And a very happy Free For All birthday wish to one of my favorite poets, Siegfried Sassoon.
Sassoon was born in 1886 to a wealthy Jewish family who had made their fortune as traders within the British Empire. He enlisted in the British Army in advance of European War, and was serving with the Sussex Yeomanry when Great Britain declared war against Germany on August 4, 1914. For three years, Sassoon threw himself into soldiering. He earned the nickname “Mad Jack” for his willingness to accept and carry out acts that seemed near-suicidal. Not only did Sassoon enjoy the excitement, but it also prevented any of the men under his command, or around him, from taking on such a task themselves. According to his friend Robert Graves, “He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupant…instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him.” On July 27, 1916, he was awarded the Military Cross “For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded”.
But Sassoon’s unswerving loyalty to the men with whom he served almost brought him into an infamous confrontation with military authorities. Following the death of a dear friend in battle, Sassoon published a letter (an image of which appears at left) he had already sent to his commanding officer entitled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, which read, in part “I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it”, stating that he refused to fight. Thanks to the intervention of several friends (including Graves) and the unwillingness of the war office to condemn a decorated soldiers as a traitor, Sassoon was declared to be suffering shell-shock, and was sent to Criaglockhart, a mental hospital for officers run by Dr. William Rivers. In the interest of brevity, let us say that the friendship that emerged from Rivers’ treatment of Sassoon changed both their lives. While at Craiglockhart, Sassoon also met and worked with Wilfred Owen, who is perhaps the most celebrated of the so-called “War Poets”.
Sassoon survived the war, and his poems and memoirs of his service remain among the most well-known and cited to come out of the postwar period. He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1951 continued writing until his death from stomach cancer one week before his 81st birthday.
Sassoon’s poems appear consistently in anthologies of First World War literature–you can hear a recording of him reading one here. But those poems represent only a very small percentage of his incredible output, so today, I wanted to share with you one of his lesser-known war poems, written in 1919 while he was waiting to embark for Egypt:
When I was young my heart and head were light,
And I was gay and feckless as a colt
Out in the fields, with morning in the may,
Wind on the grass, wings in the orchard bloom.
O thrilling sweet, my joy, when life was free
And all the paths led on from hawthorn-time
Across the carolling meadows into June.
But now my heart is heavy-laden. I sit
Burning my dreams away beside the fire:
For death has made me wise and bitter and strong;
And I am rich in all that I have lost.
O starshine on the fields of long-ago,
Bring me the darkness and the nightingale;
Dim wealds of vanished summer, peace of home,
And silence; and the faces of my friends.
And now…on to the books!
Letters to his Neighbor: Marcel Proust wrote some of the most profound philosophical works of the 20th century. He also wrote a number of letters to his noisy neighbor, Dr. Williams, who plagued his existence with his noise, which Proust could hear in detail thanks to the cork walls that divided their rooms. Things only got worse when Williams married and had children. Recently discovered among Proust’s correspondence, these ever-polite letters, written mainly to Mrs. Williams, which were often accompanied by flowers, compliments, books, even pheasants are frequently hilarious, especially when Proust couches his fury in a gracious tone. But they are also genuinely engaging–for Proust found an odd affinity with Mrs. Williams, and while we are lacking her responses, making this correspondence incomplete, there is still an enormous amount to enjoy here. Additionally, Lydia Davis’ translation is delightful, making Proust’s life accessible to those of us who are not devotees, and penning a wonderful afterward that helps put these letters into context of his life and his writings. The Village Voice loved this little volume, noting that it is “brilliantly translated by Lydia Davis, is inadvertently hilarious in hyper-genteel poise; we see Proust at his most desperate, charming to the extreme, an effect no doubt amplified by Davis’s elegant prose.”
The Ways of Wolfe: James Carlos Blake’s Wolfe series brings readers right into the dusty, dangerous, morally dubious, and ruthlessly compelling world of the Wolfe clan, whose roots run deep on both sides of the United States-Mexico border, and whose prevailing interests straddle both sides of the law. Twenty years ago, college student Axel Prince Wolfe―heir apparent to his Texas family’s esteemed law firm and its “shade trade” criminal enterprises―teamed up with his best friend, Billy, and a Mexican stranger in a high-end robbery that went wrong, and where Axel was left along to shoulder the blame and the fall-out among his family. Now, Axel has exhausted thoughts of revenge. His own goal is to survive his remaining sentence and find the daughter who continues to ignore him. When the chance comes to escape in the company of Cacho, a young Mexican inmate with ties to a major cartel, Axel takes it, provoking a massive manhunt along the Rio Grande, and sending Axel on an unintended journey of discovery and reckoning many, many years overdue. This award-winning series has been hailed by critics across the country for its brutal, fast-paced noir style and his insightful character development that elevate these books into something unique. Publisher’s Weekly gave this series installment a starred review, saying “Blood loyalty, forgiveness, and the consequences of violence all figure in Blake’s outstanding fourth Border Noir featuring the Wolfes . . . Tough, muscular prose complements Blake’s powerful storytelling.”
Black Rock White City: The winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award (Australia’s most prestigious literary award), A.S. Patric’s debut novel is one of those stories that brilliantly shifts focus, telling a huge, epic tale of dispossession and displacement among a whole people, and yet, a beautifully wrought tale of one family’s struggles in an unfamiliar suburbia. Jovan and Suzana have fled war-torn Sarajevo, having lost their children, their standing as public intellectuals, and their connection to each other. Now working as cleaners in a suburb of Melbourne, they struggle to rebuild their lives under the painful hardships of immigrant life. During a hot Melbourne summer Jovan’s janitorial work at a hospital is disrupted by mysterious acts of vandalism. But as the attacks become more violent and racially charged, he feels increasingly targeted, and taunted to interpret their meaning. Under tremendous pressure the couple struggle to keep their marriage together, but fear that they may never find peace from the ravages of war. Dark and devastating at times, this book is also the story of those who continually chose to carry on, and find ways to endure, making it also a story of resilience–and one that is wholly unforgettable. The Miles Franklin Literary Award Citation reads: “A fresh and powerful exploration of the immigrant experience and Australian life, Black Rock White City explores the damages of war, the constraints of choice, the possibility of redemptive love and social isolation amid suburbia.”
Eastman Was Here: Alex Gilvarry’s book is a war story set during the Vietnam War, but unlike so many war stories, this one isn’t about a combatant. Instead, it’s about Alan Eastman, a public intellectual, critic, philanderer, whose wife has taken their children and left, and who is facing an ever-deepening existential crisis. So when he receives a call from an old professional rival offering him the chance to go to Vietnam to write the definitive account of the end of America’s longest war, Eastman leaps on the opportunity, seeing it as his chance to earn back his wife’s love and his flagging career in one fell swoop. But instead of the return to form as a pioneering war correspondent that he had hoped for, he finds himself in Saigon, grappling with the same problems he thought he’d left back in New York. Gilvarry writes with enormous compassion and insight, but he is also always ready to see the humor, both the dark and the absurdly funny, in his characters and his stories, defying the conventional trappings whatever genre into which he writes, and instead presenting a character who is both repellent and fascinating, and providing a story as heartbreaking as it is funny. The Boston Globe agrees, saying in its review “Gilvarry has given us a portrait of toxic masculinity—one that feels as if it both belongs to a certain time and is still familiar. His Eastman is a riveting, loathsome presence who demands to be loved and remembered.”
Reincarnation Blues: As soon as I read Kirkus Reviews blurb for this book, I was hooked–and plenty of readers and critics alike have been coming up with wonderful praise for Michael Poore’s second novel of life…death…and whatever comes after. Because in this world, we get a few more tries to get it right. 10,000 more tries, to be exact. But Milo has been having some trouble, and is now left with only 5 chances left to earn a place in the cosmic soul. If he doesn’t make the cut, oblivion awaits. But all Milo really wants is to fall forever into the arms of Death. Or Suzie, as he calls her. More than just Milo’s lover throughout his countless layovers in the Afterlife, Suzie is literally his reason for living—as he dives into one new existence after another, praying for the day he’ll never have to leave her side again. Every journey from cradle to grave offers Milo more pieces of the great cosmic puzzle—if only he can piece them together in time to finally understand what it means to be part of something bigger than infinity. Kirkus Reviews is not alone in making the comparison it did when it described this book as “Tales of gods and men akin to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman as penned by a kindred spirit of Douglas Adams”, and the more comparisons are made to those two greats, the more eager I am to dive into Poore’s work!
Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!