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11.11.11

Geoff Dyer's 'The Missing of the Somme' Reconsidered

On Veteran’s Day, Louisa Thomas hails Geoff Dyer’s book on the First World War and how it was remembered that reveals as much about the author as the human condition. The Missing of the Somme is a book on war unlike any other.

Geoff Dyer is famous (in an enviably cognoscenti way) and infamous (in an enviably inconsequential way) for writing about whatever happens to make him itch: idleness, restlessness, sex, jazz, photography, procrastination, vanity, masturbation, fashion shows, televised Olympic sailing, poetry, pot. His novels mix fact and fiction and dare you to care. He is regularly called “genre-bending” or “genre-defying,” as if he were a stuntman or transvestite; some fans and critics describe him as a surlier Montaigne. He titled one collection of essays Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. The most recent collection is called Otherwise Known as the Human Condition; the phrase is taken from an essay on donuts.

The knock on Dyer is that his exploration of the human condition tends to dwell on the otherwise—that he’s self-satisfied and unserious. As the critic Jenny Turner put it in an ambivalent review of his latest novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, in the London Review of Books, Dyer’s novels are “virtually fat-free modernist romances designed to fit the side-pockets of rich students’ gap-year rucksacks, in need of reading matter neither too heavy nor too light”—but then she added how much the book made her laugh.

No one is more responsible for this public image than Dyer himself. He devotes many words—a prodigious, even staggering output—to insisting how unproductive he is, how smug he, how lazy, how distractible. He promises one thing and then does another. He started to write a book about D. H. Lawrence and instead wrote a book about not writing a book about D. H. Lawrence. I’ve heard rumors—gleefully, eagerly reported, since confirmed—that his next book was supposed to be about tennis and instead is about Tarkovsky’s Stalker. In the early '90s he moved to Paris to write a novel modeled on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Instead he wrote a strange little book about the First World War, The Missing of the Somme, which has just been published in the United States. The Missing of the Somme has long been a curio to American fans of Dyer, and its publication in the U.S. now, 17 years after its publication in the U.K., reflects his growing stature (he was also recently given a column in the New York Times Book Review). Only the most curious thing about it turns out to be how serious it is—not only in its attempts to grapple with the memorialization of the First World War in Europe (in the U.S., that war is nearly forgotten), but in understanding the otherwise of Dyer’s human condition. He writes about memory, he writes about seeing, he writes about sex and distraction and idleness—but only after reading The Missing of the Somme did it occur to me how often, and how much, he’s actually writing about war.

“We were the war children,” Dyer once wrote, which sounds at first like one of those profound/nonsensical things that cultural critics sometimes make (Dyer was born in 1958, thirteen years after V-E Day), but which actually does say something. “Born a decade and a half after the Second World War ended, we devoted all our energy to recreating it.” The two world wars that defined him and his culture—English culture especially, Western culture more generally—took place in the past but stamped the present. No one talks about Dyer as a war writer, but in a way that’s what he is. 

The fact that Dyer knows war only as a past condition—as something that preserved in photographs, on television screens, in poems and prose, or in children’s play—does not matter. In fact it actually intensifies his obsession. War is forever in the background, but it is the background of his work. When he talks about photography, he talks about war photography (Richard Misrach, Robert Capa); when he writes of today’s “moral artists,” he writes of war journalists; the Sebald he focuses on is the Sebald who writes about the bombing of Dresden. One of his best essays is about Rebecca West’s opus on the Balkans on the eve of World War II, Black Lamb, Gray Falcon. Like D. H. Lawrence, he writes in and about the shadow of war.

In The Missing of the Somme, one war, the Great War, is more directly his subject. Its appeal to Dyer is immediately obvious. It was a war that was well documented, in fact a war he knows only through its documentation. It is a war that can be “read” like a text. It’s tempting to say of course that’s what any war looks like in retrospect, to someone who sees it through photograph albums, poetry, and iconography. But that is also, Dyer argues (convincingly, movingly, and sometimes confusingly) how the war was for those who fought it. The Great War was a self-conscious war, he says: “the story of effects generating their cause.” Dyer contends that the war was partly waged in order to be remembered. What else was it fought for? It’s hard to say. After all, “people had little clear idea of why it had been fought or what had been accomplished except for the loss of millions of lives,” Dyer writes. “This actually made the task of memorializing the war relatively easy.” The statues and plaques went up right away. “All that needed to be added was time: time for the past to seep into future memory and take root there.” Dyer uses this kind of gnomic, prophetic, baffling language all the time, and it can be trying and vague. But it can also gesture at something that seems true, and it’s this quality of seemingness—the way that mood and mind filters experience—that Dyer is so good at attending to.

Geoff Dyer
Wattie Cheung, Camera Press / Retna

One of Dyer’s insights is that “the war—which was being remembered even as it was fought, whose fallen were being remembered before the they fell—seems not so much to be tinted by retrospect as to have been fought retrospectively.” The remembrance (official and not) had an anticipatory quality, and what we now respond to is in part the self-conscious postures of the statues, the structure of coincidence, the fact that a field is also an endless grave, and that the dead who died for nothing still seem to have died for something enviable, even if it only seems that way when you’re standing on the field that is also an endless grave.

“The memorialization of the Great War, Dyer writes, depends on the movement between the abstract vastness (the “numberless numbers,” the Unknown Warrior entombed in the empty Cenotaph) and the particular humanity of those who died.”

But Dyer is only sometimes sentimental, and he’s not usually standing on the battlefields of the Somme. How does remembrance (and official Remembrance) square with normal life, with tennis courts and bars and trips to Bali? Only comically and anxiously, and sometimes by overlooking. “Over the years, passing by in a bus or on a bike, I have seen the Cenotaph”—Britain’s empty tomb in Whitehall—“so often that I scarcely notice it,” he says. “It has become part of the unheeded architecture of the everyday.” But Dyer is one of those rare writers whose gift is communicating, instructing, how to see. Part of writing this book was a way of seeing what he scarcely notices; it is also, one begins to expect, a consequence of his not being able not to notice it.

The Missing of the Somme was not merely written as a diversion from rewriting Tender is the Night. It engages with it. The story of Dick and Nicole Driver is a story of a marriage and breakdown by an American writer on his way to Hollywood. But it is “saturated with the memory of the Great War,” even as it confronts the strangeness that life goes on. There are places where Dick can make a joke; the battlefield is not one of them. He dreams of war. “Dick himself sums up this central concern of the book,” Dyer writes, “with the ‘half-ironic phrase, “Non Combatant’s shell-shock.” ’ ”

Nicole’s breakdown might have nothing to do with a war that was already, only a few years later after it ended, receding into the past. And what did Fitzgerald know, anyway? He enlisted in 1917 but served in Alabama.

***

What Fitzgerald knew was the idea of war, and that is Dyer’s subject too. “Like the youthful Christopher Isherwood who wanted to write a novel entitled ‘A War Memorial,’ I wanted to write a book that was not about ‘the War itself but the effect of the idea of [the War] on my generation,’ ” Dyer writes in The Missing of the Somme. “Not a novel but an essay in meditation: research notes for the Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance …” And indeed the book sometimes seems like a collection of notes, more of a collage or a scrapbook—not unlike the scrapbook that every British family, including his own, has from the Great War years.

Interspersed with his close readings of poems by Auden and Kipling, his discussions of photographs and sculpture, his conversation with the other critics and academics (like Paul Fussell), there are glimpses, postcards almost, of his own trips to the cemeteries and memorials where millions of dead have been marked for memory. Sometimes these scenes take off in flights of lyricism—it’s all very silent and somber, still and vast, the grass and flowers and so much sky, there’s even a meditation on butterflies and the transmigration of souls—but sometimes they are, as you’d expect from Dyer, very funny. Driving around, Dyer and his friends take to calling their car the “tank,” their hotel a “billet,” and speaking in a parody of the trench demotic.

By now the tank is a slum. It is littered with pate rind, bread crumbs, greaseproof paper, orange peel and banana skins. Tins of beer rattle across the floor every time we turn a corner …

Paul is driving. We are waiting at a junction. He begins pulling out on to the main road.

‘Watch out!’

A truck, overtaking a car on the main road, thunders past, missing us by inches. We’re all stunned. We talk about nothing else for the next hour.

‘Think of the publicity that would have got for your book,’ says Mark. ‘Getting killed before you even wrote it.’

‘This is not a book about Paul’s driving,’ I say. ‘English poetry is not yet fit to speak of it.’

‘Dulce et decorum est in tankus mori,’ says Paul.

English poetry did, actually, begin to see the life and death of someone like Paul—a young man, of no obvious distinction, driving the tank—as a fitting subject at just that moment, and this book explores that turn. Death is death; it obliterates distinction. (There’s a nice little twist when Mark gestures toward prospective remembrance, a central concern of Dyer’s understanding of the Great War.) The book is also, of course, about the conjunction of the comedy and tragedy, of the ironic turn of the lines that end Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” and the hijinx of Oh What a Lovely War. Their lives were in danger! It was so exciting!

This problem of drawing meaning becomes particularly acute in the passages that follow the men’s brush with that murderous truck, all brief and solemn descriptions of Great War cemeteries. The size of the cemeteries overwhelms everything else. The numbers are too big to comprehend. The numbers stop standing for anything but numbers. The French cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette has 20,000 named graves and an ossuary with 20,000 unknown dead. It is overwhelming. The distance of a century is effaced. “You stand aghast while the wind hurtles through your clothes, searing your ears until you find yourself almost vanishing: in the face of this wind, in this expanse of lifelessness, you cannot hold your own: you do not count. There is no room for the living. The wind, the cold, force you away.”

There is no room for the living—and yet the living couldn’t, can’t, really turn away: the graves stretch in all directions. You can’t escape them. You can overlook them, or refuse to see them, or focus on the trees and on the sky, but they are there. And if you are a young man growing up in England, you know the dead are there, kept alive by personal remembrance and official Remembrance, whether or not you overlook them sometimes, or refuse to see them, or focus on listening to music or getting laid. The memorials are imposing and permanent, and they speak to something from which you are excluded and in which you are trapped.

The memorialization of the Great War, Dyer writes, depends on the movement between the abstract vastness (the “numberless numbers,” the Unknown Warrior entombed in the empty Cenotaph) and the particular humanity of those who died, like the face of the statue of a soldier reading a letter at Paddington Station, which caught Dyer’s eye as a young boy. In the years following the war, these two different monuments spoke equally to the need of the grieving public—at once overwhelmed by the enormity of the tragedy and the very specific losses they felt. Their experience was at once unspeakably common and unbearably personal. It’s one reason the poet Wilfred Owen, whose poetry has come to stand, in way, for the entire war, and whose life ended just before the armistice was signed, is a central figure here. Owen, Dyer writes, “was the medium through which the missing spoke.” He was a particular dead soldier, and he was also every dead soldier.

It’s a dichotomy that Dyer is still attuned to. Those memorials are still there, in London, and he sees them all the time. It is part of his own anxiety, it seems, about being no one and someone at the same time. Dyer refers to the collision between the specific and the common again and again. “Everyone looks the same. Everywhere looks the same. Every battle looks the same.” “They are all the same, these albums.” “Every family has a version of the same legend.” “At this moment I am the only person on earth experiencing these sensations, in this place. At the same time, overwhelming and compounding this feeling, is the certainty that my presence here changes nothing; everything would be exactly the same without me.” His grandfather, who fought in the Great War at the Somme, “is everyone’s grandfather.”

Only Dyer’s grandfather is not everyone’s grandfather. Geoffrey Tudor is Geoffrey Dyer’s own grandfather. He couldn’t have been anyone else. As it happens, Tudor was born the same year as Owen, in a town not far away. Only Tudor was not a poet. He could read and write only his name. On his “Certificate of Employment during the War,” Tudor is listed as a farm laborer. Next to “special remarks,” it says: “Steady and reliable. A very good groom and driver. Takes great care of his animals.” Dyer reads this with bitterness (“The Major who filled out this certificate might have been describing an animal”) and also with a sense of the gulf between the generations: Dyer went to Oxford and alongside the elite. No one, especially not himself, would describe him as “steady and reliable.” And yet, “My deepest sense of kinship with my family is activated by this form of my grandfather’s—not just my love: my class feeling, my ambition, my loyalty. That form—army certificate Z.18—is why this book has the shape—the form—it does.” Take your 19th-century novel and shove it.

***

According to Dyer, Tender is the Night’s Dick Driver delivers “one of the most famous, beautiful and telling of all passages about the war”:

See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind…This western front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation between the classes.

Forty pages earlier, Dyer is watching a series of documentary films at the Imperial War Museum and sees it happening on the screen. It is dull. Dyer is horribly bored. The battles all blend into one another. Finally he surrenders and begs the projectionist to put him out of his misery: “O Jesus, make it stop!” But before he does, he wonders, as Samuel Hynes put it, at the “masses of men and materials, moving randomly through a dead ruined world towards no identifiable objective; it is aimless violence and passive suffering, without either a beginning or an end—not a crusade, but a terrible destiny.” Only Hynes did not quite get it right, Dyer thinks. The problem is with the word “destiny.” Destiny “implies a purpose, a goal, and thereby contradicts his main point that ‘nothing really happens.’ Not a destiny, then, but a condition.”

Otherwise known as the human condition: nothing really happens. What we know is only the past and what we preserve of it by projecting into the future—what we preserve as past, even as we stumble toward no discernable objective. Confused? Who isn’t. Might as well search for the perfect donut.

We were the war children. The Thiepval Memorial, as Dyer notes, can’t really be photographed. It can hardly be described. And yet you don’t have to be there in person to feel stirred, even implicated, by Dyer’s account. You don’t even need to feel connected to the First World War by blood or culture (and most Americans don’t). The power of Thiepval, and the missing of the Somme, doesn’t depend on it. 

Dyer visits Thiepval on a hot afternoon. “I can imagine nowhere more beautiful,” he writes. He is alone with the hulking stone monument, and spends some time looking at the names inscribed on the stone bands, noting the Dyers before turning away to the cemetery, toward the nameless names, and thinks ahead to that moment where this one will be a memory.

“The Missing of the Somme” is carved onto the Thiepval Memorial. It makes for a brilliant title. It speaks of those who died in the fight—73,077 in total; on the first day of the battle alone, 20,000 British soldiers died and another 40,000 wounded or not found—and also those who missed the chance to fight, and those who miss it.