The only good that came out of the first world war was the literature. The generation that survived that particular slaughterhouse — and some that didn’t — wrote brilliant poems, memoirs, and novels. Keith Douglas, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robert Graves, Erich Maria Remarque, Ernst Jung, Ernest Hemingway… and that’s just the beginning of a very long list.
One Man’s Initiation: 1917 by John Dos Passos belongs up on the shelf with the best of them.
It’s an episodic tale about an American volunteer with a French ambulance unit (yeah, pretty much like Hemingway in Italy). We follow Martin Howe from his voyage to France, through a series of actions, a brief leave in Paris and back once more to the trenches and the non-stop abattoir.
This sequence of vivid scenes bring the horrors of war home. The settings are significant — that is, it’s not simple journalism or memoir but the search for the poetic truth underlying the events. This structure — disjointed, fragmented, poetic — must have reflected the experience of the soldiers at the front. The prose is beautifully rhythmic, powerfully descriptive and effective in every way. You feel the bombardments, the horror of a gas attack, the bitter disappointment of an anti-climatic leave, the pleasures of comradeship, as well as the brutal and overwhelming absurdity of the war itself.
This powerful and lyrical novella offers you an incredibly intense and compressed picture of men at war. It’s absolutely worth your time.