Monday, May 26, 2008

John Dos Passos' "Three Soldiers": Book Review
Memorial Day was spent reading this 1921 novel, in a battered copy from the back shelves of the Los Angeles Public Library's stacks, where the volume had been, the librarian told me, damaged by the sprinklers set off to quench the great fire that destroyed much of the old building over twenty years ago. This fragile book seemed a casualty of its own, like its characters, who rush off to the French front only to hurry up and wait. Two of them enter the "Oregon forest," the Argonne campaign, but the assault itself takes up only a few harrowing, nightmarish, disconnected scenes halfway through the narrative.

Dos Passos emphasizes the detachment of his characters from their peaceful or uprooted surroundings. Much of the book roams about the mental landscape of its three protagonists, rather than what happens in terms of action. It conveys more the tedium of bureaucracy and the formation of the conformist, against which the sensitive individual chafes. The five chapters have titles that make sure a reader nearly ninety years ago does not forget what, for us, may be unmistakable concepts. "Making the Mould" follows soldiers as they are processed; "The Metal Cools" shows them in France waiting for mobilization; "Machines" takes them closer to the war; "Rust" follows them after peace is declared; "The World Outside" shows them away from the camp; "Under the Wheels" returns them to military control.

Dos Passos, as biographies by Townsend Ludington and Virginia Spencer Carr (both reviewed by me here and on Amazon US yesterday) document, took his own ambivalence against war as one who volunteered as an ambulance driver to witness it into this novel. It's a young writer's effort, ambitious yet a bit awkward, but if you have read his later sprawling chronicles, the relative compression of scope here may demonstrate how Dos Passos sought to integrate modernist perspectives into a standard "boy goes off to fight" storyline. He sought, perhaps as one of the first successful WWI novels in print-- or still in print-- in America, to show a social mechanism grinding away that "Catch-22" or "Full Metal Jacket" or "Dispatches" would do for future conflicts that pitted people against power. In a time when many still remained optimistic about government, idealism, and the impact of culture upon the masses, Dos Passos sought to warn his audience about the degrading effects of patriotic cant, Christian platitudes, and military hypocrisy.

In "Three Soldiers," Dos Passos' first "mature" work, the coming-of-age stories familiar to early 20c readers mingle with a broader assault on conformity. The author listens to speech and it rings sharply. He watches for fog and shade and sun with his trained eye that looked as a painter would what his soldiers witness and struggle to understand. These themes of ordinary people overwhelmed by the world that appears to loom far above the reach of any of us who wander through it deepened to enrich Dos Passos' most successful novels, "Manhattan Transfer" (also reviewed by me here and on Amazon) and the USA trilogy, with their author's insistent message of resisting any political creed or organizational system that sought to stamp robots out of, or into, wriggling fragile flesh.

We've all seen films or photographs of the lunar landscapes of WWI, but here, in Dos Passos' evocation, we share the shock of the first glimpse of this to a soldier. He may have seen few if any snapshots or film reels of the battleground. Here's his sudden arrival at the demarcation of the actual frontline.

As they started down the slope, the trees suddenly broke away and they saw the valley between them full of the glare of guns and the white light of star shells. It was like looking into a stove full of glowing embers. The hillside that sloped away from them was full of crashing detonations and yellow tongues of flame. In a battery near the road, that seemed to crush their skulls each time a gun fired, they could see the dark forms of the artillerymen silhouetted in fantastic attitudes against the intermittent red glare. Stunned and blinded, they kept on marching down the road. It seemed to Chrisfield that they were going to step any minute into the flaring muzzle of a gun.

The rest of the book, after a few vividly sketched battle vignettes, settles down into post-Armistice routine, as John Andrews, the stand-in for Harvard grad Dos Passos, cultivates his aesthetic eye while grousing at the indignities of mass crowd control and his own chapped sensibility. I found him a familiar type, perhaps fresher in Dos Passos' times than ours. Dos Passos pours most of his effort into this soldier's story, after the battle, but it fails to sustain its vigor, although his youthful restlessness and ambition borrowed from their author appear on the page as genuine and honest. The fault's more with the slow pace, unrelieved by excitement. This may portray a side of military life often left out of books, but it's dull.

As "a sort of socialist," Andrews hates "the psychology of slavery," although he must mutter this more than mouth it, for fear of a court-martial. Later in the novel, he and his fellows must face the courage of his convictions. Rumors of uprisings in Paris contend against punishment labor battalions and fates of deserters. From the vantage point of a fresh Soviet revolution, some of his fellow soldiers whisper their hopes for a Communist future; Dos Passos' registers their yearnings but his characteristic caution at any utopia peddled can also be sensed, despite his own radical yearnings at this time.

It's all described well, yet often repetitively. Conversations in one bar after another. Smells of food and rain and sludge. Dappled leaves alternate with mud and grease. Andrews' endemic ennui does drag long sections down after he recovers from a shrapnel wound and heads off to study in Paris. This passage captures the tedium.

The straw under him rustled faintly with every sleepy movement Andrews made in his blankets. In a minute the bugle was going to blow and he was going to jump out of his blankets, throw on his clothes and fall into line for roll call in the black mud of the village street. It couldn't be that only a month had gone by since he had got back from hospital. No, he had spent a lifetime in this village being dragged out of his warm blankets every morning by the bugle, shivering as he stood in line for roll call, shuffling in a line that moved slowly past the cookshack, shuffling along in another line to throw what was left of his food into garbage cans, to wash his mess kit in the greasy water a hundred other men had
washed their mess kits in; lining up to drill, to march on along muddy roads, splattered by the endless trains of motor trucks; lining up twice more for mess, and at last being forced by another bugle into his blankets again to sleep heavily while a smell hung in his nostrils of sweating woolen clothing and breathed-out air
and dusty blankets. In a minute the bugle was going to blow, to snatch him out of even these miserable thoughts, and throw him into an automaton under other men's orders. Childish spiteful desires surged into his mind. If the bugler would only die. He could picture him, a little man with a broad face and putty- colored cheeks, a small rusty mustache and bow-legs lying like a calf on a marble slab in a butcher's shop on top of his blankets. What nonsense! There were other buglers. He wondered how many buglers there were in the army. He could picture them all, in dirty little villages, in stone barracks, in towns, in great camps that served the country for miles with rows of black warehouses and narrow barrack buildings standing with their feet a little apart; giving their little brass bugles a preliminary tap before
putting out their cheeks and blowing in them and stealing a million and a half (or was it two million or three million) lives, and throwing the warm sentient bodies into coarse automatons who must be kept busy, lest they grow restive, till killing time began again.

The first up facing the bugle, Fuselli, from San Francisco, begins "Three Soldiers" to complete the trio, two coastal men and the Midwesterner representing a cross-section of America. Fuselli's swerve away from marching off to the front to putting in for an instant transfer to a post well behind the lines confused me. Perhaps Dos Passos meant to convey the inexplicable split-second decision made by a man under pressure, but without any prior preparation for this, Fuselli's ambition to rise in the ranks kept puzzling me, as he'd not shown any aversion to seeking out combat previously. He does show up briefly a couple hundred pages later, after falling out of favor during a battle, but this is left rather vague, via a quick conversation with Andrews, by now on "school detachment" at the Sorbonne.

Unlike Fuselli, but like Andrews, the other soldier enters the novel as a Casual (like Dos Passos himself), suited not for the regular Army. He and Andrews wait to be shipped off; Fuselli has been, but vanishes from much of the novel's middle sections. Chrisfield, a Hoosier farm boy, is jittery and brittle, but due more to his hair-trigger temperament rather than any reveries, as his pal "Andy" is prone to fall into, about a fin-de-siecle Queen of Sheba voluptuary's embrace. These earn prose recalling Stephen Dedalus' contemplations, minus the religion or the guilt. Andrews' vision of the France he finds is filtered through Flaubert. He falls for Jeanne, and stays in Paris to master piano.

"Chris" gets into scraps and he represents one of the common men with whom New York City-raised Andrews learns to deal with, however uneasily. They both wander, together and separately, into cafes, brothels, fields, and cities. Eventually, Chrisfield fades and Andrews continues largely on his own through the rest of the novel. The scenes stay simply composed, but remain attentively rendered in clear prose. It's the author's style, more than the often mundane plot, which keeps you intermittently involved. There's a welcome arrival or threat of military intervention that carries you with a bit more pep through the final chapter.

Dos Passos always faced critics who faulted him with treating his characters more as pieces to be manipulated than rounded figures. I welcome novelists who double as historians, taletellers who tend towards sociology, but those expecting more visceral tension and manufactured bouts may be disappointed by a conflict novel that tends to stay away from the thunder. Dos Passos sides with those who struggle against donning the uniform, who scrabble against the clanking ranks and file clerks. You can see in this early novel that his habitual manner of setting down his stories as social commentary more than psychological exploration remains, nonetheless, his characteristic approach as a writer, take it or leave it.

(Review posted with diminishment of second excerpt today on Amazon.)

E-text Project Gutenberg download

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