Rebecca West is most well known on this blog as the writer of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, an absolutely massive and (arguably) early example of “creative non-fiction”. That book, a travelogue about the history of the Balkans from the whispers of pre-history through until the Second World War (when West was writing), is a witty, emotive and regularly shocking evocation of the eternal edges of Europe, the Balkans as a place where East meets West, where empires collide and rub up against each other for time immemorial, a place in constant flux, a place unchangingly of change, a place riven by tribalism and regular bursts of violence. The Return of the Soldier isn’t anywhere near as sprawling a tome as that text, in fact it’s one of the shortest novels I’ve read in a while. At just over a hundred pages long and published in 1918 when West was only 24, it is an engaging and mature exploration of shellshock and sexuality, couched in a wise understanding of the repercussions of infant mortality and the repressed emotionality of stiff-upper-lipped England.
Aristo-type Chris is the eponymous soldier, who arrives back from the trenches in an England he does not recognise. He doesn’t know his wife, he is amazed by the effects of ageing on his face and the face of his cousin (Jenny, the narrator), and he only wants to talk about and see Margaret, the “commoner” he had an intense relationship with when he was 21, fifteen years earlier. Amongst the horrors of the trenches, Chris has lost his memory of adulthood: he has forgotten that his father has died, forgotten the loss of his infant son, forgotten his ten-year-long marriage, but – and this is the kicker – he’s forgotten everything about the war except for being carried out of it on a stretcher.
As Chris’ materialistic, snobbish, wife and his cousin (who is also in love with him) grapple with their jealousy re: his disinterest in them and his romantic obsession with the much less glamorous Margaret, they hire fancy doctor after fancy doctor to try and bring their man back to them, their man who – for whatever reason – has blocked most of his adult life from his conscious mind.
Though, in reality, amnesia rarely occurs as obliquely as this simplistic plot device implies, West’s use of shellshock and the psychological effects of war was, at the time, almost groundbreaking, and the way in which she uses the narrative of a returning male soldier to explore the reactions of the women that care about him is also particularly significant. Though Chris gets to appear in the title, and is mentioned in almost every conversation, the novel is not about him, rather it is about the effects that his return – and the manner of his return – have upon the women in his life. His wife expects devotion and receives disregard, his cousin yearns for more than she will ever seek, while Margaret – unhappily married – expects nothing and receives, if just for a bit, the world. It is a novel that acknowledges the internal, and differing, lives of people within relationships and within marriages, and creates four very distinct, very different people. Chris is broken, damaged, but the way to “cure” him is to take away his psychological “return” to carefree youth. The novel explores the ways in which we trap ourselves (feeling deadened excitement) as if it is a responsibility, dooming ourselves to patterns of behaviour that make us unhappy, but nonetheless are the “correct” things to do.
West’s writing is crisp and direct; using the narratorial voice to express cheap, bitchy, snobbish asides allows the reader to feel somewhat distanced from all the central characters – though we empathise with some of Jenny’s emotions, there is also something to be judged in her dogged, but passive, pursuit of an unrequited love, while Margaret also made no effort to maintain her younger relationship with Chris. Jenny is clearly very jealous of Chris’ wife (as well as Margaret), so the depiction of this character sways towards the unsympathetic. However, I imagine shock, jealousy and a desperation to have her husband’s memories returned is how anyone in his wife’s position would act. I don’t think it’s selfish to feel despair at the loss of a loved one, for whatever reason, and I think lashing out – verbally – is a common response to psychological pain, so Chris’ wife’s comments about Margaret have more emotional justification than Jenny’s.
West is arguably more explicit about sexuality than often occurs in texts of this period (social liberalism caused by the horn of wartime?), but for the themes that rise in importance during her narrative to be truly explored, The Return of the Soldier needed even more of this than it gave. Because children and love and bodily pleasure become so central to the narrative, it is frustrating (as a modern reader) to have Margaret say in regards to Chris’s sexuality, towards the novel’s end, “Yes, he was always very dependant.” So, Margaret and Chris fucked in the past, clearly, a lot and pleasurably, so is the reader meant to presume that they have been fucking, now, upon his return and within the resumption of their romantic idyll? This is left ambiguous, and kinda implies “no”, but when a relationship that previously had a significant sexual edge is psychologically rejoined, it seems likely that mad lust would again resume, and surely even in 1918 people didn’t think of thirty-somethings as too old to get it on, right?
So, as a psychological novel from another age, it’s certainly engaging and powerfully constructed, but in its discussion of sex it is less than complex enough. This is a novel about the different ways in which people find happiness, and the different ways in which we find holes in other people’s lives. The war was the final straw for Chris, and his mind went, but for his wealthy family there are problems, for poor Margaret there are problems, for everyone there are problems; no life is perfect, and no matter how much we will it, that cannot be changed.
An important, engaging novel. Definitely worth a look.
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