The Saturday Read ‘The Missing of the Somme’ by Geoff Dyer

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”.



The Saturday Read -Mark Vanhoenacker ‘Skyfaring’

This week’s ‘Saturday Read’ is for all of you who keep your window sashes up on transcontinental flights. And for those of you who don’t, author and pilot, Mark Vanhoenacker has a link on his website to share a glimpse of what you have been missing. And it’s not the grainy black and white video from the camera mounted underneath those Swiss Air flights.

The ‘Saturday Read’ is ‘Skyfaring: A Journey With A Pilot’.

What do we know of the work lives of pilots? These are the folks we trust to transport us across oceans, continents, cities and deserts. Our only contact through hours of flight is a welcome message, flight status update or a ‘thank you for choosing our airline’.

Turns out, pilots can be very interesting people. And, like many of us, they arrive at their ‘dream job’ after trying out other options. Mark Vanhoenacker’s career began in academia and management consulting. He started his flight training in 2001 after realizing all those plane flights were constant reminders of what he really wanted to do with his life.

Geoff Dyer reviewed the book for The Guardian newspaper:

“There is always something uplifting about people in love with their work, and on becoming an airline pilot Vanhoenacker (now a senior first officer with British Airways) seems to have attained a state of enviable grace. He loves everything about the job: the machinery, the language, the physics, the maps, the weather (always sunny up there above the lid of cloud), his colleagues, the rituals in which multiple layers of safety are embedded and encoded.”

Dwight Gardner‘s review in The New York Times cited “the intellectual and emotional delights of flying…

Mr. Vanhoenacker speaks often in “Skyfaring” about poetry and art and music. In Paris, he heads for the Musée Rodin. He has a well-stocked mind. Cumulus clouds remind him of the ceilings in the New York Public Library or Versailles; the earth’s rotation summons for him a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead.” He mentions pilots who go to cooking schools or visit botanical gardens wherever they go.

Thus one of the vivid things about this book is that is makes you imagine the men and women who pilot the machines that fly over our heads as a merry band of scholars and aesthetes, rather than glorified bus drivers. It’s as if they’re racing up there to pluck the world’s best cultural fruit, fruit we are too hidebound to seek except rarely.”

And when Mr. Vanhoenacker is not flying the plane:

“One of my favorite things to do as a passenger is put music on and look out at the world. I think airplanes are one of the few places you can zone out. When you fly as a passenger you definitely have this meditative space. I never use Wi-Fi as a passenger.”  

In the first few pages of ‘Lift’, the first section of the book, the author shares three questions people ask when they learn he is a pilot:

“Is flying something I have always wanted to do? Have I ever seen anything “up there” that I cannot explain? And do I remember my first flight? I like these questions. They seem to have arrived, entirely intact, from a time before flying became ordinary and routine. They suggest that even now, when many of us so regularly leave one place on the earth and cross the high blue to another, we are not nearly as accustomed to flying as we think. These questions remind me that while airplanes have overturned many of our older sensibilities, a deeper part of our imagination lingers and still sparks in  the former realm, among ancient, even atavistic, ideas of distance and place, migrations and the sky.”

If this book doesn’t rekindle the wonder of air flight, check to see if you can still fog up a mirror. For those of you still breathing, invest some time this weekend to take flight with Mark Vanhoenacker as your pilot and rediscover the joy of getting lost in the clouds.