Last night I watched “Ceasefire” (Cessez-le-feu) directed by Emmanuel Courcol, starring Romain Duris, Celine Sallete and Gregory Gadebois. This French film explores the lives of French soldiers traumatised by bombardment in the trenches of Verdun. Those few who returned ostensibly intact nevertheless suffered from irreparable shell shock, nightmares, the shakes. Many remained unfit for life, unable to participate in normal life. Marcel Laffont, one of these survivors is unable to speak and is being taught sign-language in order to express himself. Towards the end of the film, he manages to leave a message on the blackboard hanging in his room. There is nothing wrong with his vocal chords. It is simply that for Marcel it is “impossible” to be one who has returned alive from this tragic slaughter, a slaughter impossible to speak about, that renders Marcel himself unable to speak about anything ever again.
Watching this film, I began to understand more about the unique role of The Cross of Carl – which Grey Suit Editions UK have just published.
Walter Owen, the Argentine author of The Cross of Carl, attempted to enlist in WW1 – but was refused, being already blind in one eye. He spent much of the war in a sanatorium, traumatised by this refusal, and in a strange state of empathy with those serving at the front. As is shown in the author’s note prefacing the tale that he calls “an allegory”, opium may have contributed to a hallucinogenic episode he experienced – a vision, if you will – that caused him to feel that he was possessed by the spirit of a German soldier in the trenches who was about to participate in a dawn attack. He then wrote his account of the sufferings undergone by this soldier in one sitting, in a sort of frenzy of the imagination – and this extraordinary fiction (which he felt was more of a haunting than a fiction) is the result.
Now the reader may question the authenticity of this “vision” – but perhaps Walter Owen’s work has a validity that transcends experience – since, as Marcel Laffont testifies on his board, the actual experience is “impossible” to speak of, since it is an impossibility (spiritually speaking) to have survived the savagery of such massacres, impossible to speak, let alone speak of the horror itself. Certainly this is the view of General Sir Ian Hamilton – who introduces this allegory: ‘There is something to be explained which I at least cannot explain in the sudden appearance of a book from the Argentine by a man who, I believe, had never seen modern war with mortal eye and who yet manages to divest himself of all the paraphernalia and impedimenta of the old wars (which must have become more or less familiar to him in his youth) so as to visualize the attack on Hill 50 with a stark, concentrated realism which has been attempted, and yet not conveyed as he has conveyed it, by Tomlinson, Remarque, Barbusse and half a dozen other really first-flight authors.‘
With this in mind, it is interesting to compare Walter Owen with Wilfred Owen, and perhaps Walter’s star has been eclipsed by the reality described that that poet who died in the conflict. But it is not a question of asserting some value judgement, of disapproving of a work of the imagination while preferring “the real thing”. Both lived experience and the life of the imagination have a role to play in literature.
Walter Owen’s text has a visceral power, an intense texture that seems to me a precursor of the sort of dense physical language handled so brilliantly later by Norman Mailer in Why we are in Viet Nam. It is a language that draws on all sensory inputs – smell, taste, touch, as well as sight and sound. While created solely out of sight and sound, Emmanuel Courcol’s film works hard to convey the Verdun bombardment of the trenches in a way that evokes these senses unavailable to the screen, and I found watching it a powerful experience. Whether imagined or experienced, what all these works bring home is that active military service can leave the strongest spirit traumatised, unable to settle back into the humdrum wage-earning ways of ‘civvy street’. Many of those we pass in today’s streets, huddled under a flattened cardboard box, or at best lying on a damp urine-stained mattress by the underground station, are ex-service personnel: brave spirits, wrecked by some order they were obliged to obey, or some atrocious act that has to remain a secret.
See also Dreadful as the Abortions of an Angel – my essay on the literature of war published in the Fortnightly Review.