by Reading Group)
In a neat bit of synchronicity, Siegfried Sassoon's work has been compared to Cold Comfort Farm, last month's Reading group choice. But not in a good way:
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"Sassoon was an earnest, unimaginative, platitudinous versifier, cranking out cliches about the countryside and self-absorbed reflections on his own life, the kind of thing that Stella Gibbons pilloried in Cold Comfort Farm as Asterisked Great Thoughts."
That quote comes from an article by Peter Green in New Republic, which reading group contributor MythicalMagpie highlighted. The whole article is well worth reading, with the great historian on typically smart and provocative form. He also says that Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is "carefully sanitised" and that all Sassoon "wanted was the past". Green explains the success of the novel in deeply unflattering terms:
"It was precisely his retreat into the pre-industrial past, his mannered simplicity, his platitudinous self-preoccupation, which (though anathema to the intelligentsia) so well mirrored their own concerns, and thus turned his six autobiographical volumes into bestsellers. His charming style, his resolute meliorism, his careful excision of anything remotely unpleasant or (for good reasons) to do with sex: these all improved his popularity."
Some of these ideas been echoed by Reading group contributors. TimHannigan, who first nominated the book for discussion, wrote:
"I do feel that Fox-Hunting Man is perhaps the most striking example of a nostalgia for 'all that is lost' that emerges in the aftermath of the war, and which seems to be the starting point for an enduring discourse about an imagined ideal of a lost England. Often this discourse is simply risible – see John Major's cricket grounds. It is not, however, entirely unrelated to toxic talk about 'our way of life'."
So as not to mischaracterise TimHannigan, I should also add that he later writes:
"It's a lovely book though, with a clean, unfussy style. I love all those 'winter-smelling mornings'. There are some wonderful set-pieces – especially the cricket match and the point-to-point. And the restrained handling of the annihilation of everything at the end. It's very funny in places too."
Funny because Sassoon wants it to be, not because he is lapsing, DH Lawrence-style, into absurd nature-fetishism. Green's Cold Comfort Farm analogy is unfair. Sassoon's evocation of the English countryside is so lovely partly because it is gentle (give or take a few too many references to Elysium) – even when he is writing with emotion:
"The air was Elysian with early summer and the early shadows of steep white clouds were chasing over the orchards and meadows; sunlight sparkled on green hedgerows that had been drenched by early morning showers. As I was carried past it all I was lazily aware through my dreaming and unobservant eyes that this was the sort of world I wanted. For it was my own countryside, and I loved it with an intimate feeling, though all its associations were crude and incoherent. I cannot think of it now without a sense of heartache, as if it contained something which I have never quite been able to discover."
I also choose that passage because it might be seen as characteristic of Sassoon's longing for the past, his unwillingness to progress into the modern age. One of the most obvious symptoms of this ambivalence about the new world is Sassoon's dislike of modernism in literature. He especially disliked TS Eliot, mocking him as "Towering Tom" and enthusiastically endorsing Max Beerbohm's description of him as a "dried bean" sitting "in a melancholy back-yard … analysing an empty sardine tin".
On the Radio 4 In Our Time programme about Sassoon, there's a really good (and admirably brief) discussion of this animus. Fran Brearton says that Sassoon's career travels in reverse: "He becomes less modern as he goes on." With its word play, its frankness, mix of Shakespeare and everyday speech, Sassoon's war poetry pre-empted the modern movement – but after the war he dropped this tendency and saw himself as sidelined. Robert Graves had said that he and Sassoon and Owen were destined to revolutionise English poetry. Instead, Owen died, Graves started ploughing his own singular muse-obsessed furrow and Sassoon retreated into the past. It was people who didn't fight, like Eliot and Pound, who changed English literature. And they did it by bringing chaos. Sassoon wanted none of that; as Max Egremont explains on the same programme, Sassoon actually wanted "order". He had seen enough of life in lived fragments, of things being blown to pieces. You can understand why he might resent the disorder of Eliot and his "heap of broken images".
It's tempting, then, to regard Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man as an attempt to put things back together, to reclaim youth and vigour (Sassoon was in his 40s when he wrote it), to help a lost world live again (not to mention the men killed by war) and to fight the tide of modernism. It's a perfectly valid interpretation. So too is the one that sees Sassoon in love with this golden age for his class and kind.
But, as usual, things aren't quite that simple. The trouble with the anti-modern narrative, as I mentioned last week, is that Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is so clearly influenced by that other great towering figure of the modern movement, Marcel Proust. Before embarking on Fox-Hunting Man, Sassoon wrote: "A few pages of Proust have made me wonder whether insignificant episodes aren't the most significant". This line is echoed in the book itself. There's a simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking scene where the young narrator is moved to "discomfort and disapproval" by his aunt's attempts to make tea in a train carriage, in front of other smart passengers, on a "patent spirit lamp … apt to misbehave itself and produce an unpleasing smell." He refuses to drink her tea and sits in moody silence – and eventually realises his attitude to the dear old woman is "odious". It is, he says: "One of those outwardly trivial episodes which one does not forget."
The Proust connection goes even deeper, since the scene has an almost direct emotional parallel in In Search Of Lost Time, where Marcel is rude to his grandmother in her final days and subsequently haunted by remorse. So much for the anti-modern. Could it be said that part of the reason Sassoon dug into his past, like Proust, was to make a space for the foundations of the future?
What is certain is that, just as in Proust, all these "insignificant episodes" are steeped in irony. Just like Marcel, Siegfried's narrator George is quite capable of saying one thing and meaning another. Several others, in fact: Peter Green's attack on the book doesn't give it enough credit for ambivalence. Yes, Sassoon portrays a halcyon world – but, as the author observed 40 years later, it all adds up to "innocently insidious anti-war propaganda", and not just because of the blunt fact that the war sweeps away something so lovingly and beautifully described.
All through the book it's also possible to see criticisms of the system that led to war – and the people who did so little to stop it, and were so blissfully unaware that it could happen. Just as we feel a tremor whenever, for instance, the narrator mentions barbed wire in the early pages, so there are other hints at later dissatisfaction, and uncertainty throughout. Sassoon's narrative can be portrayed as an admiring tribute to the English class system and a certain way of doing things (see John Crace's hilarious digested read of the book), but I have doubts. I even wonder how much he wants us to approve of fox-hunting. It's notable that most of the people he meets in the hunting world, with the noble exceptions of Dixon, Denis Milden and Stephen Colwood, are unspeakably awful. Characters like Bill Jaggett and Croplady are fat, red faced, self-serving cowards and bullies. The narrator is even ambivalent about the aims of the sport he professes to love so much. Not once does he describe the death of a fox – but several times he expresses sympathy for the animals and describes the end result as a nasty business. He also quite deliberately includes outside opinion on the hunters – like the clergyman who shouts that they are "brutes". And what are we to think when he writes: "However inhumane its purpose it was a kindly country scene"?
Most of all, he lambasts himself: "The mental condition of a young man who asks nothing more of life than twelve hundred a year and four days a week with the Packlestone is perhaps not easy to defend." Is that really someone lost in love with the past, and out of step with new realities? Or is he getting at something more difficult?
I ask all these questions, because I don't have definite answers. One of the most fascinating (arguably, even modern) things about the book is that there's no knowing how to judge it. In a perceptive piece of criticism, Robert Graves accused his friend Sassoon of hiding behind George Sherston, dodging the moral problems of autobiography and leaving the reader "to decide for himself whether the book is sincere or ironical". So it's possible to see the book not only as a lament for what was lost in the war, but for the folly of the days before it.