Fear [book review]

Last time I was in Edinburgh for an ICMS conference, I bought this book, Fear by Gabriel Chevalier, from the nice nearby bookstore, out of a pile of novels about World War I. This was in 2014, “celebrating” the start of the “Great” War… Although 1914-1918 is a century ago, WWI was quite a presence during my childhood, from official ceremonies to history books, to neighbours and relatives who had fought in the war. Like my old neighbour who had been a sapper, fought at Chemin des Dames, and had some schnarpel left under his skin that he would keep till his death. And I somewhat picked this book by chance for its back-cover summary, its tale of plain honesty about the meaningless war in the French trenches, surviving as a “poilu” for the four years the bloody was lasted and facing fear and pitiful superiors by accepting death as a most likely outcome. I had not realised then that the book was actually written in French by a Frenchman and recently (most beautifully) translated into English! And that it was the same writer who had written the arch-famous Clochemerle novels.

“We all have a fund of luck (we like to believe) and if you draw on it for too long there will be nothing left. Of course there is no law to this and everything comes down to probabilities.”

I think it is actually better I did not realise this until late, because I did not particularly like Clochemerle when I read it (close to 40 years ago!), with its easy jokes and caricatures. This novel is just fabulous and I am surprised it is not more well-known in France. The reference novel for the “Grande Guerre” is usually quoted as being Wooden Crosses by Roland Dorgeles, even though it is much less critical of the establishment than the vitriolic Fear which often adopts anarchist tones to analyse this bloodbath from another era (?). Just as in Wooden Crosses and the fantastic Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the book insists on the intense camaraderie between base soldiers, against superiors and suicidal missions, but, as suggested by its title, it also digs very deeply in the psychology of the foot soldiers when faced with almost certain death. And acknowledges from the start the constant fear, which would make the book quite controversial when it got published in 1930. A truly remarkable book I wish I had read years ago, when my old neighbour was still alive. (The New York Times published a much more interesting review about a year ago.)

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