The world at war: Fear by Gabriel Chevalier
The decades following the end of World War 1 saw a boom in publication of war literature and memoirs as survivors sought to make sense of the conflict and devastation. From the side of the perpetrators came the book that seemed to perfectly capture the extreme physical and mental stress felt by soldiers on the front line. Erich Maria Remarque, a veteran himself, became viewed as a spokesman for his generation with his realistic depiction of trench warfare in All Quiet on the Western Front. Told from the perspective of young German soldiers, it struck a chord with those who had experienced the same conditions and the feelings of depression on return to civilian life. Within 18 months of publication it had been translated in 22 languages.
A few years later, when Gabriel Chevallier, an infantryman in the French army, published his own account in Fear the reaction was rather different. The novel drew upon Chevallier’s own experiences to present a damning indictment of the war that challenged the view it was a heroic, redemptive endeavour. Chevallier was decorated for his services on behalf of his country; receiving both the Croix de Guerre and Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. But in his novel he admits he was afraid. “To have written about the war without writing about fear, without emphasising it, would have been a farce. You do not spend time in places where at any moment you may be blown to pieces without experiencing a degree of apprehension,” he explained later.
Fear made such uncomfortable reading that on the eve on the next major conflagration, the author voluntarily withdrew the novel from circulation. It was not the right time, he said, to warn that war was “a disastrous venture with unforeseeable consequences.”
Fear challenged French citizens to rethink their collective attitude to the war. Instead of depicting a hero, Chevallier presents a soldier who openly admits he shirked his duties whenever he could. Jean Dartemont is no patriotic warrior. He is a student who was rushed into a uniform and swiftly despatched to the front with little training and inadequate weapons. On the front line in some of the worst battlefields of the war, he huddles in a trench trying to avoid anything that would bing him into direct engagement with the enemy. His over-riding feeling is one of fear that he will be killed or wounded. For a nation wanting to hear only of brave feats, fear is an incomprehensible reaction. Dartemont sees it not as a weakness however, but a natural response.
Fear isn’t something to be ashamed of; it is a natural revulsion of the body to something for which it wasn’t made. … Soldiers know what they’re talking about because they have often overcome this revulsion, because they’ve managed to hide it from those around them who were feeling it too. … For even when our bodies are wriggling in the mud like slugs and our mind is screaming in distress, we still sometimes want to put on a show of bravery…
Dartemont partly ascribes this desire to keep up the pretence to a need to maintain public morale. Writing to his sister, he admits however that everything he commits to paper is false because those back home would simply not understand the truth:
… we write letters filled with suitable lies, lies to ‘keep them happy’. We tell them about their war, the one they will enjoy hearing about, and we keep ours secret.
This admission of the inadmissible is what makes this novel so different. For much of the novel, Chevallier follows the trajectory we’ve seen in many other works depicting the war: the call up, the carnage at the front, injury, recovery and a return to the front. Dartemont begins the novel as a naive young man, rather inept as a solider and particularly bad at marching. As he digs trenches and runs orders from commanders safely ensconced in headquarters far behind the front line, he has ample time to reflect on the ineptitude of the officers. His injury and hospitalisation provide a welcome, though temporary respite from the carnage he witnesses every day. By the end of the novel he has lost all hope.
I have fallen to the bottom of the abyss of my self, to the bottom of those dungeons where the soul’s greatest secrets lie hidden, and it is a vile cesspit, a place of viscous darkness….I am ashamed of the sick animal wallowing in filth that I have become.
Chevallier said in the preface to a 1951 edition that his novel was not written to serve as propaganda. But in lifting the veil on the reality of war and the effect on the individual of decisions made in pursuit of idealogy, it still resonates today.
Fear was rather different to the novels we usually associate with the name of Gabriel Chevallier. Between the mid 1930s and the mid 1960s he published “Clochemerle” and “Clochemerle-Babylon”; both gently satirical works about life in a French village.
Fear has been translated in multiple languages. The edition I read was translated by Malcolm Imrie and published by Serpent’s Tail in 2014 to coincide with the centenary of the start of World War 1.