There was an old journalist I came to know, whose strands of pomaded hair had whitened a half-century earlier. He wore a bow tie and beret while shuffling around his cottage in a Maryland forest. Sitting with him, the century compressed—I felt the presence of the Great War.
As a 16-year-old, my centenarian friend had enlisted in the U.S. Army with a fudged birth certificate. But his quest for glory had begun too late. The war in the trenches was already coming to an end. Upon arriving in France, he was placed on a boat home. His fresh body was of great use, however. On the rough Atlantic, limbless amputees would regularly roll out of their bunks and thump onto the deck. It was his job to re-shelf the moaning wounded.
If one world war hadn’t been so quickly followed by a second, we would know the horrors of the first more intimately. The combatant countries would have engaged in more sincere introspection to account for the four years that they spent killing on such a massive scale. But instead, the war that birthed modernity seems unapproachably sepia, hardly close enough to imagine that we could have ever sipped tea with its veterans.
Just recently, I thought of my now-deceased friend—and felt the distant war draw close again. The shock of horror came from an old French novel called Fear. The book’s author, Gabriel Chevallier, a gentle satirist of village life in Beaujolais, had suffered his own severe wounds in the fight. Like the infantryman it describes, Fear never had a fair chance. It appeared in 1930, when there was apparently little public appetite for brutal accounts of a recently buried trauma, at least not in France. By the end of the decade, soldiers were returning to a new western front; censors could not abide the existence of such a graphic depiction of combat, and Chevallier volunteered to pull his novel from circulation. All these factors conspired to deny the book its deserved notoriety and to delay its appearance in the United States until this spring, when New York Review Books published an exquisite translation.
Fear hardly feels like an object from the lost-and-found, which is why it has preserved its capacity to gobsmack. Chevallier’s protagonist, Jean Dartemont, a sardonic 19-year-old student from Paris shoved into a uniform and rushed to the trenches, narrates the war with a bracingly modern sensibility. He is confessional, self-deprecatory, and a little bit vulgar. There’s a strong streak of Joseph Heller in his Erich Maria Remarque.
The story lifts off with Dartemont’s chaotic arrival at the front. He has received only minimal training and has been handed ungainly weapons that seem pointless in the face of artillery fire. As he wends his introductory way through the underworld of the trenches, he encounters corpse after corpse. Then, in the distance, he sees a little bald man laughing. “It was the first relaxed, cheerful face we had seen and I approached him thankfully, asking myself what he had to laugh about.” But the welcome site of joviality turns out, upon closer inspection, to be yet another lifeless specimen. “His brains, which had dropped out in one piece, were placed neatly beside him—like an item in a tripe butcher’s—next to his hand which pointed to them. This corpse was playing a macabre joke on us.”
Beautiful writing about war is unseemly: Literary pyrotechnics can upstage and cheapen the real thing. But realistic descriptions of battle, in the tradition of All Quiet on the Western Front, have also grown so commonplace that it now takes ornamented descriptions to awaken the senses. It’s Chevallier’s lyricism and carefully constructed imagery that make the descriptions of the trenches so fleshy and the readers’ sleep so troubled. Here, he writes about digging a communications trench:
[T]here was a squelch, the sound of something bursting. The pick had hit a damp, rotten stomach, which released its miasma right into our faces, a sudden burst of foul vapor. ... The decomposing body’s disgusting gasses spread out, filled the darkness and our lungs, reigned over the silence. The NCOs had to force us back to this angry corpse, and then we shoveled furiously, desperate to cover it up and calm it down. But our bodies had caught the awful fecund smell of putrefaction, which is life and death, and for a long time that smell irritated our mucous membranes, stimulated the secretions of our glands, aroused in us some secret organic attraction of matter for matter, even when it is corrupt and almost extinguished.
This writing is, quite literally, visceral and it suits a war saturated in blood and guts. An average of 890 French soldiers died daily—and the war lasted 1,560 days. This grim math haunted the rank and file. By the third year of the war, infantrymen would frequently emit loud baa-ing noises while marching to their slaughter. That year, some 35,000 French troops could no longer tolerate this fate and engaged in mass mutiny.
Over the next decade, the public increasingly came to agree with the mutineers, especially as the benefits of victory proved maddeningly elusive. This posed a particular problem for the French intelligentsia. Without many exceptions, French intellectuals had cheered the war in 1914. The painter Fernand Leger enlisted; the sociologist Émile Durkheim and the philosopher Henri Bergson served on a committee that produced propaganda pamphlets; Anatole France wrote a book called The Path of Glory. (A few, including Proust, kept their mouths shut and gave no public opinion, though he could get weepy when privately describing the heroism of the average solider.)
But rather than accepting blame for their roles in stoking apocalyptic, borderline-racist nationalism and justifying aggression against Germany, French intellectuals helped shift it entirely onto political and military leaders, whom they charged with callously expending the lives of their countrymen. As the path-breaking cultural historians Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker have described it, “[A]ggressive hatred of the war replaced the initial emotional investment in it.” In the course of this turnabout, France never truly wrestled with its complicity in creating the catastrophe of 1914.
That’s what makes Chevallier’s book so subversive and ultimately painful. He doesn’t just cast blame on the generals and politicians, although he savages them, too. Chevallier condemns “twenty million, all in good faith, following God and their prince ... twenty million idiots ... like me!” The book’s title is its thesis: that fear, in all its different dimensions, created the conditions for the twentieth century’s first bloodbath. Dartemont’s own war is the primary object lesson. He never believed in the necessity of fighting Germany and holds martial values in contempt—yet he spent four years risking his life to kill the Boche. “My fear is abject,” he writes. “It makes me want to spit on myself.” It’s a burst of emotion—self-pitying, inflamed, real—that makes every antique photo of helmeted young men harder to hold.
Franklin Foer is editor of The New Republic.