TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 28 September 2012
Richard Aldington, friend of luminaries such as Ezra Pound, DH Lawrence and TS Eliot, but not quite of their stature, was an irascible writer of numerous novels, biographies, classic translations, and poetry. They are seldom read now and none appear to be in print, although `Death of a Hero' is to be reprinted by Penguin in 2013. It is generally regarded as his finest work, and a great war novel, although the book concerns other important issues. It is actually difficult to classify it as a novel. In his own words: "The excuse for a novel is that one can do any dammed thing one pleases, without being governed by method or convention."
It is story of the life of George Winterbourne, as told by an army friend after George is killed in WWI, but is interlaced with the trenchant personal views of the narrator, who is of course the voice of Aldington himself. The book is divided into three parts, formally labeled Part 1, 2 and 3, and of roughly equal length. But before these is a Prologue, where the narrator tells how he came to meet George and later to write the memoir of him, and the reaction to his death of people who knew him. The hard-hitting, critical style is a foretaste of the style of the rest of the book.
Part 1 describes the life of George's parents, and George's own life as a young man in a series of small English towns, again semi-autobiographical. The withering language leaves the reader in no doubt of Aldington's contempt for middle-class Victorian English society, which he regards as materialist, philistine, sanctimonious and cruel. Every few pages there is a forthright view expressed in a powerful sentence that made me stop reading and spend some time thinking. The whole adds up to Aldington's explanation of why young British soldiers were so badly prepared, both psychologically and culturally, for the shock of WWI.
In the second part, George, now a would-be artist and hack writer for small-circulation literary magazines, meets Elizabeth, also dabbling as an artist. Aldington scathingly describes the pretentious bohemian world they inhabit, where new art movements (`isms') are continually being invented and dropped. He also explores in detail the sexual experiments of this small selfish section of society through the lives of George, Elizabeth, and their friends, and exposes the shallowness of their beliefs. Thus George and Elizabeth are initially in favour of open marriage, or `wise promiscuity' as the author describes it, but hastily marry when Elizabeth (mistakenly) believes she is pregnant.
In the third part of the book, George joins the army as a private, and the action is mainly set in France between 1916 and 1918. This part is the most powerful of the book and is to be seen in the context of the preceding two parts, with harsh criticism of the British leadership for their ignorance, incompetence and lack of consideration of front line troops. Aldington charts George's day-to-day experiences at the front in language that is powerful and at times very moving. He describes how George's initial strength and enthusiasm inexorably disintegrates under the non-stop strain of warfare, against a background of almost disinterestedness at home. It is superbly done and totally convincing, as good as any description of war I have read. George's final moments are movingly told. Whether he intentionally committed suicide, or was killed like countless thousands of others, is irrelevant. His death was inevitable. He could no longer return to his former life having experienced what he has; he would rather die amongst his fellow soldiers.
The book is a superb indictment of the British society and political leadership that led the country to WWI and destroyed the hopes and expectations of so many of that period. It is written in a style unlike any I have read before, and continually makes you think about your own prejudices and actions.