Geoff Dyer has a new book out this summer, ‘White Sands: Experiences From the Outside World’ , but it’s a book originally published in 1994 that is The Saturday Read this week – ‘The Missing of The Somme’.
Dyer may defy categorization as an author, but one constant in his writing, is a theme of travel, highlighted by his publisher in a description of the current title.
“Weaving stories about places to which he has recently traveled with images and memories that have persisted since childhood, Dyer tries “to work out what a certain place—a certain way of marking the landscape—means; what it’s trying to tell us; what we go to it for.”
‘The Missing of the Somme’ begins with the images and memory of his grandfather and continues on a road trip through the great war battlefields, pristinely kept, to ensure memory.
The title comes from the memorial at Thiepval, France to ‘The Missing of the Somme’. The 131 pages explore the landscape of France and Belgium in an extended essay exploring the monuments, cemeteries, and literature that materialized from a time of “fear that people would forget”. A time when ‘soldier poets’ emerged from the battlefields to create a literary narrative of events, in contrast to the propaganda of the media.
This is Dyer’s strength in storytelling. You think you have opened a ‘war book’ and you find you have signed on for an unexpected adventure. The ‘origin’ story of the book is itself a tangent. He originally moved to Paris in the early 90’s to write a novel based on Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender is the Night’, and ended up writing a book about world war one. (F. Scott does make an appearance.)
In a 2013 Paris Review interview, Dyer addressed reader’s expectations, as a function of a publisher/marketer definition.
“I think the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is less about “Did it really happen or was it made up?” than it is about form. And, more than form, it’s about the expectations that are brought to certain forms. According to how a book is presented, packaged, or identified, readers have certain expectations. Following from that they expect books within broadly identified categories to behave in certain ways. So people can find it quite disconcerting when a book isn’t doing what they think it’s meant to be doing, even if the book is completely fine on its own terms and has no desire to conform to some external set of expectations. My books are often disappointing in that regard.”
You may read Dyer for the element of surprise, but it’s in his prose that your investment in time is rewarded, as illustrated in this short excerpt.
“But history does not lie uniformly over events. Here and there it forms drifts – and these drifts are at their deepest between the years 1914 – 1918. Watching footage of the Normandy landings, we can experience D-Day as it happened. History hangs in the balance, waiting to be made. The Battle of the Somme, by contrast, is deeply buried in its own aftermath. The euphoric intoxication of the early days of the French Revolution – ‘Bliss was it in that dawn’ – remains undiminished by the terror lying in wait a few chapters on. The young men queuing up to enlist in 1914 have the look of ghosts. They are queuing up to be slaughtered: they are already dead. By (Johan) Huizinga’s terms, the great war urges us to write the opposite of history: the story of effects generating their cause.”
“Even when it was raging, the characteristic attitude of the war was to look forward to the time it would be remembered.”
When ‘The Missing of the Somme’ was published in Great Britain, there was no American interest. The first world war still competes for attention in American culture. Fortunately, we have Geoff Dyer to remind us that “the war’s true subject is remembrance”.