Notre Dame De Loretta, French cemetery It starts, really, with an old photo album. Every family was touched by the war and every family has an album like this. Geoff Dyer realizes that he passes by a World War One cenotaph every day; and yet, hadnt really seen it in decades. When Dyer looks through the old family album and sees the pictures of his grandfather in uniform he really begins to notice the cenotaph for the first time. That afternoon spent thumbing through that album, hearing the crackle of stiff paper as if he were wedging open a creaky door to the past, inspires him to know more about his grandfathers war. After The Great War people had little clear idea of why it had been fought or what had been accomplished except for the loss of millions of lives. Dyer appreciates the sculptures, the monuments, the memories that artists tried to immortalize out of metal and rock, but Although many had the talent, no British sculptor not even Jagger had the vision, freedom or power to render the war in bronze or stone as (Wilfred) Owen had done in words. Jaggers Royal Artillery Sculpture Down the close darkening lanes they sang their way To the siding-shed Ernest Brookss iconic photo of World War One But really how about more Owen Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray As mens are, dead. It is hard not to think of The Great War as a war without color. As a writer it is hard to convey something as horrible as war without reducing the impact with the very adjectives and conceptions that we use to articulate the very nature of the horror. He discusses the impact that the ill fated Robert Falcon Scott expedition had on the World War One generation.
Rupert Brooke (18871915) What passing bells for these who die as cattle? Perhaps because, as novelist Geoff Dyer points out in this extended essay, it was a war that memorialized itself from its inception, to be fought and written about in the future perfect, with an eye to how future generations will see it. At chapel each day in my boarding school, I sat under the memorial to Rupert Brooke (an alumnus), whose complete sonnet was carved into the marble. Taking weekly communion in the Memorial Chapel, I was surrounded on three sides by the names of the fallen in the Great War (with only one wall for the later conflict). But his main focus is on how the War has been memorialized: in the poetry of Brooke, Owen, Blunden, and Sassoon; in the spate of memoirs that followed in the twenties; in official histories; in the sculpted memorials that sprang up all over Europe; in novels of the second and third generation, each trying to understand the inexplicable, to find some humanity in the inhumane, and standing on each others' shoulders to do so. If nothing else, Dyer has written an invaluable reader's guide to war literature, singling out such remarkable books as Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong, and Pat Barker's Regeneration (in which Owen and Sassoon are characters).
He also provides an interesting critical section appraising more recent novels retrospectively set amid the Great War. This was a moving and engrossing book for those captivated by the war and the legacy of its remembrance. Nor do I really know what purpose Dyer's book actually serves, aside from a personal compulsion to work through the meaning of this cultural mass that he's accumulated from his fascination with "the Great War and its remembrance"; he addresses that question himself twice in the book (pp.85 & 109), but only briefly and vaguely.
Statues and memorials commemorating the Great War are featured along with some pictures of them. A more appropriate title would be something along the lines of Literary Writing, Statues and Memorials of the Great War. There is little on the French aspect and memorials of the war.
His account (this would be in the early 1990s, a decade or so before the issues of military graves and memories of losses would once again become something in the public eye) of visits to the cemeteries in Belgium and France that hold British and Empire dead is fine travel writing, and his account of how the great memorials were done in the first years after the war is incisive and haunting.
Dyer writes about the modes of memory surrounding and built up both by and because of World War I, focusing particularly on the war memorials and artistic and poetic renditions of the Great War. Anyone else's take on this subject could be plodding or leaden; Dyer's prose manages to handle the subject in a substantive, but never oppressive, way.
He is the author of four novels: Paris Trance, The Search, The Colour of Memory, and, most recently, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi; a critical study of John Berger, Ways of Telling; five genre-defying titles: But Beautiful (winner of a 1992 Somerset Maugham Prize, short-listed for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize), The Missing of the Somme, Out of Sheer Rage (a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award), Yoga For People Who Cant Be Bothered To Do It (winner of the 2004 W. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; in 2009 he was the recipient of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Best Comic Novel and the GQ Writer of the Year Award (for Jeff in Venice Death in Varanasi).