The introduction to "Under Fire" tells us that the book was overwhelmingly well received at the time of publication and was read widely all over Europe. However, he also tells us that some critics rejected in on the grounds that it was unrealistic, and that Barbusse's account moved too far away from the reality of life in battle, and also featured a number of historical errors, and was overall, unconvincing.
The essential point to remember is, that "Under Fire" is fiction -- it is not war reportage or a literally factual account of the period.
Barbusse's work is being compared to Ernst Junger -- that is not accurate in any way. Junger's chilling yet beautifully written war diaries look at war as some kind of pagan Germanic rite, and he writes in a prose and narrative style that verges on the mystical. But also, Junger paradoxically views the carnage with an emphasis on 'chivalry' and 'gentlemanly conduct' , a prism on violence which is, admittedly, often difficult to comprehend to the modern reader. Also, Junger's work is fact -- Barbusse's book, it should be emphasised -- is fiction. "Under Fire" focuses on the drudgery of war, the banal boredom of waiting for days on end with nothing to do but eat rancid food,tend to the wounded,share wet tobacco, and drink dirty water in stinking, claustrophobic trenches.
Junger's book is written from the point of view, first and foremost, of aristocratic officers, whilst Barbusse's fiction is focused on foot soldiers and peasants. Junger's book focuses on bizarre, dreamlike, nightmarish and surreal aspects of war, expressed in a style which is highly cerebral and literary. Barbusse's book focuses on the stretcher bearers, the low ranking soldiers, who have to clean up the soldiers' ordure and waste.
I do not, by any means, wish to undervalue the footsoldiers' perspective on the war, or to judge it as 'less important' than Junger's officers -- That is clearly not the case.But, it is rather the case that Barbusse's account simply fails to hold the reader's attention in the same way that Junger captivates.
There are moments of brilliance in "Under Fire" -- Clouds are described as being like "wicked angels" and the sorry footsoldiers appear like "survivors from some monstrous shipwreck" -- but such moments of compelling, almost mystical description are not typical of Barbusse's style.
I respect Barbusse's place in the 'literary canon', and I respect his perspective on the war, so I will give it three stars. But I have to say, I did not enjoy the book and would not recommend it.
Overall, I was deeply disappointed by Barbusse's book.