Posted by: zhiv | December 15, 2010

Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier

Hard to believe, I know, but I actually read a book. It was really short, so that helped. After writing up thoughts on Twain and actually typing them last week, I looked at some of the “posts” in my notebook and wasn’t sure that anything merited another typing effort. I could probably do some editing and some more work and get some more stuff up, but it might be better and easier to read books, right? I felt something like an old thrill, thinking hey, I read a book, and I can sit in my chair in the morning and write about it! A strange evolution.

One thing I realize is that I like finding “daylight,” an open field with books I don’t know, that I haven’t read or even heard of before. It gets me going, and my focus is much better. This was true of South African literature, which got me back into reading fiction back in the fall of 2007, before I started this blog. It was true of Richard Yates and Mary McCarthy and John Williams and Jewett and Annie fields and even Boston Lit. What has happened now is that my daughter got a syllabus for her minor topic (the major one is going to be the Victorian novel) next term, Literature of World War I. I thought I knew a little bit about this subject, but it was interesting to see some titles and approaches that I had seen but wasn’t familiar with. I don’t want to go in too deep or step on anyone’s toes, but there is some easy access and good reading here. Low-hanging fruit.

Rebecca West has been lurking on the margins of my knowledge and acquaintance for a little while. I only really heard of her for the first time a year or two ago, in one of those odd things where you’ve seen some one’s name and their books, especially when staring at the shelves in used bookstores, but you never seem to notice them. Another thing that I like is reading the first or early novel of a writer that I’m getting to know, along with their two or three best and most well-known books. That’s normally how it goes. An early book is usually a good introduction; and again, it has been true, on this blog, of James Baldwin and McCarthy and others.

The Return of the Soldier is short, as I said, about 75 pp. in a Dover edition. But it’s powerful and an intriguing introduction to WWI Lit. It works on a number of levels, taking up female identity and class and psychology and the passing of time. Published in 1918, it must have been a relatively early statement about how the world had changed, how the old gentility, whatever it was, had given way to the new order, a modern devastation. All sorts of interesting things are going on in this book, and it has an inspired and rather brilliant structure of character and concept.

Two women, Kitty and Jenny, wait at Captain Baldry’s stately manor for his return from the war. The book opens with memories of the death of Baldry and his wife Jenny’s young son, setting the stage with a slow view of the sad former nursery, still intact, while going on to describe Kitty and her rarefied, privileged beauty. Two things happen here, early on. The first is that the child and the nursery are nicely set as bookends in the story, returning in the conclusion. The second is that the narrator, a cousin of Baldry’s known as Jenny who lives with Kitty in the manor, is established as authoritative, detached, and intriguing. One of the accomplishments of the book is this narration and perceptive, rather mysterious character.

Baldry has suffered shell-shock; he has a selective and purposeful amnesia. As this is a homefront story, we meet the women, and learn about their concern and fragile optimism, as they hope Baldry will make a safe return. A third woman, clearly seen as lower class and viewed carefully through both Kitty and Jenny’s eyes, arrives to say that Baldry is in the hospital. The shock registers partly as repulsion and disbelief at the messenger, but West is just getting started. It turns out that Captain Baldry’s amnesia makes him believe that he’s young and living in the past, when he and this random, beleaguered woman, Margaret, were in love. He has written her letters. West works out the story with great craft and concision through Jenny’s masterful narrative process. Sympathy for Margaret and understanding of her and Captain Baldry grow slowly, and a critique of preserving the social order, of Kitty’s beauty, life, and assumptions develops organically alongside it. The small book quickly becomes deep and rich and layered, gaining profound meaning about the war and what it has meant, what it has done to British society.

Captain Baldry doesn’t know his wife. He doesn’t know the way in which his father handed over to him the reins of business, how he has spent 15 years at work, developing a fine estate, taking a showpiece wife, having a son. Going through the cauldron of war shows that it means nothing, that it was a false enterprise. Jenny looks at the way that Baldry and Margaret have recovered love and faith through a psychological accident, and she wonders what they were and what went awry. The conception extends itself to the whole of society.

The device, real at the time, is used here very much as art, as a way to reflect the past, just as Woolf does in To The Lighthouse or Proust’s act of remembrance. It becomes part of a romantic story and structure about who men are, how they think and love, what trauma can do. It contains transfiguration, and it has a telling instance of contemporary psychological practice, while it meditates on personality and sanity. And it occurs to me that if you read literature looking for the operation and examples of self-deception, as I do, this little book is a beauty.

If Captain Baldry represents man and the mind and British society and its radical transformation, it’s critical to note that Jenny’s narration is an amazing example of feminine consciousness. And again, as in Mrs. Dalloway or To The Lighthouse, West has created a complex character to enable that consciousness, and the narrative itself, to take shape. It’s simple enough, in its way, but Jenny’s position of seeming neutrality in between Kitty and Margaret, and the flow of her changing perceptions and consciousness, seems like really solid, crafty stuff upon reflection. There’s a whole lot going on here. Great little book.

*

I guess I’ll save my thoughts about what I half-know, going in, about the literature of World War I for another time, and use the moment to add the few notes I have on Rebecca West. As I said, over the past couple of years she showed up on my sleepy radar. I suppose I tend to think of how things gather around Virginia Woolf and her family and circle, just because it’s easy to do so. I leave Joyce alone for the most part, just because (and never say never). I guess I use Woolf to stand in for much of Modern British Lit, and she works mostly for me as a bridge to her own past and childhood in the twilight years of the late Victorians. You go backwards through Woolf and find yourself in 1880, standing right at the end of the 1830-1880 50-year chunk. I’ve explored most of what I know about Mod Brit Lit through Woolf, that is to say reading Forster and Strachey, and I don’t think I ever had a formal course that worked through just the British side. I know Katharine Mansfield, but never read more than a story or two. But at least I had heard of her. Not Rebecca West. That’s the way it goes I guess.

So I’ve been a little curious. I bought a copy of Harriet Hulme a couple of months ago. I dwas intrigue to see West on the reading list, having now heard of her, and excited when this thin Dover edition of Return popped up at the bookstore. There were a couple of her other books and a couple of biographies as well. Now I’m trying to figure out what to read next. I won’t get to the other bookstores or the library for a couple of days, which will give me time to read some other stuff. My wikipedia glance sets her up as a more formidable figure that I would have guessed, with a long and varied career, and a fair amount of personal drama. Woolf was older, I realize now, and West took a different course that seems to have some similarities, but I need to know more. It seems that she’s very reminiscent of Mary McCarthy. But let me know–does anybody have any favorites, must-reads, strong opinions, or ways into Rebecca West? Where does Return stand? Have to work at finding some of this stuff out.

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