Monday, 10 March 2014

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon

The last portion of this book throws the first into stark relief. While I enjoyed the first section, it didn't grab me - it was a calm meandering from hunting meet to hunting meet, from a quiet life to brief flurries of activity on a horse. Nothing really happened, nothing changed.

And then, of course, everything did. Life remained prone to brief flurries of activity, but now they were flurries of activity that could kill you in a second. There were downtimes, but they were downtimes of trench foot and anxiety, not leisurely rides and hoping you make a good showing at cricket.

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is the first in a series of three fictional autobiographies by Siegried Sassoon, loosely detailing his experiences as a young man, and then later, his enlistment and deployment to the trenches of the First World War. It was written years after the war, and has that sense of looking back on his younger self (here called George Stetson) with both compassion, love, and a bit of irritation.

George/Siegfried knows now that he was more careless of those around him than he should have been, from his aunt (mother), to the housekeeper who attended to his every need, to the groom who was as much as a father as he ever had, to the farmers over whose fields he rode with no care for destruction left behind. He remembers seeing those less fortunate as irritating impediments to the life he wanted.

It is the latter sections that make this first bit so poignant. Sassoon captures in such detail both the joys and casual cruelties of the life he lived before the war, his lack of direction, his selfish indulgence. But not with regret. These were the halcyon days, even though he later seems to realize that they were not without cost for those around him. In the world he chose to spend his energy, he made good friends and knew who he was and where he belonged.

And who he was opened doors when he enlisted, getting him positions and officer training those who didn't have the sporting connections found more difficult. He is very clear that many of the officers who were not gentry were better officers, but that doors were opened to him because he knew what to wear and how to ride.

The war is not presented in melodramatic terms. It is straightforward, bare, and all the more powerful for that. George loses friends, loses men, but no pity is asked for. He speaks in barest sketches of how he came to question the justness of the war in which so many were being sacrificed.

This book tells the tale of a how a man came to be, and how that was changed by the war. George wasn't a bad person, just thoughtless and carefree. By the end of the book, he is not.

No comments:

Post a Comment