There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A great Great War novel: The General by C.S. Forester (1936)

The General (1936) by C.S. Forester is a thrilling book about a subject misunderstood and dismissed in the period of Blackadder Goes Forth and the fiction of Michael Morpurgo.  The subject? Army staff work and the pulling together of diverse and often conflicting elements into that tool of tools for the bourgeoisie: an army.

Forester's General, Bertie Curzon, begins by getting blooded in the Boer War, rises in the cavalry, and rises even more quickly   when the Great War begins. The fact that Curzon and his type could not organize victory is seen by Forester not as a result of their stupidity or hide-bound reactionary conservatism.  They are simply men educated in a superseded tradition, struggling to adapt in new circumstances.

Forester explains it nicely here:

….In some ways it was like the debate of a group of savages as to how to extract a screw from a piece of wood. Accustomed only to nails, they had made one effort to pull out the screw by main force, and now that it had failed they were devising methods of applying more force still, of obtaining more efficient pincers, of using levers and fulcrums so that more men could bring their strength to bear. They could hardly be blamed for not guessing that by rotating the screw it would come out after the exertion of far less effort; it would be a notion so different from anything they had ever encountered that they would laugh at the man who suggested it.

My favorite part of the book, showing General Curzon at his best (or worst) deals with his "firing" of a gossipy brother-in-law from his staff, and the outrage this creates among his titled in-laws.

.... That same day a report went into the War Office saying that Major-General Curzon much regretted being under the necessity of informing the Director-General of Staff Personnel that Lieutenant Horatio Winter-Willoughby had been found unsuitable for work on the Staff, and of requesting that he be ordered to return to his unit. There was a wail of despair from Horatio when the news reached him – a wail expressed in indignant letters to London, which brought down the Duchess of Bude and Lady Constance Winter-Willoughby, simply seething with indignation.

The Duchess was angry largely because this upstart son-in-law of hers was betraying the family which had condescended to admit him into its circle. What was the good of having a general in the family if he did not find places on the staff for the nephews? And the suggestion that a Winter-Willoughby was not up to his work was perfectly preposterous – more preposterous still, because the Duchess could never imagine that it mattered a rap which man did which work as long as she had a finger in the pie. There was the question of the succession of the title too. If Horatio was sent back into the Guards as a result of this ridiculous notion of Curzon's it was possible that he might be killed – not likely, of course, because Winter-Willoughbys were not killed, but possible – and that would make the continued existence of the title almost precarious.

'So you see,' said the Duchess, putting down her teacup, 'you simply can't go on with this wicked idea. You must write to the War Office at once – or it would be better to telephone to them perhaps – and tell them that you have made a mistake and you want Horatio to stay here with you.'

Curzon would have found it difficult to have answered politely if he had cast about for words with which to tell his mother-in-law that he was not going to do what she said. But as it was he did not stop to try to be polite. He was not going to have the efficiency of his Division interfered with by anyone not in authority, least of all a woman.

'I'm not going to do anything of the sort,' he said briefly.

'Bertie!' said the Duchess, scandalized.

'No,' said Curzon. 'This isn't the first time I've had to find fault with Horatio. I'm sorry, he's no good, but I can't have him on my Staff. I hope he will find regimental duty more – more congenial.'

'Do you mean,' said the Duchess, 'that you're not going to do what I ask – what the Family ask you to do?'

'I'm not going to keep him as my A.D.C.,' said Curzon sturdily.

'I think,' said Lady Constance, 'that is perfectly horrible of you.'

Lady Constance happened to be more moved by anxiety for her son than by Curzon's blasphemous denial of the family.

'I'm sorry,' said Curzon, 'but I can't help it. I have the Division to think about.'

'Division fiddlesticks,' said the Duchess, which made Curzon exceedingly angry. Lady Constance saw the look in his eye, and did her best to soothe him.

'Perhaps Horatio was a little indiscreet,' she said, 'but he's only young. I think he will have learned his lesson after this. Don't you think you might give him another chance?'

Lady Constance made play with all her beauty and all her elegance as she spoke. Curzon would certainly have wavered if it had not been the concern of the Division. He was suddenly able to visualize with appalling clarity Horatio, lazy, casual, and unpunctual, confronted suddenly with a crisis like any one of the fifty which had occurred during the eleven days at Ypres. If the existence of the Division should at any time depend on Horatio, which was perfectly possible, the Division would cease to exist. It was unthinkable that Horatio should continue in a position of potential responsibility.

'No,' said Curzon. 'I can't have him.'

Lady Constance and the Duchess looked at each other and with one accord they turned to Emily, who had been sitting mute beside the tea things.

'Emily,' said Lady Constance. 'Can't you persuade him?'

'Horatio is your first cousin,' said the Duchess. 'He's a future Duke of Bude.'

Emily looked in distress, first at her mother and her aunt, and then at her husband in his khaki and red tabs beside the fire. Anyone – even a woman only three weeks married to him – could see by his stiff attitude that the matter was very near to his heart, that his mind was made up, and that his temper was growing short. In the last two months the family had declined in importance in her eyes; it was her husband who mattered. Yet it was frightening that they should be debating a matter on which Horatio's very life might depend – it was that thought which distressed her more than the need to oppose her mother.

'Don't ask me,' she said. 'I can't interfere with the Division. I don't think you ought to ask me.'

The Duchess snapped her handbag shut with a vicious click and rose to her feet.

'It appears to me,' she said, 'as if we were unwelcome even in my daughter's house.'

She rose superbly to her feet, carrying Lady Constance along with her by sheer force of personality.

'I can see no profit,' she went on, 'in continuing this subject. Perhaps, Bertie, you will be good enough to send and have my car brought round?'

Curzon tugged at the bell-rope and gave the order to the parlourmaid; it is just possible that the Duchess had not expected to be taken quite so readily at her word. At any rate, Lady Constance made a last appeal.

'I don't want to have to part in anger like this,' she said. 'Can't something be arranged, Emily – Bertie?'

'Something will doubtless be arranged,' said the Duchess, with a venomous glance at her daughter and son-in-law. 'Please do not be too distressed, Constance.'

Curzon and Emily walked out to the door with them, but the Duchess so far forgot her good manners as to climb into the car without saying good-bye. Enough had happened that afternoon to make her angry; that a Winter-Willoughby should be denied something apparently desirable, and that a Duchess of Bude should be forced to plead with an upstart little General and then be refused was a state of affairs calculated to make her perfectly furious.

The sequel followed promptly, materializing in the arrival of the Duke the next day, preceded by a telegram. Curzon talked with him alone, at his special request, Emily withdrawing after receiving his fatherly greetings. They sat one each side of the fire and pulled at their cigars in silence for several minutes until the Duke began on the inevitable subject.

'You've made my wife a bit annoyed over this business of young Horatio, Curzon, you know,' said the Duke. 'As a matter of fact I've never seen her so angry before in my life.'

The tone of the Duke's voice suggested that he had frequently seen her fairly angry.

'I'm sorry,' said Curzon.

'Trouble is, with women,' went on the Duke, 'they never know when to stop. And they don't draw any distinctions between a man's private life and his official one – they don't render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, you know. My wife's determined to put the screw on you somehow or other – you know what women are like. You can guess what she made me do last night – first shot in the campaign, so to speak?'

'No,' said Curzon.

'She made me sit down there and then, with dinner half an hour late already, and write an order to Coutts'. Dash it all, you can guess what that was about, can't you?'

'I suppose so,' said Curzon.

'It was to countermand my previous order to pay one-seventy a month into your account. Women never know what's good form, and what isn't.'

Curzon said nothing. The prospect of losing the Duke's two thousand a year was disturbing; it would mean altering the whole scale of his domestic arrangements, but it did absolutely nothing towards making him incline again in the direction of retaining Horatio's services.

'I suppose,' said the Duke nervously, 'there isn't any chance of your changing your mind about Horatio?'

'Not the least,' snapped Curzon. 'And I don't think we had better discuss the subject.'

'Quite right,' said the Duke. 'I was sure you would say that. Dam' good thing you didn't kick me out of the house the minute I said what I did. Of course, I wrote another order to Coutts' this morning, saying that they were to continue paying that one-seventy. But I'd rather you didn't let the Duchess know all the same.'

'Thank you,' said Curzon.

'Now,' said the Duke, with enormous relief, 'is there any way out of this mess? Can you think of any job Horatio could do?'

'He might make a good regimental officer,' said Curzon. Most of the regimental officers he had known had not been much more distinguished for capacity than Horatio. The Duke nodded.

'I suppose so,' he said. 'There aren't many brains in us Winters, when all is said and done. Fact is, I don't think we'd be very important people if the first Winter hadn't married William of Orange's lady friend. But it's not much good telling the Duchess that. I've got to do something about it.'

The Duke looked quite pathetic.

'There are some staff positions,' said Curzon, 'where he couldn't do much harm.'

Curzon was quite incapable of expressing that awkward truth any less awkwardly.

'M'm,' said the Duke. 'And none of them in your gift, I suppose?'


'It's awkward,' said the Duke. 'But I'll have to see what I can do up in town. I suppose you know that I'll be in office again soon?'

'No,' said Curzon. Despite the revelations of the last few weeks he was still abysmally ignorant of the behind-the-scenes moves in politics.

'Yes,' said the Duke. 'I don't think it matters if I tell you. The Radicals won't be able to keep us out much longer. Then I may be able to do a bit more for Horatio and satisfy the Duchess. There's a good many points I want your advice about, too. What's this man Mackenzie like? Any good?'

'First rate,' said Curzon without hesitation. Had not Mackenzie been instrumental in promoting him to Major-General, in giving him the Ninety-first Division, and in supplying that Division with material far beyond its quota? Quite apart from that, it would have needed a very serious deficiency indeed to induce Curzon not to give the simple loyalty which he in turn expected from his subordinates….

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