strategy as though they had a clue what was reality. And the feeling that this world was no longer his. The longing to return to the trench life he was more comfortable with.
    2. Harris cracks up in anticipation of combat based on the “war stories” of the veterans. Mission accomplished, old guys. Was Harris better off having been instantly killed?
    3. Theme: once you have been in combat – you know. Accurately reflects soldier’s experiences. Reminded me of Tim O’Brien in “The Things They Carried” when the veteran tells him you are not in the war until you reach the combat zone.
    4. War can create intense bonds in men who as civilians would never hook up. War speeds relationships up. You don’t have time for the “game”.
    5. The letters are very instructive on soldier life (although Barton is certainly not a typical soldier writer! – way too long). A student reading this book would learn the most from the letters.
    6. The “fog of war” is clearly depicted – not knowing what is going on or going to happen.
    7. Unlike Baumer, Barton tells his family the truth about the war. Who took the right approach?
    8. I found the role reversal after Barton’s hellish outpost experience interesting (Barton clamming up and Hilliard getting him to open up) a bit of a stretch.
    9. The refusal of Col. Garrett to send out useless night patrols is commendable, but not realistic.
    10. Speaking of “All Quiet” again, did anyone else see parallels with the relationship of Paul and Katt? Opposites become best friends. One is a hardened veteran, the other naive at first.

    Great start to the readalong. The other books will have a hard time topping this one.

    • These are interesting points. I saw the parallels with All Queit on the Western Front but tried to free myself from comparing. It’s actually Remarque’s novel that spurred my comment on it being obviously written by a woman. I din’t compare the two with Paul and Katt but now that you mention it, I guess, the similarity is definitely there. Harris wouldn’t have made it anyway. Either they would have ended up sending him home because he would have gone crazy or he would have done something really stupid in battle. I am looking forward to read The Things They Carried but it is afrequent theme at least in war movies. I agree about the intense bonds, every man will tell you that and there is even an immediate bond between men who meet later in life when they hear that they have served in the same war. My father’s only friends have been in Algeria. But I assure you it is never a talkative exchange. I’ve seen it. It is more like an enumeration of battle names and a lot of long looks and nodding of heads. The letters are instructive but don’t you think Danielle has a good point? Wouldn’t they have been censored? I don’t think many solideres ever told their families the truth. Barton’s change did seem a bit sudden. That’s the only moment in the book where I thought, that doesn’t seem realistic. The comparisons wil be interesting indeed and I’m looking forward.

      • As far as censorship, it is my impression that the latters would be censored for references to specific places, strategies, names of officers, etc. I do not think they would be censored for general discussions of trench fighting, but I could be wrong. If anything, the men themselves would censor themselves to keep the reality from their loved ones. Barton is not typical in this respect.

        The reference to your father and his friends rings true from what I have read. It’s a guy thing.

        • I was wondering exactly this, if they would censor only place names and, as you say, strategies. I will have to read a few letters from WWI. This should be easy to find. Bookaroundthecorner mentions a book that I have to look up.

  5. Pingback: Review: Strange Meeting by Susan Hill « Diary of an Eccentric

  6. I think you summed up this book perfectly. I felt a heaviness, a sadness when I read this, and I predicted early on how it would end. But no matter because I loved it. I thought Hill beautifully captured their friendship — a friendship that was a strong as it was because of the war. Like you, I didn’t think the relationship was a romantic one; it was just an intense friendship. I’m wondering how such a friendship would have been handled by a male author.

    Thanks for hosting this readalong. If you’re interested, I just posted my thoughts on the book here:

    http://diaryofaneccentric.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/review-strange-meeting-by-susan-hill/

    • You are welcome and I will have a look and also include it in my post, together with Danielle’s as soon has she has posted on it. I think the way they expressed their friendship and not so much the friendship as such pointed to a female writer. The nature of the conversations and the length of the letters. I have afeeling in peace time these two would not have gotten on so well. Hilliard would have been to distant. But his experience at home, the impossibility of talking, “losing” his sister forced him to find an outlet.

      • Thank you for adding my link to your review! I agree that their differences might have been too much for them if not for the war. My husband hasn’t read this book, but I was telling him about it, and he had a hard time believing that their friendship could be so intense without being one of a romantic nature. He’s never had such a friendship, but I’m wondering if other men have…whether Hill’s portrayal is realistic. I’m assuming one could because I have girlfriends that I love and it’s not a romantic thing, but are such friendships unique to women? I have such a limited viewpoint, LOL.

        I’ve been reading the comments and this has been such an interesting discussion!

        • You’re welcome. I’m pleased with the read along so far, many interesting and really thoughtful comments and I’m looking forward to the next book. I know a few men who have friendships like this but it is a minority. It is not encouraged in our society but I still think they communicate mostly in a slightly different way, they will not verbalize as much. Still it did feel realistic to me. I didn’t have the impression she forced something. The whole barton family struck me as being different. Some families I know are maybe as close as the Bartons but how many would so readily welcome a stranger? They really treat him like one of their own. It’s the trust and friendship that he knows from his familiy that shapes who he is. It’s very interesting.

  7. The first read-along book has been accomplished 🙂
    Great review and I love those quotes you’ve chosen from the book. I especially like the last one.

    It is sad that we immediately have to think that there must be some sexual attraction involved as soon as two people have very strong feelings for each other

    I have nothing against gay…but it annoys me too whenever people start saying that 2 males that are close probably gay. They can always be friend without physical love

    • Thanks. I agree, it is annoying. I really do not care either but I find it annoying when people always assume there is something other than pure friendship. This is even worse in a male/female relationship. It is also perfectly possible.

  8. Thanks so much for having this book club.The reviews are spot on and the comments are interesting and insightful I thought that Hill did a great job in balancing the horrors of WWI with the growth of the relationship between the two young men. With regard to the question of Barton’s letters being censored, he mentions in a letter to his family that the officers censor their own letters “unless we are unlucky enough to have one stopped at random going through the next sorting post.” He said that he was taking that chance.

    • You are welcome and thank you for visiting and the nice comment. She does a great job, I agree. I think it is good she chose to show them off the front line first. In this way she had ample time to develop their friendship and I think the contrast can be really experienced, the horror of the trenches is all the more palpable. Thanks a lot for the comment on Barton, I remember it now that you mention it but wasn’t as observant as you while reading.

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