Literature and War Readalong March 25 2011: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

There is still plenty of time for anyone who wants to join the Literature and War Redalong this month to get a copy of Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier. It is only 90 pages long which makes it all the more feasible. If all those of you who expressed an interest in this book will read along we might be quite a crowd. We will see. There are at least two different paperback editions available. I got the one from The Modern Library with an introduction by Verly Klinkenborg. The other one is a Virago edition with an afterword by Sadie Jones.

Rebecca West’s book is unique as it was published in 1918, before the war had ended. She tells the story of a returning soldier who suffers from shell-shock. I am particularly interested in this topic and curious to compare her handling of it with Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy which is for me still one of the greatest books on WWI, shell-shock and the development of the new medical discipline, psychiatry.

I was very surprised to find out that The Return of the Soldier that seems so well-known in the English-speaking world has not been translated into German. The only two of her books that made it into German are Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and The Fountain Overflows.

Rebecca West was only 24 when she wrote this novel but already an acclaimed journalist and women’s rights activist. This isn’t an account of the front line but purely a story that takes place on the home front.

Shell-shock is extremely typical for most WWI accounts. It seems as if there had never been so many cases of shell-shock in any war as in WWI. Psychologists state that one of the reasons for this lies in the trench warfare. Being in the trenches for such a long time infused the soldiers with a deep feeling of helplessness that makes shell-shock much more probable than any othe type of warfare. The moment the soldiers were allowed to leave the trenches and move about shell-shock was far less frequent.

Here is the link to the Rebecca West Society if you want to find out more about the author, upcoming conferences and events.

The Return of the Soldier has also been made into a movie.

17 thoughts on “Literature and War Readalong March 25 2011: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

  1. I’ve just put up a post about not committing to anything else for the sake of my sanity, but I’ve been wanting to read West for some time now and it’s useful to know that there is this very short text out there. I’m not going to join in , but I will out it on my list as a way of at least getting a taste of her work.

    • You can still have a look at the discussions once they are up. It is indeed a short text and I believe a good way to get a feeling for her novels. I agree with you, one cannot commit to too much, it isn’t healthy.

  2. I’m over-committed right now, Caroline, but would love to read the discussion. This novel looks like another good one and the movie seems intriguing as well.

    I read West’s bio, and what a life she had.

    • No worries. You can always just read the discussions. I will have to have a look at her biography. She sounds like a very interesting woman. On the Rebecca West Society’s page they have a sequence of pictures showing her from youth to older age and she looks fascinating in each and every one of them.

    • It is high time for me to read Rebecca West anyway so I am looking forward to reading it and the discussions. And, yes, the fact that it was written at the time makes it even more interesting.

  3. I am a rebecca west fan but the type of extensive memory loss as a result Of PTSD is not the type of memory loss asssocated with PTSD. The major problem with PTSD is the INABILILTY to forget. Such total lengthy memory loss west writes up is the product of her imagination. And what a wonderous imagination she has.

    Conerning Barker’s triology, W W R River’s (the psychiatrist in her books)orginal paper on Shell Shock (PTSD) is available on line. I suggest you look at it to get an accurate picture of River’s work with Sasson, Owen, and Graves. Parker uses some of his case material and uses that material accurately; you will recognize the cases in River’s article as woven into her book. Rivers and Graves later wrote a book on poetry and Shell Shock. Unfortunately I have nver been able to get a copy.

    It is best to leave dear rebecca’s book as pure fiction and not as an accurate account of shell shock.

    I retired but as a pychologist I treated PTSD mostly in Vietnamese soldiers and Cambodian survivors of the killing fields.

    Glen Clifford, PsyD ( a member of the Rebecca West Society.)

    • Thank you so much for this comment. I will quote you once the discussion is starting (shouldn’t you participate anyway). Rebecca West’s book is still widely quoted as a perfect example of shell-shock. It will be very interesting to see how people react to it. I am familiar with PTSD for other reasons (I have grown-up with a veteran father) and his biggest problem has always been that he cannot get rid of his memories. I assumed that Barker is accurate. As a cultural anthropologist I was familiar with River’s and found his depiction to be very well done. Thanks for the suggestions, I will look them up.
      From a purely literary point of view I would probably have chose another book by Rebecca West but since we are reading novels who are war-themed, this seemed a great opportunity to start to get to know her work.

  4. I had no idea this had been made into a movie–I will have to try and get my hands on a copy as it would be interesting to see how it was translated into film. I didn’t realize she was so young when she wrote this–she does seem like a very interesting woman. I’m really looking forward to this one!

    • I’m looking forward to it as well and have now also ordered the edition by Bernard Schweizer which adds 100 pages to the actual text. I might not get it in time. I also had to order a biography after having read Mrs Pearl’s comment.
      I might try and watch the movie as well.

    • I’m looking forward as well. I hope you will get it in time. It’s very short, so it will probably be OK. Ther are some editions with very long introductions that would be interesting to read as well.

  5. Pingback: Rebecca West: The Return of the Soldier (1918) Literature and War Readalong March « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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