Louis de Bernières bridges the gap between popular and literary fiction with his moving First World War-set family saga, finds Allan Massie
Louis de Bernières’ new novel has a surprising dedicatee: his grandmother’s first fiancé, killed on the Western Front in 1915. “If not for his death I would have had no life”. This is the sort of thought that must have come to many people, but it is nevertheless an unusual starting-point for a novel. It will, I suppose, have some readers wondering to what extent the book is based on the author’s own family history. Not of course that this matters. A novel’s origins are of more interest to the author’s biographer than to his readers.
The novel begins in Edwardian sunlight with a coronation party in “The Grampians”, Court Road, Eltham, the home of Mr and Mrs Hamilton McCosh, their four daughters, dog, and assorted servants. The guests are their neighbours: on one side, the Pendennises, an American family with three sons; on the other the Pitts, a widowed Frenchwoman and her two sons, Archie and Daniel.It is also the day on which Ash Pendennis and 12-year-old Rosie McCosh declare their intention of marrying each other some day when they are grown-up. Both will remain faithful to this intention and become formally engaged when Ash enlists in the Honourable Artillery Company and sets off for France.
The novel extends over more than 20 years. It’s a family saga, a war novel, and a study of the difficulty of coming to terms with the death of loved ones and the return to civilian life. There is comedy: the McCosh parents, admirable father, difficult and eccentric mother, are comic characters, as is their daughter Sophie who has a weird way with language. There is horror: the descriptions of the war, some given in Ash’s letters and diaries, some in Daniel Pitt’s experience as an ace pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, are vivid, grotesque, appalling. De Bernières spares the reader nothing. There is serious argument about religious faith; Rosie possesses it; an Army chaplain who served with Ash and whose young sister is killed in a Zeppelin raid, loses his. Like many of the bereaved he consults a spiritualist medium and attends séances. De Bernières has researched the period thoroughly and his version rings true. Better still, he has thoroughly imagined his huge number of characters.
In its amplitude and the variety of both material and tone, this is in many respects an old-fashioned novel. It may be said to hover, or, better perhaps, bridge the gap between literary and popular fiction. It’s a chronicle, with no particular shape to it. John Masefield once wrote a novel with the title ODTAA – One Damned Thing After Another, and that’s a fair description of this one. There are echoes of inter-war fiction, of, for instance, the first volumes of Compton Mackenzie’s masterpiece, The Four Winds of Love. Like Mackenzie, de Bernières pays no heed to theories of how a novel should be constructed; his narrative is shapeless. He is indifferent to the recommendation that the author’s point of view should be consistent. He turns to whatever device seems convenient. If it suits him, his characters write very long letters or make improbably long speeches. He has no time for the tyranny of the “show, don’t tell” school of creative writing. He shows when it pleases him and tells when it pleases him, and the novel is the better for his willingness to shift modes. In short it’s a novel in the inter-war bestseller vein of writers like Hugh Walpole, Francis Brett Young, Howard Spring and JB Priestley; and none the worse for being so.
Like them, de Bernières is happy to comment on his characters’ actions and behaviour. So, for instance, when Mrs McCosh goes during the war to Swan & Edgar to buy an air rifle, he observes that the shop-walker “was not unduly surprised because there has always been a certain type of Englishwoman who is prepared to brain a burglar with a poker or take potshots at an invader with an airgun, and in wartime the number of them greatly increases.” Nor is the reader likely to be surprised when Mrs McCosh fires at a Zeppelin, doing so even though she knows it is out of range, because this was the best she could so to appease her anger and indignation.
Not everything comes off. Rosie, who is, I suppose, the heroine, never quite comes to convincing life, and I wonder if this is because she was based on a real-life character – the author’s grandmother indeed. On the other hand the exigencies of the narrative require her to behave in ways that readers – though not most of the characters in the novel – may find tiresome. On the other hand it may be because de Bernières has found it as difficult as so many novelists have to make a virtuous woman convincing. Her grief for her dead fiancé is intense; the author invites us to consider whether it becomes self-indulgent.
Almost any long novel is bound to have passages which don’t quite work, others which give the impression of having been carelessly written. This one is no exception. Nevertheless it is on the whole immensely enjoyable, rich in humour and incident, galloping along, inventive, often moving and almost always sympathetic. It’s a book in which readers will happily immerse themselves, and one which will surely and deservedly be a bestseller.
Louis de Bernières is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 16 August, www.edbookfest.co.uk