It’s a central tenet of war literature that the men who were there either can’t or won’t speak about it, which is I suppose why Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear, a WWI memoir recently re-released by the New York Review of Books imprint is so shocking. It stands alone among everything I’ve read about that war (which is quite a bit) in that the author describes it. He strips away that long-preserved mystery (for me) of what it was like to be there. The descriptions are earthy, precise, and terrifying.
“Little by little we advanced into the active zone, the danger zone. It felt warmer and stuffier, like a place that was lived in; there was a powerful smell of human bodies, a mixture of fermentation and excrement and food that had gone bad. Men were snoring behind the embankments we brushed past, and glimmers of light marked the openings of the dugouts where they lay. We had to keep ducking to avoid the tangles of wires, traverses and plank bridges.”
Chevallier served in the trenches himself, but the book is nominally a novel, the story of a Jean Dartemont, a 19-year-old French student who was an enlisted man for all five years of war, a bright, sardonic intellectual who thinks the war is not “great or noble” from the outset, but goes anyway. He explains “I went against all my convictions, but still of my own free will—not to fight but out of curiosity: to see.”
Later, he describes what it was like to fight, (which he says boils down to running):
“I am lifted up, deaf, blinded by a cloud of smoke, pierced by a sharp smell. Something is clawing at me, tearing me. I must be shouting without hearing myself. A sudden shaft of clarity. ‘Your legs are blown off!’ For a start… My body leaps and runs. The explosion has set it off like some machine. Behind me, someone is shouting ‘faster!’ in a voice of pain and madness. Only then do I actually realize I am running.”
Most war books provide some gruesome detail, a corpse, an eyeball, an experience, a breaking-point. This one does too, plenty of them, but without the relief of such points being of especial significance. The breaking-point, if there is one, is the prolonged effect of fear and the cumulative degradation that war visits on the men who fight. Dartemont spends what feels like a month at the Chemin Des Dames. I’m not sure which battle, but almost half a million people died in one battle there. He describes cowering underground, what a man thinks, where he takes a shit, when he stops shitting. It’s one of the most awful true stories I’ve ever read. I can’t think of a more worthy re-release.
Ironically, the book was first published in 1930 and the publisher shortly thereafter voluntarily suspended sales because of the second World War. It was first translated into English in 2011. I’m happy to discover that Chevallier survived, married, had a child and wrote a lot of French bestsellers. He died in Cannes in 1965. The Internet says these are some photos of him: