I have never read a book quite like this before, which surprises me: I have read some stream-of-conciousness novels in the past, and generally found them confusing and opaque (COUGH-Virginia Woolf-COUGH). However, what impressed me here was its clarity, even in the midst of highly poetic language, and overall the relentless, painful honesty. This is the quality, which, for me, raises the novel to its greatest heights: its ability to accurately read the passing thoughts and impressions of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. I laughed with recognition more than once: how nature can seem indifferent and heartless one minute, and maternal and lovely the next, depending on a passing emotion. All these changes are recorded by the author without comment, judgement or passion.
The other recognition came in its depiction of the relationships between men, and the motivations of men. How men can bicker and brawl, be always on the lookout for weaknesses to exploit even in close friends, but, when the chips are down, how they are capable of great self-sacrifice. Uncomfortably, this book would remind the reader that these self-sacrifices are not often made for the purest of ideological motives: the hero is driven to heroism because he overhears his regiment being labelled 'mule-drivers'.
The novel is ostensibly about war, but like all great works of art, it is really about being a human being, or at least a male human being. Self-justifying and self-decieving, true, but only because to acknowledge the absolute truth of the situation would be too much for anyone to bear. We need to create fictions about our motives, and about out enemies, because otherwise
the total futility of almost any act would be overwhelming. But if we keep throwing those carrots up in front of our own noses, why, we can charge the enemy with nothing but a flag.
Next: What Men Live By and Other Tales by Leo Tolstoy