The elephant in the living room

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is included. This week Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden, first published in 1928. 

In the December of 1916, after two years of war, the Central Powers declared they were ready to negotiate peace terms with the Allies. President Wilson, asked by the Central Powers to broker the talks, asked both sides what their peace terms were. The Allies quickly replied: a free and neutral Belgium, its rights guaranteed by self-representation. The Germans didn’t bother to reply as that was the last thing that they wanted. In the first months of the war the German leadership had stated its war aims in the secret Septemberprogramm, as “security for the German Reich in west and east for all imaginable time.” Belgium would be reduced to a vassal state, large chunks of the French coast would be annexed, an empire carved out of Central Africa and Russia pushed as far back as possible from the eastern frontier.  It makes you wonder why they bothered asking for peace negotiations in the first place.

Edmund Blunden was twenty one by the time the war ended. He had survived two years without a scratch, not physical ones anyway. Reviewing Undertones of War, his account of his time as Temporary Second Lieutenant in the 11th Royal Sussex Regiment, in the Evening Standard Bennett wrote “…The intimate horror of war has never been, and never will be, more movingly and modestly rendered than he renders it.” Blunden was brave as the cutting below from the London Gazette from the 26th January 1917 makes all too clear.

He was also a modest man, never mentioning his award of the Military Cross in the book. His poetry shines through his prose, as does his love of countryside, even the blasted wastelands in which he toiled, officered and strolled through. He witnessed the deadly and deathly consequences of the “red tab’s” tinkerings with maps and plans of attack. It was all a terrible waste. And, like the elephant in the living room that no one mentions, those German troops still occupy neutral Belgium, their masters anticipating that their stay there will be a long one.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Without that waste, call it sacrifice if you will, witnessed by Blunden, those German troops (who did commit atrocities against Belgian civilians) would not have left of their own choice. My search for literary taste here has come up against the uncomfortable truths that history sometimes deals in; also reading the work of a young man when you are in middle-age and seeing that youthful passionate belief in Right and Wrong has faded somewhat. I read his book sympathetically but with an emotional distance that surprises me. Coordinates have to be given, direction maintained and velocity pursued, therefore (10, 10) is given, leading off the graph to unknown territories.

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