Friday, 2 October 2015

Book Review: The Happy Foreigner by Enid Bagnold scene of war is a scaring and depressing place. Often no house remains intact, no field safely arable and it seems impossible that the old hustle and bustle of life can ever return. These days we see it in Syria and other regions less present in the media, but not so long ago great parts of Europe were in ruins. Certain areas of France and Belgium were destroyed twice within less than half a century! Today many of the battlefields – what a harmless sounding word compared to German “Schlachtfeld” that has slaughter in it! – are well-kept places of remembrance, while they were nothing but craters and rubble right after World War I and II. The English novel The Happy Foreigner by Enid Bagnold evokes the atmosphere of winter 1918/19, the first of peace after four years of carnage, through the eyes of a young woman driver in the service of the French army.

Enid Algerine Bagnold was born in Rochester, Kent, U.K., in October 1889. After a carefree early childhood in Jamaica she attended private schools in England, France and Germany. During World War I she joined the British women’s services working first as a nurse and later as a driver in France. The experience inspired her to write her first two – successful, but controversial – books, namely the war memoir A Diary Without Dates (1917) and the semi-autobiographical novella The Happy Foreigner (1920). After her marriage to Sir Roderick Jones in 1920 she continued to write under her maiden name focusing increasingly on children’s books, short stories and plays, though. Best known among her works are the novels Serena Blandish (1924), The Squire (1938; also published as The Door of Life) and The Loved and Envied (1951), her children’s novel National Velvet (1935) and the play The Chalk Garden (1955). In 1969 the author published her Autobiography. Enid Bagnold, now Lady Enid Jones, died in London, U.K., in March 1981.

In November 1918 The Happy Foreigner enters the Gare de l’Est to catch a train. She is a young Englishwoman called Fanny heading for her first station of duty as a volunteer driver for the French army and she hasn’t yet heard that the war is over. Only when a boy gives her a bunch of violets and another tries to stop her, she learns the news. However, she continues on her way. In Bar-le-Duc she joins her colleagues at the garage where the women drivers are accommodated separated from the men in a makeshift hut on the brink of the river Meuse.
“A narrow corridor ran down the centre of it, and on either hand were four square cells divided one from the other by grey paper stretched upon laths of wood – making eight in all. At one end was a small hall filled with mackintoshes. At the other a sitting-room.”
Fanny quickly adjusts to the rough living conditions that don’t allow for real privacy or full stomachs as well as to the routine of driving her clients wherever they have business. She makes the best of it and observes her surroundings, the devastated and lifeless country, impoverished and hungry people, American and French soldiers.
“The Americans treat me as if I were an amusing child. The French, no matter how peculiar their advances, always, always as a woman.”
Some months later the women drivers are ordered to the city of Metz at the Lorraine where Maréchal Pétain does everything in his power to make people forget war and penury. One night after work, Fanny meets Julien Châtel, the Commandant's aide, at a dance and they fall in love. Their innocent romance continues even after the entire Grand Quartier is moved to the outskirts of Paris, to Précy-sur-Oise and Chentilly respectively, but before soon Julien is demobilised and Fanny ordered to Charleville in the Ardennes…

All things considered, there doesn’t happen much in The Happy Foreigner because the protagonist’s life is one of routine service as a driver in the French army – after World War I, when all the blood-dripping and nerve-shattering action is already over. Nonetheless, the author behind the third-person narrator succeeded in telling Fanny’s insignificant adventures in a way that gives a very precise as well as haunting picture of the poor living conditions that four years of war produced in France. There can be no doubt that most of it was inspired by what Enid Bagnold saw with her own eyes during her time as a volunteer in the French army. Evoking a landscape of swollen rivers and muddy ground in a particularly rainy winter, she still emphasised the general atmosphere of misery, poverty and solitude that reigned in the largely devastated region. When weeks pass and small signs of revival or reconstruction begin to multiply everywhere, the author not only links the change with approaching spring but also skilfully mirrors it in the budding romance between Fanny and Julien. The language of the novel is simple, elegant and in general very poetic too which makes it a particularly pleasurable read on the whole. My personal favourite are the two bath scenes (the prologue and the end of Chapter III) where the tub is compared both to a cradle and a coffin.

Although the setting of The Happy Foreigner by Enid Bagnold in a badly war-damaged stretch of France and Belgium doesn’t forebode a cheerful or even amusing read, I enjoyed it very much. After all, it’s not a war novel in the strict sense, but one dealing with the aftermaths of the great slaughter of 1914-18 as seen through the eyes of an emotionally detached observer – the protagonist. The impact it leaves after reading is nonetheless powerful and I know few books that give such an authentic idea of a post-war moonscape as this one! For me this is a sufficiently good reason not just to bring to your attention this forgotten classic, but also to recommend it.


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This review is a contribution
to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015,
namely to the category Forgotten Classic.

»»» see also my post with the complete reading list for the challenge. &

to Valentina's

To know more about this challenge and my reviews for it

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