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3.6 out of 5 stars
Death of a Hero (Penguin Classics)
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 5 February 2014
Now that the current trend in popular academic history is for neo-whiggish exploration of such topics as racism, feminism, and the irresistible rise of everyman, I sometimes feel that fiction offers a more humane impression of the 'wie es eigentlich war' - at least to those who prefer a humanist style of historical writing. Such fiction sometimes concentrates the general experience of a period through the lens of a single gifted witness who serves to present the reader with a brilliant spectrum of ideas. So it is with 'The Death of a Hero', Richard Aldington's mordant analysis of the generation that came of age in time to live through the First World War.

For all that, it cannot be denied that'The Death of a Hero' is a bit of a mess aesthetically: this doesn't appear to have troubled its author who described it in the introduction as a 'jazz novel' and 'not the work of a professional novelist.' For Aldington, 'the excuse for a novel is that one can do any d... thing one pleases' without being governed by 'method' or 'convention'.

The book is based closely on Aldington's own childhood, boyhood and youth, but was written about 10 years after the last of the events which it describes. The author is therefore in a position to write about his younger, semi-fictional self through the person of an older narrator, who appears to know far more than even the most intrusive of narrators could possibly have discovered about his subject, but whose presence allows Aldington to deliver himself of an incisive commentary and a set secular sermons which his characters are too narrowly drawn to present convincingly for themselves. Aldington is, in any case, more interested in general social and cultural ideas than in the detailed creation and interraction of his characters and the world they inhabit, and there are very few novels that survive the dismissal of that particular 'convention', however 'jazzy' they may be.

All the same, The 'Death of a Hero' is a fascinating and rewarding read. Often described as a 'war novel', the book is actually concerned with much wider issues. It is divided into three parts of more or less equal length and it is only the third of theses that deals directly with the War. On the other hand, that War, and the attitudes taken to it both at home, and on the front-line, are to be interpreted in the light of the analyses in the preceding two parts.

The first part presents the reader with specimens of the victorian middle-class generation born in the late 1860s or early 1870s - a pre-modern, narrow, materialist, and philistine petty-bourgeois society of which Aldington writes with withering contempt, seeing it as the social incarnation of cant, cowardice, and cruelty. The second part is set in the bohemia of pre-war London, and explores the social, sexual, and cultural experiments of the war generation - or at least, a tiny and priveleged part of it. The tone adopted here is equally excoriating, but the essence of the complaint has less to do with the social and cultural trappings so violently ripped apart in the preceding section, but more to do with the fact that Aldington finds the underlying human realities no more attractive than what previously concealed them. There is, instead, a seething, misanthropic - not to mention misogynistic - hatred, and a priveleging of the psycho-sexual ego that is highly reminiscent of D.H.Lawrence - a writer whom Aldington much admired - and about whom he wrote a biography amusinglyly entiled 'The Portrait of a Genius, But...'. The third part of the book, which is set chiefly in France between 1916 and 1918, is much the most powerful part of the book. Aldington's powers of description, and the terse drive of his prose are impressive, and his portrayal of an individual gradually being eroded by the unremitting strain of modern warfare against a background of complacent incomprehension and inconsequentiality at home is brilliantly done, and carries utter conviction.

What strikes one again and again about this book is how contemporary it is in feel. The author's anger, his impatience, and his curious vulnerability are peculiarly reminiscent of D.H.Lawrence. But, though less gifted than Lawrence as a writer, Aldington is completely without Lawrence's absurd psycho-sexual mysticism and sentimentality. Furthermore, his view of the society of middle class England before the Great War is much more interesting than Lawrence's egocentric individualism. Aldington would have snorted derisively at the upper middle-class myth of 'the golden summer's afternoon of pre-War England, and was to be much vilified for a biography of T.E.Lawrence in which he stripped the varnish from the legend which had been created around 'Lawrence of Arabia'.

Some of Aldington's observations and judgments are accute - as, for instance, where he writes (in 1929) that 'marriage is a primitive institution bound to succumb before the joint attack of contraceptives and the economic independence of women.' The analysis of feminism presented in the book suggests that Aldington thought that whereas victorian women had been complicit in their own subjection, the 'new women' of his own generation were simply driven by instinct towards selfish and self-gratifying forms of possessiveness without any higher or broader aim - an interesting view, which will no doubt cause some feminists to reply 'and why on earth not?'.

But it is interesting to reflect that Aldington, whose own intimate experience was complex and varied, should have seen men as the victims of women, and women as the victims of themselves.

In the conflicts between a hard-headed materialism and depth of aesthetic feeling; in his hatred for religion, for the nation, for the empire, for the old school, and for all elites - whether political, social or literary; in his contempt for can't; in his loathing for the middle-class; in his war-engendered respect for exclusively male, and unintellectual comradeship, and in his bitter misanthropy which frankly confesses to a contempt for a very large number of his fellow men and an inability to see any real point in their existence at all, one sees in Aldington the set of attitudes which made fascism a serious intellectual option for those who went through, and survived the blast-furnace of the Great War.

It is to be hoped that Penguin's opportunistic reissue of virtually every piece of English fiction dealing with the one of the few areas of English history still taught in schools may help to restore the reputation of this persistently unfashionable and neglected writer. In a generation which flattered itself on taking the anti-authoritarian view, his work was ignored because it sat as uneasily with the unexamined assumptions of left wing ideology as it did with the settled prejudices of conservative opinion - but it seems's to me that Aldington's view of things is fresher, more compelling and more convincing than the easy and convenient mythologies projected by the political establishment and that it gives the true victims of the war their own unique and not undignified voice. Perhaps his day, and the day of Henry Williamson, has finally come.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 22 June 2014
From the blurb and the cover photograph, you might think that this is a novel about the Western Front in the Great War. Well, the last part of the book is, but there are 200 pages to get through before the "hero" of the title even signs up. So unlike the "Goodbye to all that"s and "Middle parts of fortune"s, you do rather have to wade through a lot of backstory about George Winterbourne and his parents and grandparents before arriving at the front. Which is not to say that the description of Winterbourne's experiences and disintegration in the trenches isn't powerful, if incessantly bleak. Aldington was clearly left thinking, in the words of the poem at the end of the book, "how useless it all was." The omission of certain passages and words on the grounds of taste and the cleaning up of the language could surely have been rectified by now. Interesting to read once but I shan't be returning to this as I do to other Great War novels.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 13 July 2014
I was looking up something in the dictionary and came across this author's name. Better known as a poet, he wrote a novel about World War I as well as a controversial biography of Lawrence of Arabia. As, against all odds, there was a copy of one in the local library, I decided to try it, imagining it might be a little like Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End.

I'm all for healthy cynicism but this book takes the biscuit. In fact, it might actually take a whole Peek Freans factory as far as biscuits go. The author/narrator seems to despise almost everyone and casts his superior and judgmental eye on them. No one is immune from his contemptuous derision. Roman Catholics are described as `slimy', for instance.

The really objectionable aspect is the unremitting misogyny. Everyone might be a target for Aldington's scorn and disdain, but the majority of it is reserved for the female of the species. He characterises the hero's (George Winterbourne) two lovers, Elizabeth and Fanny, as caring more about how smart his uniform is than if he lives or dies.

He imagines that George's mother finds the news of his demise erotic and immediately tries to galvanise the latest in her long line of lovers into bed. Any grief she evinces is shown to be insincere. We are informed that nine times out of ten the woman seduces the man.

He constantly imputes base motives to his female characters, insinuating that they are slaves to their instincts and incapable of acting honourably. They are calculating schemers, plotting men's overthrow and domination, displaying `the admirable dissimulation which comes so naturally to women'.

Not like the men - `what they had saved was immensely important - manhood and comradeship, their essential integrity as men, their essential brotherhood as men'.

The writing about the trenches is better because at least the poor benighted mothers, wives and girlfriends don't feature as much, thus attracting less condemnation.

But it's still present. Even when he's just acknowledged that the soldiers are coarsened and overrun with lice, George `hated the thought of these men giving their lean, sinewy bodies to the miserable French whores'. No sympathy for the whores though.

I thought the introduction might put the book in its context and do something to justify its extreme sentiments but it only classifies it as antiwar. It is much more definitively anti-women and I think the sheer scale of this unbridled and vituperative assault on the fairer sex is why it is so little known.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 16 March 2013
I suppose there will be a huge 'WWI' industry next August (2014).
This is probably the best of the 'forgotten' novels of that war. Right up with 'Parade's End'. A few days before the end of the war, a man stands up and is mown down by a German machine gun in an otherwise quiet sector. What would lead a man to do this? What in this made him a 'hero? A fascinating exploration of duty and the 'ragtime' sexual revolution as it played out in the first world war. Aldington was a friend (and biographer) of DH lawrence, and editor of Ford Madox Ford, but reads better than either. I first read it years ago and bought it as a present. It hasn't lost its appeal.
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brilliant. glad to have it on my shelves.
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