About a third of the way into Gabriel Chevallier’s WWI novel, Fear, our young narrator, Jean Dartemont, finds himself in a hospital recuperating from wounds. The nurses seek tales of war, glory and valiant duty–after all, Jean must have had a number of stories that prefaced his horrible wounds and successful evacuation. But instead Jean, who was a student prior to entering the war in 1915, tries to convey the realities of war to an audience who simply do not understand. Jean’s fervent arguments disturb the universe of the nurses–mostly delicate young women from the best of French society, who’ve volunteered to do their duty for the war effort. Jean notes that “their heads are stuffed with good intentions, which have been garnished with the bric-a-brac of noble sentiments tied up in a pretty bow.” He admits that during the war his “chief occupation” was fear, and the nurses react as though he said “something obscene.” For this “demoralizing talk” the chaplain is sent to lecture Jean, but goes away from the encounter dissatisfied.
After this brief respite in hospital, Jean is sent back to the front where he is in involved in some of the most horrendous, notable battles of the war. The novel is written in retrospect, the war is over, and Jean has spent a great deal of time trying to understand this period of madness:
Men are sheep. This fact makes armies and wars possible. They die the victims of their own stupid docility.
When you have seen war as I have just seen it, you ask yourself” ‘how can we put up with such a thing? What frontier traced on a map, what national honour could possibly justify it? How can what is nothing but banditry be dressed up as an ideal, and allowed to happen?’
They told the Germans: ‘forward to a bright and joyous war! On to Paris! God is with us, for a greater Germany!’ And the good, peaceful Germans, who take everything seriously, set forth to conquer, transforming themselves into savage beasts.
They told the French: ‘The nation is under attack. We will fight for Justice and retribution. On to Berlin!’ And the pacifist French who take nothing at all seriously, interrupted their modest little rentier reveries to go and fight.
So it was with the Austrians, the Belgians, the English, the Russians, the Turks, and then the Italians. In a single week, twenty million men, busy with their lives and loves, with making money and planning a future, received the order to stop everything and go and kill other men. And those twenty million individuals obeyed the order because they had been convinced that this was their duty.
Jean admits that a sense of duty was not the “real reason” he went to war:”Through my own behaviour I can explain that of a great many others, especially in France.”
They set off without any hatred at all, drawn by an adventure from which everything could be expected. The weather was lovely. This war was breaking out right at the beginning of August. Ordinary workers were the most eager: instead of their fortnight’s annual holiday, they were going to get several months, visiting new places, and all at the expense of the Germans. A great medley of clothes, customs and classes, a great clamour, a great cocktail of drinks, a new force given to individual initiatives, a need to smash things up, leap over fences, to break laws–all this, at the start, made the war acceptable. It was confused with freedom, and discipline was then accepted in the belief that it was lacking.
Everywhere had the atmosphere of a funfair, a riot, a disaster and a triumph; a vast intoxicating upheaval. The daily round had come to a halt. Men stopped being factory workers or civil servants, clerks or common labourers, in order to become explorers and conquerors. Or so at least they believed. They dreamed of the North, as if it were America, or the pampas, or a virgin forest, of Germany as if it were a banquet; they dreamed of laying waste to the countryside, breaking open wine barrels, burning towns, the white stomachs of the blonde women of Germania, of pillage and plunder, of all that life normally denied them. Each individual believed in his destiny, no one thought of death, except the death of others. In short, the war got off to a pretty good start, with the help of chaos.
That’s a fairly long quote, one of my favourites from this highly quotable and much highlighted book. The quote gives a strong sense of the author’s style but also it’s a good example of the novel’s tone. The author through his observant narrator always keeps a sense of distance from his subject matter, and really that’s just as well. Who doesn’t cringe at just the thought of the squelch of mud-filled trenches, the “wasteland full of corpses,” and the stench of rancid, rotting human flesh found in a WWI novel? But while the narrator may be in the thick of things, there’s always a sense of distance and also of anger. Anger at the carnage, anger at the incompetence, and anger at those who ‘manage’ the war from a safe distance.
Anti-war literature is by its nature, radical, subversive, but Fear, in its unsentimental detachment, doesn’t take the usual position of loss and waste, and instead emphasizes anger at the insanity of events which foments until Jean explodes with his opinions–no matter the consequences. At one point Jean notes “those who wanted all this” make public appearances on “palace balconies,” and for Jean, this was the moment when “the first–and last–machine gun should have done its work, emptied its belt of bullets on to that emperor and his advisors.” Similarly he notes, “in the revolution, they sent incompetent generals to the guillotine, an excellent measure.”
Fear is a unique entry into the canon of WWI fiction, for even though the story follows the normal trajectory of WWI novels, a young man enlisting into a carnage that is impossible to even imagine, its unsentimental approach makes the novel unique. We are there with Jean when he sees his first corpse, picks off the first lice, watches the first killings, learns to keep his head down, hears dying soldiers begging to not be abandoned, grasps at jobs that will temporarily remove him from danger, cowers in a cave hoping he won’t be buried alive, and as he insanely volunteers to take another man’s place for a dangerous mission. The sense of chaos surrounding Jean is underscored by the ridiculous, senseless demands made by the officers, and also by the way we never discover the fate of some of the few named characters who cross Jean’s path. What happens to these soldiers as they lay trampled in the mud, or, if they’re lucky, are carried off the field to one of evacuation sites where they may, if their wounds are too severe, be left to rot and die as the overworked doctors save those who are considered salvageable? While Fear covers some familiar territory here: the incompetence of generals, the type of men who excel at wartime, the dehumanization of soldiers, and the collaboration of society’s vested interests (the church, the state, the police, and the bourgeois), Gabriel Chevallier’s unsentimental approach in a situation that is driven by Jean’s anger, the strong narrative voice, and the manner in which the author excels at description, secure this novel’s place in the must-read list of WWI novels.
Author Gabriel Chevallier fought in WWI. The introduction written by John Berger mentions that Fear was published in 1930, and as an “anti-war book had the misfortune to run into a new one. In 1939, its author and publisher freely agreed to suspend sales.” Perhaps this is why the book faded from view.
Review copy. Translated by Malcolm Imrie