Richard Bausch: Peace (2008) Literature and War Readalong September 2012

Richard Bausch’s Peace (2008) is set in Italy during WWII. An American  recon squad comes upon a group of people and a cart. A German officer and a German prostitute are hiding on the wagon. When they turn it around, the German officer opens fire and kills two of the young American soldiers. Corporal Marson shoots him, while Sergeant Glick shoots the woman in the head.

It’s the end of WWII and German troops are retreating but not without trying to take down anyone they can with them. The mountains are hostile territory, it’s cold and it rains constantly. The little troop of men is demoralized. The life of a recon squad is usually very dangerous, they have to find out where the German line is and might accidentally already be behind the lines. After the shooting of the officer and the whore, three of the men are sent on recon again. Sgt Marson, Ash and Joyner. On their way they meet Angelo, a frail and very old Italian man and force him to guide them.

Marson, Ash and Joyner are as different as three people can be. Marson is the oldest, he’s 26, married and has a child. Joyner and Ash are 20. Ash seems to be deeply traumatized by something he experienced in Africa and which wakes him every night. He seems to be a good sort but starts to annoy Marson because he wants to denounce Glick. The murder of the prostitute has shocked him and he thinks Glick should be brought to justice. While Marson agrees with him, he feels it’s not the right time and he has problems of his own. They are on a very dangerous recon mission, it’s very cold and raining. They don’t know where they are and have to rely on a man he doesn’t completely trust. Many of the Italians have surrendered, many never really participated but there are still a lot of fascists who would gladly kill them. Plus he fights a battle with his conscience. Before shooting the German officer he had never killed anyone up close and the memory of it makes him sick. Tensions between the four people would be high anyway but Joyner is an aggressive bigot, anti-Jews, anti-Communists, anti-drinking. But swearing and abusing people constantly which is a huge contradiction.

Matters get even worse when it starts snowing and they hear shots. They find a dead German and later hear more shots coming from a village where, as the old man explains, Jews are being executed.

The three men are really tested and have to go to their limits. They fight the cold, are in enemy territory, traumatized by what they have seen so far and by their conscience.

I must honestly say I was not too impressed with this book. It’s told in chapters alternating between the past of the three men, what they had experienced in Palermo and their actual recon mission. The central conflict or theme, drawing the line between justified killing and murder, is shown but it didn’t move me. The book exemplifies how much it meant for soldiers to kill, it underlines that in WWII shooting someone from up close was in no way common and could cause a huge problem, triggering moral conflicts. Unfortunetly I never felt that conflict.

It’s hard to say why this book did so not work from me. I felt Bausch wanted to tell a story that wasn’t his and I suspect he watched a few movies in order to get a feel for what it was like but ultimately I felt he couldn’t make this story his and tell it in a moving way. In this it reminded me of Coventry but looking back I’d say, I liked that much more.

I’m aware this is a bit of an uninspired review but I’m really unfazed by this book.

I hope others did read along. I’m very interested to hear their thoughts.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Victoria (creativeshadows)

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Peace was the ninth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Maria Angels Anglada The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz. Discussion starts on Monday 29 October, 2012.

40 thoughts on “Richard Bausch: Peace (2008) Literature and War Readalong September 2012

  1. Dear Caroline, I have just today put up a post on my site apologizing for one thing definitely and another thing potentially. First of all, I somehow got the impression from your first post on “Peace” that the Literature and War Readalong was over for 2012. I corrected that error. The second thing is that I really didn’t deal with the morality so much of war-time deeds; but I had already decided that these were atrocious and that I might be better employed at considering the piece structurally and thematically, the more as I had just read the 2010 short story by Bausch, “Something Is Out There,” and I see similarities. Also, I think there’s room for disagreement about the quality of “Peace.” While I see your points about the calm tone (if that’s the word I want) of the book, which makes the action seem a little distant, made up, or restrained (perhaps, as you say, as if Bausch is telling a story which he hasn’t made his own), I just happen to have a great deal more respect for his book than for Hemingway’s aggrandizing of the stiff-upper-lipped hero who always has great one-liners about war (and I’ve read a lot, though not all, of Hemingway). I think Hemingway is the obvious comparison because they are both writing about the same field of action, WW II. And of course though Hemingway was keen on killing Nazis, anti-Semitism runs through his work as a whole in a major way, even in the supposed heroes’ remarks. I think Bausch sets up Marson as a good sympathetic character for readers, because while to most of the others (especially Joyner) there does come to be a difference between killing up close and killing at a distance, I think Marson is struck with the general topic of what kinds of dodges and evasions anyone can be driven to in order to save his own life. And I think he preserves this awareness even at the end. After all, an omniscient narration would’ve been a mistake with these characters, but the insight into Marson’s mind seems to be a perfect way of registering not only his own desire to live, but the way in which he is also responsible for the men under his command. And I think that to split the remaining character solvent (if one can all it that) into the two co-solvents (I know almost no chemistry, I hope you can excuse my ignorance of my metaphor) of Asch (Jew) and Joyner (anti-Semite) who learn to work together in the end and even care for each other is a major feat. I find this believable. At any rate, I’m glad, actually, that you and I for once don’t agree on a book’s quality, because it may lead to more discussion for both of us on our sites by other people who have things to say. And I’m so glad that for once I managed to participate, even in an ack-bassed way, in something you’re reading at the time you’re reading it. Sorry too, if this is too long!

    • Thanks for joining me, Victoria.
      One think I forgot to mention in my post is the quality of Bausch’s prose which I think is wonderful.
      I’m glad we disagree as I’d like to see it from another perspective.
      I think the big difference between Hemingway’s and Bausch’s approach is that Bausch’s perspective is a second hand persepctive. He wasn’t there.
      Maybe he was in Vietnam but I think he wasn’t. Now you don’t need to have done everything to write about it in this case I just felt you could sense it. Pretty much like in Heheln Humphrey’s Coventry. One of my favourite movies THe Thin Red Line touches on the horror to actually kill a man. Despite the fact that the soldiers who a lot, they didn’t kill all that many and rarely up close. I felt the shock and the horror in the movie but nt hear. I really can’t say why but Bausch didn’t reach me with this book.
      The idea to spilt the tow in a Jew and an anti-Semite worked for me as well. It’s quite possible, why not.
      I liked the whole scene in the forest, with the dead German, it’s quite impressive but for a reason I can still not name, the rest didn’t live up to my expectations.

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever read any books that deal with recon missions. What a scary endeavor. I was surprised to hear that killing went on, even after the cease-fires in both world wars, but I probably shouldn’t have been. Sometimes the hatred never ends.
    Sounds like the book came close to hitting the mark, but failed. I may still give it a try, but have so many others ahead of it.

    • I think the fact that it missed the mark may have more to do with me in this case as the book as such.
      It’s well written and he manages to convey the horrible without being gruesome at all. That’s agood thing, I suppose.

  3. Great summary. I could not have done it better. I do not have any major disagreements. The novel left me cold as well although it was a nice break from the other books in the readalong. However, for that reason, I was a bit disappointed. I know you were thinking this was a book that I might finally like. Like would be too strong, but I certainly did not hate it.

    1. I like when books explore the effects of the elements (rain, cold, snow) and exhaustion on the actions of soldiers. I could put myself in the trios shoes.

    2. Marson carries a picture of his wife and child – if this was a war movie he would have been dead meat. Novels work differently I guess.

    3. I found Marson to be a likable and genuine character. He was more afraid of cowardice than death in combat – a very true emotion. he’s religious which was outside the box.

    4. I loved this observation by Marson: “He had read the Crane novel [Red Badge] about the civil war, and Crane’s conclusion – that his fictional soldier had seen the great death and it was, after all, only death – seemed utterly false to him, dangerously, stupidly romantic.” I have always found Crane’s book to be unrealistic.

    5. Asch: “I got enough bad imagery in my head to last two lifetimes.” I’m sure a lot of WWII veterans would agree with that.

    6. Best scene: Marson’s leaving home. Father telling him two things: do your duty and write to your mother.

    7. The carping becomes redundant and boring. There are a lot of “shut ups” in this book. The lack of noise discipline behind enemy lines was very unrealistic.

    8. The rescue of Asch was suspenseful, but I doubt seriously there would have been no additional shots. Why are they so afraid of the sniper stalking them? The idea to use the dead German as a decoy was stupid, but maybe they had a brain freeze (literally).

    9. Number of variations of the F word: 106. (I counted) If you are offended by the F word – do not read this book!

    10. I never got the feeling the old man was a threat. The character could have been better chosen if Bausch wanted more suspense. I also think the killing of the woman was overblown as a narrative device. That sort of thing happened a lot in warfare. If they had told on Glick, they would have been laughed out of the commander’s tent.

    In general, the book was well written. The character development was good. It could have been a lot more exciting albeit less realistic.

    • Thanks, Kevin.
      50 pages into the book I knew I was wrong and you’d feel similar to me. I was still hoping you wouldn’t but was sure you’d be as unfazed as I was.
      I have to agree on the shot prostitute. I could completely relate to Marson’s reaction to his own killing but to tell again and again how they saw the woman’s feet in the air… It just didn’t work for me as a shocking picture. I found it more shocking to know what the two young dead American soldiers said and did that day.
      My biggest problem was that I had an endless déjà-vu feeling while I read the book. There wasn’t a single scene that didn’t sound familiar.
      I agree too, it’s well written, charcater development was indeed good but something was missing.

  4. I would say that your review was not uninspiring. It was very interesting. I was however surprised by your commentary after your summery, as the description made the book sound good. Based on your recapitulation it sounds as if the book really just did not connect. The impression that the author watched some movies to get a feel for writing this book, even if it was not the case, does not speak much for the writing.

    • It seesm his won father was in Africa, Sicily and Italy, so a lot is probably based on hs account and the movie wathcing is my suspicion as I?ve seen more than adozen WWII movies which had surprisingly similar elements.
      I’d say it might nt speak against the writing but maybe against the research.

  5. There is one thing that I encountered in the book that I do think I saw elsewhere before, either in the movies or in a previous novel somewhere, and that is how the old man taunts Marson near the end when Marson has the gun on him. The way I saw it previously explained was that someone was taunting someone who was getting ready to kill them so that it would make it easier and quicker for both of them. This is obviously not all that was going on there, and I simply can’t remember now where I read it, but I don’t know if it’s just a cliche or something that is there in several texts, movies, etc., whatever, because it’s a real life human reaction. What do you think?

    • That is one of the secens I seem to remember from a movie as well. I thought it was in Days of Glory. I don’t think it was to make it easier but to keeps his pride or something.

      • Yes, I think from the old man’s point of view it is to keep his pride, but the dynamic it sets up between the two of them emotionally (since the old man doesn’t for a long time believe that he is going to survive) is to allow the soldier to shoot faster so that the old man doesn’t have to suffer an agonizing and pitiful (to him) episode of begging. In a sense, he is too stubborn and prideful a character to beg for his life, and scarcely dares hope for anything other than a swift and painless death. Anyway, that’s the way I’ve seen it “played” or written somewhere before. I haven’t seen “Days of Glory,” though with all the movie trailers on tv and given the amount of tv I do sometimes watch (I’m shamelessly a fan of good shows on the small screen–I watch as many M*A*S*H* reruns as they will let me see).

        • It may also have been in other movies it’s a fairly common scene. Also the old man’s reaction but the result isn’t always the same. Sometimes they get shot faster, sometimes not at all. Someone like Marson could never have done it but the old man did clearly not know him well enough and in the end it’s more shameful not ebing shot. Or so I felt.
          I do watch TVs but not a lot of TV. It’s such a time thief.

  6. sorry you did like the book, Caroline.
    Honestly, the first few paragraph of your review intrigued me, it sounds like a good book, but as I continue reading…I can understand why you couldn’t fully enjoy it. It is sort of like that movie, The Grey, they tried to deliver a conflict but failed.

    • There are two conflicts really, the one that Marson has to kill and the other that Ash and marson ware shocked that Glick killed the prostitute. It would have been more powerull to focus on only one of the two.

  7. Such a shame that this one didn’t work out. I checked my library for the next book and I think they actually have a copy. I’ll do my best to track it down. I do like this series. I just wish my library was easier to work with.

  8. I was really pleased to see this book on the war and literature readalong as it was one of my best reads of 2011. I’m sorry you didn’t take to it Caroline. I read it more or less in one sitting. Not quite without a break as I have my children to look after but it was one of those books I couldn’t put down.

    So why did it grip me so much? Well I felt as if I was there alongside them trying to cope with the cold, the unknown territory and their fears. It seemed completely realistic that the terrible dilemma of the opening with the woman being shot in the head by their sergant simply disappears when the sergeant is killed. War is like that I imagine and moral issues can evaporate in the face of having to survive. I assume that Bausch had talked to his father who fought in Italy at the end of the war and this was what inspired this book.

    It is a quietly written story – there are no heroes, not much fighting but as an account of what might have happened in Italy in the closing stages of the war I thought it was excellent.

    • I think one of the reasons that I didn’t like it that much was that it reminded me of a few WWII movies I have seen in which snow, cold, rain are prominent (Saints and Soldiers, A Midnight Clear, Silent Night, to some extent When Trumpets Fade) but I liked those better. Some even treated the religious aspects Bausch mentioned and for some reason I had a feeling he was influenced by those movies. Maybe I’m totally wrong, maybe it’s a coincidence they were so similar.
      Without that I might have liked it much more. I suppose the writing is quite cinematographic or I wouldn’t compare it to movies. In any case I’d like to read more of him.

      • Also, maybe it’s just plain almost impossible to write about WWII without writing about what almost all the soldiers experienced or remembered having happened. Reality imposes a certain tariff in this regard.

  9. It’s so hard to comment when you haven’t read the book – and I haven’t. But it was an interesting discussion. I’ve liked Bausch when I’ve read him, but the novels I read had nothing to do with the war. He is a good stylist, though. I’m intrigued by your comment about Bausch not having been a soldier – do you think, then, that war is something a writer must have direct experience of to write about?

    • When I wrote that part about his not having been a soldier, I was asking myself that question precisely. I don’t necessarily believe you have to write only about what you know and have experienced but I think there are a few experineces for which it is true. War and giving birth being two of them. I really can’t imagine I would ever writer from the point of view of a woman who gives birth. About a woman who gives birth yes. But that is not what he does here, he adopts the point of view of the soldiers. If you compare Tim O’Brien books and this, you know immediately what I mean. The same when one compares the way Blachin wrote about the Blitz in comparison to all those who only wrote historical novels. It’s not as authentic.

    • Interesting question, as to whether one must necessarily write only or predominantly from one’s own experience. Often in creative writing classes, students have “rules” thrown at them, things which were originally just descriptive and have become prescriptive, such as “show, don’t tell” or in this case “write about what you know.” But that begs the question, what is it to “know”? Could someone imagine adequately a story about war from hearing others talk of it adequately, as in the situation described above by one of commenters re: Bausch? That is, that he heard his father talk of it? This question often comes up in another area too, as for example whether one can write of another ethnic group’s experience from what one has heard described whether or not one is a member of that group. One case in point was William Styron’s novel about an American slave rebellion called “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” Nat Turner was the African American slave who led the rebellion (this case, though, is probably complicated by the fact that there were some other questions, I think I heard, which were at issue there). In any case, maybe “the proof of the pudding’s in the eating,” so to speak, on a case by case basis.

      • I agree abou the case by case basis. I don’t think you really jave to know everything or there would never be any fanatsy or Sci-Fi writing but you must have experienced the emotional truth of something. I guesss, at least. I used to think I could write about war because my father told me such a lot. But I’m not sure anymore. But maybe also because I wouldn’t want to create those images in my head…
        Maybe Bausch’s father told the story just like this. My own father’s accounts were far more graphic.
        On the other hand I found Marson’s conflict very authentic, the horror that her killed someone.

        • You’re not alone there, Caroline. There’s a reason why I write mainly comedies and satires and haven’t yet written anything bittersweet, even, except poems. I don’t know if I’ve dragged this old truism saw before you yet, but a theatre teacher of mine used to over-simplify and say, “Life is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel.” I think in truth every person both thinks and feels, but for me it’s easier to write about thoughts and how people think than it is to make myself feel and suffer for a character. I would rather poke fun at people’s foibles (such a nasty habit!) than grieve and possibly descend into sentimentality that my readers would be able to reproach me for. But I’ve promised myself that in my next novel but one, I will actually have sorrow, grieving, and a death, not simply for their own sakes, but because I have to prove to myself that I’m not an unfeeling bitch who just laughs her way through life. Which means that I will have to sacrifice a character who means something to me. Rats! Life is never simple, is it?

          • It certainly isn’t simple. At least not the life of a writer, right?
            I feel there is a risk if you start to write about really dark things. Not only the bittersweet.
            You could face a few shadows of your own. Maybe that’s what you can avoid if you write comedies, you immerse yourself in your writing mentally and not necessarily emotionally. Is that what you meant?

            • Well, you invest your own emotions in characters when you write them, and when I’m writing comedy, I can allow them certain moments of sadness without being dragged down myself, I guess is what I meant. Because I know that the condition isn’t lasting. But to write a novel with final consequences for someone–that’s more dramatic, more tragic, and would force me to take greater risks. That’s what it is,

  10. This one clicked with me–I wasn’t sure at first what I thought, but the more I read the more I appreciated Bausch’s characters and their conflicting emotions. I can see how the weather and the prolonged march up the mountain and the pain from a blister would all wear on a person and then the human drama on top of it all–witnessing what amounts to an execution–well, that’s the question, is it okay to kill a civilian like the prostitute just because she hates you and is screaming in your face. He never answered the question really, which in a way I am glad as he leave it up to the reader to ponder. I liked his writing style and the way it was simply developed yet he asked deep questions. The men were at times contradictory but then so is life. Of course when something doesn’t feel authentic or you’ve read or seen the same story told in a slightly different way that you felt was done better I can see why this story might pale. I loved the book by Tim O’Brien and think it felt very authentic, but for me this still struck a chord and I didn’t feel like he was too out of his depths. Anyway, a very good read–even books that you don’t like can be good to read just for the comparison to other books. I do want to try his short stories sometime. Will you read him again?

    • I’m a bit disappointed in myself because I felt like this about the book. I suppose it has something to do with the movies I’ve seen as I know Kevin has that background too and it paled for him as well although he had high hopes.
      I really wat to read him again, certainly the short stories shadowoperator mentioned in her posts and another novel.
      The writing is very visual, I’d like to see how he writes about other things.
      What I like about a themed readalong is that it really makes you compare, and find out why one book works, the differneces of style stand out better.
      I’m already looking fowrad to go on reading.
      I’m gld you liked it, it means that after all it was aood choice and for once not too harrowing. I think the Ibuse was the worst this year.

      • Well, we’ve had “Sons and Lovers,” “Fathers and Sons,” so what I’m most looking forward to reading after I finish with Bausch’s short stories in one book, if I can find the thing, is Bausch’s “Wives and Lovers: Three Short Novels.” It’s funny sometimes how repetitious writers are about their titles. It always makes me wonder if there’re any thematic similarities.

  11. Sorry to know that you didn’t like this book much, Caroline. Your comment that the author might have watched a few movies before writing the book made me smile 🙂 I hope your next book is better. Happy reading!

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