Literature and War Readalong June 27 2014: Fear aka La Peur by Gabriel Chevallier


Every year there is at least one book in the readalong I’m dreading. This year Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear –La Peur is one of them. Cheavllier called it explicitly an anti-war novel and at the same time his wish was to be as truthful as possible, to tell things as they were and to make those, who were not there understand what the war was like. His own experience as an infantryman made him especially qualified to write about the war.

In the French edition of the book is a foreword from 1951 and reading it, one could almost think thar Chevallier himself thought that he went too far. Probably it’s not surprising that the book went out of print when WWII broke out as it was considered bad for morale.

In any case, it’s one of the great French WWI classics. Another one of Chevallier’s novels, Clochemerle, was quite successful.

Here are the first sentences

The fire was already smouldering somewhere in the depths of Europe, but carefree France donned its summer costumes, straw hats and flannel trousers, and packed its bags for the holidays. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky – such an optimistic, bright blue sky. It was terribly hot and drought was the only possible worry. It would be so lovely out in the country side, or down by the sea. The scent of iced absinthe hung over the café terraces and gypsy orchestras played popular tunes from The Merry Widow which was then all the rage.

Some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Fear – La Peur by Gabriel Chevallier (France 1930)  WWI, Classic, Novel, 320 pages

It is 1915. Jean Dartemont is just a young man. He is not a rebel, but neither is he awed by authority and when he’s called up and given only the most rudimentary training, he refuses to follow his platoon. Instead, he is sent to Artois, where he experiences the relentless death and violence of the trenches. His reprieve finally comes when he is wounded, evacuated and hospitalised.

The nurses consider it their duty to stimulate the soldiers’ fighting spirit, and so ask Jean what he did at the front.

His reply?

‘I was afraid.’

First published in France in 1930, Fear is both graphic and clear-eyed in its depiction of the terrible experiences of soldiers during the First World War.


The discussion starts on Friday, 27 June 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

23 thoughts on “Literature and War Readalong June 27 2014: Fear aka La Peur by Gabriel Chevallier

  1. I know what you mean about dread, but really this one wasn’t too tough a read. Yes there are moments, but the tone is very different from, let’s say. All Quiet on the Western Front. There are very few named characters so the dead are mainly anonymous, and Jean’s rage really carries you through the muck and the mire.

  2. I confess, I was sent no less than three copies of this by the publisher and I have avoided them all. I’ll be very interested to read your discussion as always, though!

  3. I’m not a fan of gruesome either, but this appeals to me. I have to admire the author for being so honest. No one wants to talk about fear during the war, do they?
    I was surprised to learn that British soldiers were executed if they froze in fear while advancing. I’d probably freeze too if I had to walk right into enemy fire.

    • Private Peaceful is based on stories like that, in which soldiers were executed because of lack of bravery or because they fell asleep.
      Chevallier did the unthinkable. talking about fear was a no-go. Not manly . . . Not patriotic . . . Blah blah.

  4. This looks like a fascinating book, Caroline! I love the blurb, especially the place where he replies to the nurses’ question. It is sad that Chevallier’s book went out of print, but glad to see it back. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it. Happy reading!

    • It caught my interest right away, when I first saw it. I think that it was available again after WWII. In France, that is. I’m not sure about the English translation. This seems to be a new one. The tone is very different from the French, at least, as far as I could compare.
      I’ll be reading the French original, of course.

  5. Even the title and cover of this one has something that inspires a bit of dread. I would really like to join you on this one. It is a busy month however. I will at least be looking forward to everyone’s posts on this.

    • I skipped Guy’s review as I didn’t want to know too much. The French cover is even more dread-inspiring. I’ll share it when I write the post.
      Maybe you’ll manage to join us – if not, you can always add to the discussion later. Some people join mon ths later.

  6. I was getting a little worried about this one (also as the blurbs on the NYRB copy make it sound somewhat hard going–or maybe I am reading more into them than is there…), but I am happy to read the comments now as it sounds like it won’t be quite so ‘bad’ after all. I have not yet started, but I think I will begin reading this week. You are going to read in the original language, aren’t you? I have the newly reissued NYRB edition which I think has a good introduction and I plan on reading it before the story (I tend to avoid intros but in this case I think the more I know beforehand the better)!

    • I started it and it’s written in a very accessible way and after Guy’s comment I think as well, it won’t be that bad.
      I’m a bit puzzled by the translation though. It seems to take liberties. I’ll have to compare some more.
      I have only that intro by Chevallier himself, no other introduction. I’ll have to read yours and Guys review to see what it’s about.

    • I think it’s overshadowed by barbusse’s account but I was familiar with it long before the readalong. It’s easy to read style-wise but it has shocking parts. I like his voice which makes it easier.

  7. Hi, Caroline,
    It’s sad to think that the only way I could get a copy of this book was to order it for my Nook. What I mean to say is this: All of my extended library networks did not have a single copy. And now that I’ve read the first 100 pages I can say that I feel Chevallier offers a unique perspective and a view of the French apparatus of War that I have not found elsewhere. I’m writing a post now because I’m fairly certain that I’ll finish in time for June 27.
    And I must say, thank you so much for suggesting this title! I have found it be a worthwhile read, because the French perspective has been missing from my previous reading on World War I.
    Happy Weekend!

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