Sunday, November 20, 2011
My father was twenty-eight when the war began. He was lucky twice, he said, once when he was sent out of the Trenches because of his bad appendix, thus missing the Battle of the Somme when all his company was killed, and then, having a shell land on his leg a couple of weeks before Passchendaele, when, again, no one was left of his company.
He was very ill, not only because of his amputated leg, but because he was suffering from what was then called shell shock. He was in fact depressed, the real depression which was like - so he said - being inside a cold, dark room with no way out, and where no one could come in and help him. The ‘nice doctor man’ he was sent to said he had to stick it out, there was nothing medicine could do for him, but the anguish would pass. The ‘horrible things’ that my father’s mind was assailed by were not as uncommon as he seemed to think: horrible things were on everybody’s mind but the war had made them worse, that was all. But my father remembered and spoke often about the soldiers who, ‘shell-shocked’ or unable to get themselves out of their mud holes to face the enemy, might be shot for cowardice. ‘It could have been me,’ he might say, all his life. ‘It was just luck it wasn’t.’
My father was not the only soldier never, ever, to forgive his country for what he saw as promises made but betrayed: for these soldiers were many, in Britain, In France, and in Germany, Old Soldiers who kept that bitterness till they died. They were an idealistic and innocent lot, those men: they actually believed it was a war to end war. And my father had been given a white feather in London by women he described as dreadful harridans – and that was when he already had his wooden leg under his trouser, and his ‘shell shock’ making him wonder if it was worth staying alive. He never forgot that white feather, speaking of it as yet another symptom of the world’s ineradicable and inevitable and hopeless insanity.
He had to leave England, for he could not bear England now, and he got his bank to send him out to the Imperial Bank of Persia, to Kermanshah. And there I was born on the 22nd October, 1919.
My mother had a bad time. It was a forceps birth. My face was scarred purple for days. Do I believe this difficult birth scarred me – that is to say, my nature? Who knows. I do know that to be born in the year 1919 when half of Europe was a graveyard, and people were dying in millions all over the world – that was important. How could it not be? Unless you believe that every little human being’s mind is quite separate from every other, separate from the common human mind. An unlikely thing, surely.
The war does not become less important to me as time passes, on the contrary. In 1990, the year I began to write this book, I was in the south of France, in that hilly country behind the Riviera, visiting the delicious little towns and villages which began centuries ago as hill forts, and in every town or village is a war memorial. On one face is a list of the twelve or twenty young men killed in World War One, and this in tiny villages that even now have only half a hundred inhabitants. Usually every one of the young men of the village was killed. All over Europe, in every city, town, and village is a war memorial, with the names of the dead of World War One. On another face of the shaft or obelisk are the two or three names of the dead of World War Two. By 1918, all the healthy young men of Europe, dead.
In 1990 I was in Edinburgh where in a cold, grey castle are kept the lines of books recording the names of the young men from Scotland killed between 1914 and 1918. Hundreds of thousands of names. And then in Glasgow –the same. Then, Liverpool. Records of the slaughter, the First World War. Unlived lives. Unborn children. How thoroughly we have all forgotten the damage that war did Europe, but we are still living with it. Perhaps if ‘The Flower of Europe’ (as they used to be called) had not been killed, and those children and grandchildren had been born, we would not now in Europe be living with such second-rateness, such muddle and incompetence?
Not long ago, in a cinema in Kilburn, they showed Oh What a Lovely War!, that satire on the silliness of World War One. As we came out of the dark into the street, an old woman stood alert and alive at the exit, and she looked hard into every face, impressing herself on every one of us. That film ends with two females stumbling, wandering through acres, miles, of gravestones, war graves, women who never found men to marry and have children with. This old woman, there was no doubt, was one of them, and she wanted us to know. That film expressed her: she was telling us so.
During that trip through the villages of France, then in Scotland and towns in England, were revived in me the raging emotions of my childhood, a protest, an anguish: my parents’. I felt, too, incredulity, but that was a later emotion: how could it have happened? The American Civil War, less than a century before, had shown what the newly invented weapons could do in the way of slaughter, but we had learned nothing from that war. That was the worst of the legacies from the First World War: the thought that if we are a race that cannot learn, what will become of us? But the strongest emotion on that trip was the old darkness of dread and of anguish – my father’s emotion, a very potent draught, no homeopathic dose, but the full dose of adult pain. I wonder now how many of the children brought up in families crippled by war had the same poison running in their veins from before they could even speak.
We are all of us made by war, twisted and warped by war, but we seem to forget it.
A war does not end with the Armistice. In 1919, all over a Europe filled with graves, hung miasmas and miseries, and over the whole world too, because of the flu and its nearly thirty million deaths.
I used to joke that it was the war that had given birth to me, as a defence when weary with the talk about the war that went on – and on –and on. But it was no joke. I used to feel there was something like a dark, grey cloud, like poison gas, over my early childhood. Later I found people who had the same experience. Perhaps it was from that war that I first felt the struggling panicky need to escape, with a nervous aversion to where I have just stood, as if something there might blow up or drag me down by the heel.
Under My Skin; Volume One of My Autobiography to 1949
Sunday, November 6, 2011
All my life I have been a poor go-to-sleeper. People in trains, who lay their newspaper aside, fold their silly arms, and immediately, with an offensive familiarity of demeanor, start snoring, amaze me as much as the uninhibited chap who cozily defecates in the presence of a chatty tubber, or participates in huge demonstrations, or joins some union in order to dissolve in it.
Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals. It is a mental torture I find debasing. The strain and drain of composition often force me, alas, to swallow a strong pill that gives me an hour or two of frightful nightmares or even to accept the comic relief of a midday snooze, the way a senile rake might totter to the nearest euthanasium; but I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius. No matter how great my weariness, the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me.
I loath Somnus, that black-masked headsman binding me to the block; and if in the course of years, with the approach of a far more thorough and still more risible disintegration, which nowanights, I confess, detracts much from the routine terrors of sleep, I have grown to accustomed to my bedtime ordeal as almost to swagger while the familiar ax is coming out of its great velvet-lined double-base case, initially I had no such comfort or defense: I had nothing- except one token light in the potentially refulgent chandelier of Mademoiselle [my Nanny’s] bedroom, whose door, by our family doctor’s decree (I salute you, Dr. Sokolov!), remained slightly ajar. Its vertical line of lambency (which a child’s tears could transform into dazzling rays of compassion) was something I could cling to, since in absolute darkness my head would swim and my mind melt in a travesty of the death struggle.
In 1908, the year selected here, I still shared a nursery withy my brother. The bathroom assigned to Mademoiselle was at the end of a Z-shaped corridor some twenty heartbeats’ distance from my bed, and between dreading her premature return from the bathroom to her lighted bedroom next to our nursery and envying my brother’s regular little wheeze behind the japanned screen separating us, I could never really put my additional time to profit getting to sleep while a chink in the dark still bespoke a speck of myself in nothingness. At lengthy they would come, those inexorable steps, plodding along the passage and causing some fragile glass object, which had been secretly sharing my vigil, to vibrate in dismay on its shelf.
Now she has entered the room. A brisk interchange of light values tells me that the candle on her bed table takes over the job of the ceiling cluster of bulbs, which, having run up with a couple of clicks two additional steps of natural, and then supernatural brightness, clicks off altogether. My line of light is still there, but it has grown old and wan, and flickers whenever Mademoiselle makes her bed creak by moving. For I still hear her. Now it is a silvery rustle spelling “Suchard”, now the trk-trk-trk of a fruit knife cutting the pages of La Revue des Deux Mondes. A period of decline has started: she is reading Bourget. Not one word of his will survive him. Doom is nigh. I am in acute distress, desperately trying to coax sleep, opening my eyes every few seconds to check the faded gleam, and imagining paradise as a place where a sleepless neighbor reads an endless book by the light of an eternal candle.
The inevitable happens: the pince-nez case shuts with a snap, the review shuffles onto the marble of the bed table, and gustily Mademoiselle’s pursed lips blow; the first attempt fails, a groggy flame squirms and ducks; then comes a second lunge, and light collapses. In that pitchy blackness I lose my bearings, my bed seems to be slowly drifting, panic makes me sit up and stare; finally my dark-adapted eyes sift out, among entoptic floaters, certain more precious blurrings that roam in aimless amnesia until, half-remembering, they settle down as the dim folds of window curtains behind which street lights are remotely alive.
How utterly foreign to the troubles of the night were those exciting St. Petersburg mornings when the fierce and tender, damp and dazzling artic spring bundled away broken ice down the sea-bright Neva…!