Yes, I read another book by Geoff Dyer and, yes, because it was a structurally complex non-fiction text featuring a theme I’m vaguely interested in and a brash but elsewhere thoughtful and articulate narrator, I loved it.
Today I visited the Thiepval Monument, one of the many locations Dyer describes in his book about the First World War, The Missing of the Somme. This novella-length text incorporates essayistic prose on the ideas of memory and its relation to the capitalised idea of Remembrance; art criticism discussing varying merits of war memorials; considerations of poetry, memoir and fiction about the war (those who experienced it first hand and those, like Dyer himself, who didn’t); and anecdotal sections detailing an early nineties jaunt (“None of us is quite sure whether we’re on a gloomy holiday or a rowdy pilgrimage”, 127) around Northern France with two boozy friends*.
I read the book because I knew I’d be visiting places Dyer did, and thought that some knowledge other than garbled memories of primary school and the introductory notes to the Wilfred Owen poems I read last month would be useful. It was. Dyer’s book is heavily-researched and analyses a lot of written sources and printed photographs to make and emphasise its points**. Dyer made me laugh a few times, but in the vast majority of this text he is more serious than usual – aware he’s discussing a sensitive topic, perhaps, but more likely inclined towards empathy because that is what he felt.
The Missing of the Somme is Dyer at his best – being intelligent without being smug, seeming heartfelt without becoming saccharine, offering decadent anecdotes without turning into a bore. Dyer has a lot of interesting and important points to make about the emptiness of war, the strangeness of the cemeteries’ cleanliness and the fact that the Great War (as he always refers to it) was being memorialised from the moment it began. 20 years old, this book, but relevant, as time continues to pass and society still holds the war dead in its mind.
For me, though, what resounded most about the evidence of death and destruction I saw today was the volume of it. For a good hour/hour and a half of the drive through France, I saw a cemetery or a signpost for one AT LEAST every five minutes. Each one, neat, clean, its stones or crosses shining, flags shaking, words of promise and retained individuality gleaming from surfaces, the visitors’ book full of cliches***, one cemetery had a portaloo by its gate, a couple were in the middle of fields, no neighbouring roads, but it was the number, the number, the number that-
Every single gravestone I saw, on foot or through my car window, had the space in front of it to lie down the prone body of a dead young man. And every single one did. I didn’t see every grave I drove by, but I probably noticed the marking point of at least a thousand people. It was the space in front of the grave, the burial spot, that was important. Not because it holds a corpse, but because its space holds a life that was never lived: the absence in the air in front of every grave (whether it was named for its occupant or not) was aching, heavy with the weight of lost life.
I saw a thousand graves, I saw signposts to probably another 10 or 20,000, and I know that, ultimately, there are roughly 4 million graves from that conflict. I saw prominent cemeteries honouring soldiers from India, China and Canada amongst those for Europeans, and when my father (who I’m in France with) used the computers in the museum beside the Thiepval Monument to look up the war record of his grandmother’s elder brother, the only person whose surname and regiment could possibly match**** died and was buried in a First World War battle in Turkey. It’s easy to forget that there was more than just the Western Front, particularly when on the flat farmland once ravaged by a war of attrition.
But knowing that this man who may or may not have been my great great uncle individually died, fighting, meant nothing to me. What meant something, and this is what Dyer evokes beautifully, was the number of people who died. Every gravestone has beneath it the rotting corpse of a man, most of whom died younger than I am now. Every cemetery had a few hundred gravestones, every village had a couple of cemeteries, every-
You can see where I’m going. Dyer captures the confused sensation created by a trip to the war graves better than I can, and if I hadn’t read The Missing of the Somme whilst planning and then making a trip to them myself, I probably would have done both as a result. This massacre of a generation of men is an important part of recent history. And the graves are under two hours from Calais and it’s really fucking easy driving a right hand drive car on French roads. Go visit. Or read The Missing of the Somme. Or be a superfly bastard like myself and do both.
* Note to self – check if Mark and Paul are the names of the male protagonists in Paris Trance.
** I do not exaggerate when I say that almost a quarter of the book’s pages are Bibliography and/or referencing.
*** Dyer discusses these near the end of his book, and I was disappointed that my supposedly unique thoughts turned out to have been prethought and expanded upon 20 years earlier. Alas.
**** Though he was a sergeant… I mean this not as a brag, but as evidence that he probably wasn’t the man we were looking for.