The "Peace and War" in the subtitle of this memoir by a man who fought in Italy during World War II, and studied music there afterward, is descriptive but with a twist. Douglas Allanbrook, a harpsichordist, composer, professor of philosophy and untranquil spirit, found his only real peace among his fellow soldiers in the 88th Division. The loves and pursuits of peacetime, on the other hand, were a painful warfare which he is still fighting.
There are memoirs that reconcile the past, and others that vent old wounds. Allanbrook's is largely of the second kind, not so much out of anger as out of the pain that his pleasures have seemed to inflict on him.
Allanbrook's story of two postwar years in Naples, of the musical career he was trying to develop, of a woman who was his lover and of another woman whom he married, contains freezing gaps and silences. By contrast, his account of a grimly fought year-and-a-half in the Italian campaign--three quarters of the original members of his regiment were killed or wounded--is passionate, detailed and oddly joyful.
Judging from his writing Allanbrook is not, as the French say, comfortable inside his skin. He was less uncomfortable in a uniform. The army, he remarks at one point, is a place where it is not only possible but necessary to blame all one's miseries on "they." What would be civilian paranoia is a blessed military sanity.
If the wartime portion of the memoir is more satisfying, the peacetime part, awkwardly joined, is frequently arresting. This is so despite, and in a way because of, its emotional oddity. Allanbrook, who had passed briefly through Naples on the way to the Monte Cassino front, arrived there a second time at the start of the 1950s. He had studied music on the G.I. Bill at Harvard where, he tells us, he was one of the two best composers of his generation. He won a scholarship to work with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and then a Fulbright to Italy to study harpsichord with a disciple of Wanda Landowska and to work on an opera.
It sounds like a golden start but there was a crack, not entirely explained. Harvard's Walter Piston had backed him but another Harvard professor let him know that there would be no job for him when he returned (why?). His advice was "to live in Europe on a private income"--not merely a rebuff to a young man without resources but, seemingly, a mockery.
His account of Naples in the early 1950s, still war-battered and desperately poor, has a beginnings of affection stiffened by judgment and unease. He is very good on the city's complex social machineries. For example, he gives a shrewd account of the terrible mistake he made when he reported to the police a theft from his lodging. Both the proprietor and the maid had familial networks among the authorities; Allanbrook became a temporary social pariah. He writes beautifully--not enough, perhaps--about music; particularly a description of a harpsichord lesson:
"A curve, a curve. You must never play in a straight line." It is Landowska we hear in the voice of M. Gerlin, her disciple, who painstakingly enters her fingerings into Allanbrook's scores. They were designed, the author writes, "not so much for facility (although often they did facilitate) as for proper articulation: discourse for the fingers."
The two years in Naples were marked by two love affairs: the first with Laura, a fellow student; the second with Candida, the woman he married. Allanbrook's account has a removed and chilly focus. With Laura, there was much fire, but he writes that it was mostly hers. To paraphrase another French expression: She kissed, he proffered his cheek.
"Did I love her?" he asks, after describing her sexual voracity. A bout of lovemaking in the waters off a beach is recalled not for its pleasure but for the sight of a priest watching them through binoculars. Allanbrook writes of his women as if he too were using binoculars.
Laura's passion, "framed in its Neapolitan setting, made me hold her at a certain aesthetic distance." When he drops her and goes off to Positano with Candida, his interest seems mainly aroused by the polymorphic erotic tangle in that Bohemian mini-Capri. Of Candida herself we learn little more than that she has beautiful white skin and a substantial body, earning her the nickname of "Grassaletta" (Fatty).
At no point does he write of her or of Laura as real people with human feelings. The memoir gives them no voice. Surely they were more than physical conveniences--his marriage to Candida lasted 18 years--but Allanbrook repellently presents them that way.
Genuine love seems reserved for his fellow soldiers. Perhaps this is why the wartime episodes have an emotional coherence that the brittle Naples section lacks. There are homoerotic undertones in several of the army scenes but in his case, Allanbrook tells us, no actual sex. Reiterated through both parts of the memoir, though, is the obsessive regret that he failed to respond to a nighttime sexual advance from his closest buddy, who subsequently was killed.
It is a Spartan comradeship that he evokes, in fact. But he does it in a fashion not in the least forced. If there is an extra passion, it serves, like a hotter flame, to smelt new ore from the much-worked vein of military reminiscences. These start slowly, with his induction in Boston and through his basic training in Oklahoma. The anecdotes are of a familiar type; his theme--that in the formlessness of combat it is the sergeants and enlisted men who fight the real war and that higher command is an illusion--is also familiar.
But he builds out to specific discovery. There is the short martinet of a major general who directs the Oklahoma basic training and who arrests a soldier for eating a watermelon. But the martinet stays with his division--the Blue Devils--through to Italy; and the last we see of him, he is weeping in a jeep as endless lines of his dead and wounded Devils are borne down past him. It is a nervous breakdown; a few cliches are dislodged, nonetheless.
He gives dozens of portraits of men at war; a war that mostly was fought by sheerly surviving. It is a patiently assembled mosaic, not so much of heroism--though there was that--as of endurance, comradeship and humanity. There is a lucid, bitter analysis of the strategy that pushed American forces into the mountains and kept them there, bloodily stalemated, because the reinforcements needed to break through were going to France.
Allanbrook could read scores; perhaps this made him a whiz at maps. The precious talent got him assigned to intelligence and reconnaissance, a no-man's-land job only a little less perilous than the riflemen's, and for which he won four stripes and the bronze star--the least inflated, some say, and most authentic of bravery medals. He saw everything on the ground, he talked to everyone. Gradually the artist-loner became one in the fellowship of front-line sergeants who held together the erratic battle with the Germans and the permanent battle with chaos. After that, to see Naples may have been, in some way, to die.