If there's one part of the library I find most interesting, it's the Recently Returned shelves. It's all just a random collection of homeless books. This I consider the best circumstances to come across an unexpected nonpareil. So, the other day I discovered Frederic Manning's The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929). Bourne is a private serving in the trenches, and is in many ways emotionally detached from both his superiors and the men around him. The book begins with Bourne clambering through the remains of a recent shelling, and the writing instantly begins with the gruesome, frank style of portrayal of war that made it initially shocking and successful; "Death, of course, like chastity, admits no degree: a man is dead or not dead, and a man is just as dead by one means as by another; but it is infinitely more horrible and revolting to see a man shattered and eviscerated, than to see him shot." (p.11)
Bourne is known as being a loner within the troops. Each man claims to have woken in the middle of the night to find him already awake, silently smoking a cigarette. But Bourne commands respect also from his superiors and fellows; he can always mysteriously rustle-up extra food rations, or a bottle of whiskey. Bourne is also a genuine gentleman, and although he doesn't wish to, accepts a commission. The tragedy of the book's nightmarish finale are always waiting to be read, with the spectre of death ever present in both the narrator's splenetic portrayal of warfare, but also in the somewhat still shocking to this day use of bad, cynical language between the soldiers. In several scenes of emotional intimacy, Bourne finds himself tenderly conversing with French mademoiselles (details of which are never translated or summed-up, meaning that unless you speak French, Bourne is granted some moments of privacy - a rarity in trench-life) but his fellows coarsely claim he is "cunt-struck" rather than in love.
Manning was encouraged to write the book (based very closely on his own wartime experiences) at a time when few fictional novels on The Great War had been published. The book was initially published anonymously, and also under the original title of Her Privates We; both titles allude to a scene in Hamlet where Guildenstern, Rozencrantz and Hamlet contemplate on which part of Fortune's physique man lays. Her Privates We was also an obvious double-entendre. The Middle Parts of Fortune has been considered by many other authors to be the definitive portrayal of man and war.
I was drawn to the book initially due to the harrowing Frank Hurley photograph on the front cover. Several of his pictures from World War I can be found below, including the original used for the book;
This was the first chance I'd had in ages to read a novel. Aside from ones for the course, I haven't really sat down and read a book for some time.There's just something energetically great about reading a good book. I also think that I've developed an interest in World War I now (which possibly stemmed back some time ago from watching Blackadder Goes Forth, now I come to think about it..)