Gabriel Chevallier: La Peur – Fear (1930) Literature and War Readalong June 2014


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.


Other reviews

 Guy (His Futile Preoccupations)

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)


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.

37 thoughts on “Gabriel Chevallier: La Peur – Fear (1930) Literature and War Readalong June 2014

  1. I wasn’t able to fit this book into my reading plans, but from your review, it sounds like it is a book I should read. I won’t be able to read it in French, so hopefully, the English translation will be a good one.

  2. The fact that Chevallier was a veteran of such terrible fighting certainly gives this books a lot of credibility. Perhaps The fact that it is episodic is a reflection of how his the real day to day War experience seemed.

    There is a long history of books like this becoming unavailable or being banned in wartime.

    • I think it is a very realistic account. Anything else would have benn far less powerful.
      This was certainaly not the type of book they wanted to see in print when WWII broke out.
      There’s nothin g absolutely nothing positive about the war in this book.

  3. Interesting read, isn’t it? I liked the non-sentimentality of this, and he manages to maintain that even when people he’s mentioned are killed, wounded, or go crazy. Quite an achievement when you think about it. Hope you get better soon.

    • Thanks, Guy. I have a really fuzzy head.
      It is an achievement. He just seems to accept that he can’t chnage his situation. He tries to survive as bets as he can, that’s all.
      There’s so much in this book, I could have written pages and pages.

  4. After reading your review and Guy’s, I really want to read this. Out of interest for the text and just because it was “censored” by letting it become OOP.

  5. I agree that this is a most excellent read and quite powerful. I think the English translation very good–it doesn’t ‘feel’ translated, which for me is always the test whether it is successfully done or not. He tells his story rather matter of factly and while the descriptions are on occasion gruesome (the man who has been killed in the trench and looks alive still, only his brain has oozed out of his skull in one piece and his hand points at the men…..) and even a little shocking at times, it doesn’t make for unbearable reading. It is, still, a little slow going for me (hence and not surprisingly I am sure) and not yet being finished with the reading. It is almost pure description it seems and I can only manage it in shorter sittings. So, hopefully another week for me–but I think it is one of the better books we’ve read!

    • I’m glad we agree. Only I thought the reading was very quick. I didn’t really put it aside very often.
      It has some horrible scenes but, as you point out, it’s bearable to read them. Maybe knowing the narrator will not die or be disfigured helps. I don’t know. I’m looking forward to your review.

  6. This must have been a difficult read, but you clearly connected with the author. I read his wiki entry and he seems like an admirable person. War just makes me feel very sad. I would have thought that by now people would have found a way to live in harmony, but alas, human nature being what it is, wars are still raging.

    Australia was heavily involved in World War I. ‘From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of which over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.’ (Australian War Museum) It was that same desire to ‘see’ and have an adventure that prompted a lot of young men to enlist.

    I was surprised to see the book wasn’t translated to English until 2011. I can imagine the authorities wanting to ban the book and keep it out of public view during World War II. Men didn’t tend to talk about their war experience in those days, so the powers-that-be certainly wouldn’t have wanted young people to read such a strongly anti-war book.

    • I’ve watched a great nuber of Australian war movies which are all excellent that’s why I’m familiar with Australia’s involvement. I love how some of those movies contrast hierarchy among the UK and among the Australian soldiers.
      Chevallier is great at always reminding us of human nature and how it leads to war again and again.
      The book was available in France after WWII – if I’m not totally mistaken but not translated. I don’t think I’ve never read anything as much anti-war.
      It’s sad that so many were mistaken and thought going to war would be just an adventure.

  7. Great review. Totally agree. I was not sure you would like it. It is pretty graphic in parts and not exactly complimentary of France. When you sent me the list last December, I did some research and had it predicted as a very good read and I am pleased to say that I underestimated it. I thoroughly enjoyed it (which I am sure is no surprise to you because you know I prefer more combat). It is one of the best war novels I have ever read. His writing style was great and I concentrated on every sentence, unlike some of the other readalongs. The only negative thing I can say is like other novels based on memoirs, I don’t like wondering where fact ends and fiction begins. Give me one or the other. How appropriate that I finished it the day before the 100th Anniversary of the start of the war. It certainly put the insanity of WWI in perspective.

    1. I loved the narrators voice. He is so cynical and snarky. And blunt. I could relate to that. LOL
    2. The themes are advanced effectively throughout the book. The war was a profit making enterprise. The foot soldiers were cogs in a machine. Fear is the most potent force. Heroism is overrated. The further back you get from the front line, the more corrupt and uncaring it is. A country is not a concept worth dying for. Women imply cowardice if you don’t go off to war, then if you come back and admit you were afraid, they look down on you for it
    3. There are several brilliant sections: the way France went to war (‘It starts just like a festival”), the stay in the hospital, his trip home, going to the bathroom during a barrage, etc.
    4. The combat sections were unsparing and realistic. I loved the line: “the living autopsy, the jagged scalpels of steel”. He covers tactics better than any WWI novel I have read. I actually learned a few things.
    5. I focused on the parallels with the Vietnam War: the view toward the soldiers and officers who were safely in the rear (the “dug-ins” as he called them – REMFs in Vietnam) / the commanders attitudes / the quest for survival
    6. This book, more than anything else I have read or seen, explains the mutinies.
    7. I am working on “Paths of Glory” and the novel meshes weil with it.
    8. I found the English translation very good, except when some British slang was used.
    9. I loved Negre.

    I have some questions for you:
    – Do you think this novel explains why the French Army did so poorly in 1940?
    – What did you think about his views toward women? He was pretty harsh.
    – What about his view that intellectuals like himself were smart enough to figure out what war was all about, but your average soldiers were like ignorant sheep? the bravest soldiers are the one’s that lack imagination and sensitivity

    Thanks for the great choice. It will get me through a few future mehs.

    • I’m glad you liked it. I thought you’d enjoy what he has to say about tactics. I’ve never seen it like this. I was afraid you wouldn’t like the style. It’s very spare. But it’s just so to the point.
      He’s very critical of France and he’s right. I think the FRench High Command was even wrose than the British. As he points out they hadn’t seen combat. Many on the British side were in the Boer Wars.
      I can understand the mutinies but I liked how he pointed out how difficult it is to say no whe you’re this tired and exhausted.
      I would like to know how much is fictional.
      In answer to your questions
      I suppose WWI was responsible for doing badly.
      I agree with most of his views on women. Surely there were exceptions but even nowadays, sadly, you find women who love a man in uniform. Who like the idea of a hero. …
      I don’t agree with the last point. I’m sure there were “brave” soldiers who were no intellectuals and many figured out what was ging on. On the other hand, most accounts like this have not been written by simple soldiers, which is another thing that makes this unique.

      • Chevallier must have been pretty disappointed when WWII happened. But I would like to point out that he would most likely have approved appeasing Hitler at Munich. Why die for Czechoslovakia? The fact is, not all wars are unjustified or unavoidable. When you look at WWI and WWII, you see two wars that are on opposite ends of the justifiable spectrum. Chevalier might not have prevented France’s involvement in WWII, veterans like him probably did not do what the previous generation had done for his – encourage them to go off to war. I do understand better why the French Army was not so fired up about another war on its territory.

        This is a book by an average soldier, but he was far from average. It is pretty unique perspective.

        I thought it was interesting that he did not put his character in the midst of the mutiny.

        • WWII was very different and I guess he felt differently about it. WWI showed such a shocking disregard for the simple soldiers – it was very much born from an old world order that was shattered then.
          He’s anything but average. I’m very curious to see how Blunden’s book will compare.

  8. Wonderful review, Caroline! I liked very much what you said about the narrator’s voice – it looks very unsentimental and straightforward and logical, which makes it very powerful and convincing. It is sad that the book went out-of-print before WWII, but glad to know that it is back. I will add this to my ‘TBR’ list. I also loved the way you have used the word “shell-shocked” – in its literal, original, terrifying meaning rather than the general meaning in which it is used today. I also loved reading Kevin’s comments and questions and your answers to them.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I hope you’ll read it. It’s a very unique book. Hard at times but also refreshing because he simply doesn’t buy any of the lies.
      Never did the word “shell-shock”make more sense that when you read this. I think it’s amazing he survived and satyed sane.

  9. Sounds very interesting and well worth reading. I’ve only read Barbusse from the French side, which is pretty strong stuff as well.
    Impossible for us today to imagine or accept the type of losses that became routine 100 years ago. In retrospect the amazing thing is that it took so long for mutiny to occur.

    • It’s true. It took a long time but Chevallier gives a perfectly good exlanation why they didn’t rebel any earlier. Alone for those parts it’s worth reading.
      I wasn’t sure whether to pick Barbusse or this. I’m sure they are both good. I also want to read Jünger and get a German perspective.

      • It’s on my list now. The Barbusse is good, very intense, almost surreal at times as he describes what they went through. He focusses exclusively on the expereince of the “common men” at the very bottom fo the war hierarchy – I don’t remember if he ever even mentions officers.

        • The same here. I’m sure it would be intersting to compare but we’ve got another intense one coming. Blunden’s memoir and I still want to read Ernst Jünger.

  10. If you like first-hand war descriptions etc. I really recommend ‘The story of a secret state’ by Jan Karski (it’s about WWII and has been recently republished by Penguin). I read it 2 years ago and it really blew me away.

  11. It does sound excellent, and a great find by the NYRB as is so often the case. I would have thought some of your other war reads might rather pale against the dispassionate honesty of something like this. Is that true at all?

    • Yes, definitely, quite pale. You can’t compare a historical novel of WWI with a book that has been written by someone who was there. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some excellent historical novels, it’s just not the same.
      The only book we’ve read for the readalong I’d compare this with – but it’s a WWII novel – is Ledig’s The Stalin Organ.

  12. My library didn’t have this one, so I wasn’t able to read along, unfortunately. I like to read war memoirs amidst all the fiction, and this one sounds worth looking for. I read a poetry book recently about a conscientious objector during WWII, and how it wasn’t a very popular stance to take because most people were for the war, so I’m not surprised either that this one would go out of print then.

    • Anna, I know you’d like this. It’s so different from anything else and so powerful.
      I can understand as well why it went out of print. It’s very subversive. I hope you can read it some day.
      We’ve got another memoir upcoming.

  13. Pingback: Jean Echenoz: 1914 – 14 (2012) Literature and War Readalong March 2016 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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