Most of the books we read for the Literature and War Readalong are historical novels, written by people who do not have any experience of war. But I always try to make sure to include at least one novel or memoir written by someone who had first-hand experience. Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear – La Peur is one of those. Like his narrator Jean Dartemont, Chevallier was a simple soldier during WWI. He served from 1914 to the end of the war. In 1915 he had a small break because he was wounded but was sent back to the front-line after his recovery. Reading his account it sounds like a miracle that anyone could survive this long under such circumstances. Given the title of this novel it may also come as a surprise that its author returned highly decorated. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.
Most of the time reading La Peur felt like reading a memoir and I suppose most of it is autobiographical. What drew me in from the beginning was the voice. I hope they were able to capture this unique and powerful voice in the English translation. A voice that mentions everything, denounces everything, and lets us get as close to the war in the trenches as possible without having been there.
The book hasn’t a plot as such, it’s more an episodic account of Dartemont’s experience of WWI and his thoughts. Not for one second does he think the war is noble, nor does he ever strive for glory. He sees right through most of the cowardly and sadistic officers and he speaks openly. Not always though. Sometimes he’s just too baffled to speak his mind like when an elderly man asks him on his leave whether they are having fun. Those at home think it’s all a great adventure, just like most of those who signed up early on.
Dartemont who was a student didn’t sign up for “gloire et patrie” (glory and homeland), he signed up because he wanted to see. He’s a very curious person, that’s probably why he never averts his eyes, no matter how scared he is. In the beginning he’s just like a participant observer. At first he’s far from the most intense fighting but once he’s seen his first battle, the first dead people and horribly wounded, fear is his constant companion.
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this. Not for one second are we led to believe that going to war is heroic. It might very well be one of the most openly anti-war books I’ve ever read. Free of any sentimentality, free of any attempt to make us swallow the bitter pill by telling some touching story. It’s just one man’s account of the most horrible things one can experience.
The parts that shocked me the most are not the gruesome descriptions of the wounded and the dead but those that show how utterly ill prepared most of the attacks were. And how incapable and idiotic most of the high command was. How can you expect to win a battle when the enemy is dug in and your soldiers are just running into open fire? No wonder there were some battles in which there were 50,000 to a 100,000 dead and wounded within two hours. All this led to the mutinies of 1917. Of course it wasn’t much better on the British side. Unfortunately many officers were not only useless but petty and sadistic, mean-spirited and small-minded, and managed to turn even times of rest into nightmares.
Seeing how scared Dartemont was all through the war, and how long he stayed in the trenches, I was wondering why he wasn’t shell-shocked. I think he must have had an extremely strong character. Unlike so many, he never looks away, not even when he’s scared. He’s always aware that any moment could be his last, that he could end up maimed for life from one second to the other. This extreme awareness, paired with a strong character, seems to have helped him stay sane through the madness.
As awful and detailed as many of the description were, I liked reading this, because I liked the narrator’s voice so much. Staying this matter of fact in such mayhem is admirable.
I’m not surprised this book went out of print in France when WWII broke out. It’s as powerful as it is subversive. Chevallier rips off the masks of all those who pretend war is noble.
Fear – La Peur is the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the WWI novel The Lie by Helen Dunmore. Discussion starts on Monday 28 July, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.