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A Whiff of the Lost Generation

<i> Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review</i>

Everybody knows that C. S. Forester wrote “The African Queen” and created one of fiction’s immortal seafarers, Horatio Hornblower, but few may remember that he also wrote one of the best World War I novels.

“The General” didn’t appear until 1936, but a whiff of the Lost Generation clings to it. It sums up the war almost as devastatingly as “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Erich Maria Remarque describes the agony of the men in the trenches. Forester gives us the blinkered outlook of the men who sent them there--the bulldog-jawed, pea-brained commanders who persisted in hurling waves of flesh against barbed wire and machine guns like “savages . . . accustomed only to nails,” who try to “extract a screw from a piece of wood . . . by main force,” never imagining there could be a better way.

For a writer of romances, Forester (1899-1966) had a detached, ironic, almost classical view of human folly and tragedy. He admired courage and ingenuity and perseverance--the extraordinary things that ordinary people can accomplish in a crisis--but he didn’t seem to admire people themselves very much, and he always took pains to remind us of their ordinariness.

As a result, perhaps, Forester’s range of characters is rather narrow. What his heroes do is more important than what they are. They tend to be of two types: military stoics--in whom bleak childhood religion has evaporated and left behind, like a deposit of salt, an equally bleak devotion to duty--and lower-class people of limited education, such as Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer of “The African Queen.”

Those who remember only the movie version of that novel, with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, would be surprised by how much Forester condescends to Charlie and Rose, and by the dour realism of the ending. Love lasts as long as their great adventure does, but no longer. The Cockney drifter and the missionary’s spinster sister transcend themselves as they plunge down the jungle river, but back in civilization they shrivel up again. They get married only because the conventions they briefly cast aside have reassembled above them like a flock of vultures.

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Hornblower is the exception. He not only does admirable things but is admirable in himself. The weaknesses that Forester selects for him--he hates flogging, gets seasick at the beginning of every voyage and is tongue-tied around women--make him lovable as well. Hornblower is a sensitive modern man plunked down into the heroic and brutal Napoleonic age. He strives desperately to be what the age demands, forever afraid of being unmasked (and court-martialed). The joke is that he is a hero, almost on a par with his namesake, Lord Nelson, and everybody knows it except Hornblower himself.

Would-be popular writers might study the Hornblower formula--the way readers who identify with his human qualities are invited to fool themselves and identify with his achievements, too. The final joke, however, was on Forester. His most successful character trapped him, just as Sherlock Holmes trapped Conan Doyle. After the first two or three, the Hornblower books lose interest as novels and become, like John Wayne movies, mere occasions for a favorite personality to assert itself.

“The General,” though, is a superb novel. Just over 200 pages, it’s an optimum blend of Forester’s strengths and limitations: his preference for military subjects and stolid, unreflective characters, his irony, his grasp of history and his gift for lean, hypnotic narrative.

If Hornblower is a mini-Nelson, Lt. Gen. Herbert Curzon is a stand-in for Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who sent hundreds of thousands of British soldiers to die at the Somme in 1916 and at Passchendaele in 1917. Curzon is a former cavalry officer who lucked into distinction in the Boer War and has learned nothing since. In his case, courage and perseverance only multiply the amount of harm he can do. He owes his promotions not to success but to conformity: He makes the same mistakes as all the other generals.

Forester hates the stupidity that Curzon represents, but--this is important--he doesn’t hate Curzon personally. He treats him in the same dispassionate way he treats Charlie and Rose. And, considering the indictment gathering against Curzon, this strikes us not as condescending but as almost superhumanly fair. We can’t love the general, but we wind up half-liking him against our will.

Curzon “was the soul of honor,” Forester insists. “His patriotism was a real and living force, even if its symbols were childish.” Almost reluctantly, he adds: “It might have been . . . more advantageous for England if the British Army had not been quite so full of men of high rank who were so ready for responsibility . . . so unmoved in the face of difficulties.”

After the opening clashes of 1914, Curzon returns to England to train a new division. He comes to feel affection for his men (who are sacrificed for nothing in a botch of a battle). Later, Curzon, a commoner, finds love on leave with a duke’s homely daughter; it’s a moving interlude, this courtship of two people nobody else has ever found attractive.

Still, the bloodshed intensifies, and so does the suspense that drives this novel, its fierce anger held under equally fierce restraint. When will the blinkers fall from Curzon’s eyes? When will his self-confidence finally crumble? The horror seems always about to break in on him, but--this is Forester’s masterstroke--it never quite does.

After the disaster of the Somme, “it would have only needed for Curzon . . . to have discussed the tactical problem with some hard-bitten infantry subaltern to have been convinced that (inventions) which Napoleon had never heard of . . . called for a departure from Napoleon’s . . . methods.” But no such insight arrives. When a German offensive in early 1918 threatens to rout his forces and expose the bankruptcy of his ideas, Curzon gallops suicidally into the fighting, not quite consciously--nothing he does is quite conscious--preferring death to self-knowledge.

He finds neither. Badly wounded, Curzon survives the war. We last see him in a wheelchair, being trundled by his wife down a seaside promenade in Bournemouth, greeting passers-by with “the queerest old-maidish smile,” only now and then wondering why the medals on his chest are so heavy and cold, and why victory tastes like ashes.


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