Friday, 7 July 2017

Book Review: To Arms! by Marcelle Tinayre is a terrible curse, but a man-made one that its advocates and profiteers always tried to sell as necessary to protect or restore the country’s safety, strength, honour, identity, or whatever else society sees at risk. More than once wars spread to other countries because of alliances made in times of peace. World War One is only one of the most notorious examples. When Emperor Francis Joseph I. of Austria-Hungary declared war to Serbia on 28 July 1914 it was the beginning of a chain reaction turning huge parts of Europe (and the world) into ghastly battlefields for over four years. As early as in summer 1915, the novel To Arms! by Marcelle Tinayre thematised the anxiety that a dissimilar group of Parisians lived in the last hours before France was drawn into the war and first soldiers left their families to move into their barracks.

Marcelle Tinayre was born Marguerite Suzanne Marcelle Chasteau in Tulle, Corrèze, France, in October 1870 and married painter and engraver Julien Tinayre in 1889. Five years later, in 1894, she brought out her first novel L’Oiseau d’orage (The Storm Bird) and a considerable number of others followed until 1940, many of them highly successful and translated into different languages. The most notable among her novels are The House of Sin (La Maison du péché: 1902), La Rebelle (1905; The Rebel), The Shadow of Love (L’Ombre de l’amour: 1909), Madeleine at Her Mirror (Madeleine au miroir: 1912), To Arms! (La Veillée des armes: 1915; previously translated into English for the UK market as Sacrifice), Madame de Pompadour (1924), and Fille des pierres (1925; Daughter of Stones). After World War Two the prolific author, who had taken sides for the Nazi-friendly Vichy government of Philippe Pétain, and her work fell into oblivion. Marcelle Tinayre died in Grosrouvre, Yvelines, France, in August 1948.

It’s the last day of July 1914 and everybody in Paris fears that men will be called To Arms! any time because if Germany declares war to Russia, France will be drawn into it. Life in the little street on the right bank of the Seine still seems to follow its usual rhythm. People go to work and shops open like every morning, but the atmosphere has changed since Austria-Hungary is at war. Many started withdrawing their savings from the banks and hoarding provisions, while Madame Anselme in her little shop stocked with newspapers, magazines, music books and dime novels is calm because she trusts the judgement of her son who is about to qualify as a high school teacher. In the course of the day she discusses the matter with her clients and most of them, including the well-educated and well-informed, believe that Germany won’t risk her own ruin in a gory war. At the same time, families are returning prematurely from their summer holidays with news and rumours that are all but reassuring. The day passes and another begins. The uncertainty makes people feel increasingly alarmed. Simone Davesnes is worried too because she knows that as a reservist her husband François will be among the first to take up arms and voluntarily at that for being a fervent patriot like most French and in addition a soldier at heart. The only downside for François is that he’ll have to leave his much-loved wife alone in Paris knowing that she’ll fear for his life and suffer. Others can’t wait to go to war. The brothers Betrand and Lucien de Gardave, for instance, but also Jean Reynaud who is a childhood friend of François and the husband of Simone’s cousin Nicolette is eager to fight. Then posters announce general mobilisation…

In her novel To Arms! the author dwells less on the events of the forty-eight hours from the morning of 31 July to the morning of 2 August 1914, when the first throng of drafted soldiers left Paris for their barracks, than she skilfully evokes the atmosphere in the city during this short though decisive period between peace and war. Finished less than a year after the outbreak of World War One and before its unprecedented savagery shattered the initial euphoria, the fictitious story gives an authentic idea of the great anxiety as well as of the courage and patriotism that Parisians felt in view of the looming war and that the author herself witnessed. The focus of the third-person narrative is on humble people in an average Parisian neighbourhood, notably on the women who all anticipate the misery and suffering to come. Its protagonist is their community rather than the individuals forming it, a fact that reminded me a bit of The Hive by Spanish Nobel laureate Camilo José Cela (»»» read my review) written decades later. The author’s language is precise and matter-of-fact, almost clinical like a sociological study, and at the same time beautiful in its simplicity.

It goes without saying that To Arms! by Marcelle Tinayre isn’t a particularly entertaining novel given that it deals with the dawn of armed conflict and that a hundred years later we know which horrors this particular war had in store not just for the millions of soldiers, but also for the non-combatant population. Many books – fiction and non-fiction – have been written about World War One, only few non-propagandist ones while it still raged, though. Although patriotism and courage play an important role in Marcelle Tinayre’s novel, she refrained from making her characters indulge in romantic panegyrics on war and heroism or in passionate tirades against the enemy, first of all, the hated Germans. Therefore, its great merit is to show how people really felt about the war at the time and to defy the official picture of unanimous enthusiasm. And as the rare “snapshot” of history that it is, it clearly deserves my recommendation.

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  1. Most of the fiction concerning WWI and WWII that I have read has been anti-war.

    1. This one observes (almost) without taking sides. That the author couldn't escape the effects of pro-war propaganda of her time, is quite natural, and yet, her picture isn't of a people full of enthusism and belief in a quick victory. There are many critical overtones... and the author still managed to convince her publisher to bring the book out in 1915.


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