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I have read more than a few books about World War I, long, short, assigned, unassigned, good, bad, indifferent, poetical, historical, fictional, factional, truthful or less as the case may be; in fact I once for work proofread the entire poetry of Wilfred Owen, absolutely all of it, juvenilia and drafts included, which means I am in position to tell you that his estate if any ought to sue Disney for copyright over The Little Mermaid as ninety percent of that movie including names of evil eel sidekicks is from an absolutely terrible poem Owen perpetrated at about the age of thirteen. And of course I have read a lot of memoirs about the War, Robert Graves certainly and whatever else I have gotten my hands on. It is not an unfamiliar genre to me, the WWI memoir.

This one, though. This one is different in several directions, beyond the basic fact of being a masterpiece, which would not by itself distinguish it from the rest of its genre as it is a field in which masterpieces flourished somewhat. It is by e.e. cummings, for one thing, the first book he ever wrote, and it is a very truthful and exact memoir which communicates very well what he went through when, as an ambulance-driver for the Red Cross, he was arrested by the French government as a possible spy, put into indefinite detention, and shuffled into a Kafka-esque maze of dizzying bureaucratic passages, all alike. It is a book of great power and honesty.

It is also, and this is where everything I thought I knew about the WWI memoir screeches to a halt, turns about-face, and vanishes into the distance, it is also screamingly hilarious.

I mean it. Portions of this are the funniest book I have read this year.

I have been going through and trying to find an excerpt that will explain why it is so funny, but this is not excerptable humor. It is instead the kind that flows gently and naturally from the endless piling of situation on situation. It also has a great good gift of timing. I mean, this is the sort of book in which we learn, from watching him go through various prison examinations, that the author graduated from Harvard. Two hundred pages later he is attempting to translate and transcribe the various things one of the guards is calling him, most of which are untranslatable and/or unprintable, and among the long list of epithets you get "which is gendarme for 'fuck Yale'" and it is such a completely perfectly unexpected sense-making non sequitur that I laughed for ten minutes.

Part of it is that you will never find a man so happy to be in prison. The reason that cummings and his friend wound up under suspicion was that they did not get on with the leader of their ambulance squadron, and the friend wrote several letters home saying that they did not get on with said leader, and the leader brought this to the attention of the letters censor, and the next thing was of course accusations of treason and espionage. cummings' sole purpose in life, after finding out what was going on, was to stay with his friend, to which purpose he cheerfully manipulated several panels of questioners. When the two of them reach La Ferté-Macé, the camp where people are held until the authorities decide whether they are dangerous, they both decide heartily that it is, and this is a quote, "the best place in the world". Or at any rate better than the ambulance squadron.

A lot of this is irony, of course, though it is also all real. You do not come to a World War I book for comfort reading, not even this one. Most of the humor is not black at all, but some is very black, and some of the sunniest is directly intertwined with the vicious and helpless rage and frustration that build and build and build, when the writer sees what this prison does to people and what the government can get away with. One of the things that makes this book such a masterpiece is that the horror of the prison is that the atrocities of it are carried out in a place where the narrator is happy, much of the time, really honestly happy. The medieval brutality and total chaotic confusion of the prison feel that much more real and honest and sense-making to him than the entire rest of the war. Another of the things that makes this so good is that, of course, the prison doors open and the narrator and his friend go home and the rage goes nowhere, because it can never end; the life before it is over and goodbye to all that. I have a great deal more respect for e.e. cummings after reading this, and I had a fair amount already.

Of course the language is ridiculously amazing, too. He's in his late twenties and still finding his feet, so I cannot blame you if you find this over-written, because sometimes he has no idea where in hell he's going to put the verb among those adjectives. But you get sentences like "He had no nose, properly speaking, but a large beak of preposterous widthlessness, which gave his whole face the expression of falling gravely downstairs, and quite obliterated the unimportant chin." I mean that is the sort of sentence I get the urge to write out and frame and put up on the wall, for seven or eight different reasons.

There is only one thing which prevents me from heartily pressing this into the hands of all and sundry, and that is, well, honestly it is damn close to bilingual. I am lucky enough to read French, and apparently know more of the scabrous kind than I had thought. If you are not a French-reader you will need a dictionary, because there are entire paragraphs in here that were transcribed as their original speakers said them, which is to say in French, and not translated at all. Also all the prison vocabulary is in French, and anything the author felt he couldn't print in English in 1922. But you could get by with a dictionary, I think, or Google Translate or something, or pick up the important bits as one does with a well-world-built novel. I think. The thing is since I do read French I cannot know for certain. I suspect this bilinguality of being the reason no class that assigned WWI lit ever threw this at me, although I guess it may also be obscure? I never know how well known things are, really.

Anyway, this is one of the bona fide great memoirs. I need to find a good bio of cummings, and look more thoroughly into his bibliography, because years ago at the Boston Antiquarian Book Show I saw one of his paintings, and I have seen a collection of the porn he drew, and I think he was just one of those people who couldn't do anything badly. And on his own evidence a good man, and a loving one.


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March 2017

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