Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot The poet Siegfried Sassoon made the decision to write his memoirs as fiction, but as I read this book, it became readily apparent that whatever was fictionalized was a marginal part compared to the pages devoted to preserving his memories of England before the hell of world war changed things forever. George Sherston, AKA Siegfried Sassoon, is a young man of modest means. The first two thirds of this book is devoted to fox-hunting, horse racing, cricket matches, reading, gazing longingly at young men he admired, and enjoying what would turn out to be the last few years of a naivety that England would never be able to reclaim. There are reviewers/readers who find this section of the book tedious because they are unable to associate themselves with fox-hunting or cricket or a seemingly aimless life, but knowing what awaits Sassoon over the very next horizon certainly gives me perspective on why he wants to capture his memories of this time in print. His sensitivity, that would later plague him in war but make him an excellent poet, is also apparent by an utterance that he makes during his first fox hunt. Sassoon/Sherston is just beginning to get a glimmering of what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Of course, when war breaks out, George Sherston does his duty, as do most young men of English descent. The writing is mostly rather light for Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. I have a feeling the tone will change for the second book.
It is full of very beautiful Hardyesque descriptions of the English countryside: To watch the day breaking from purple to dazzling gold while we trotted up a deep-rutted lane; to inhale the early freshness when we were on the sheep-cropped uplands; to stare back at the low country with its cock-crowing farms and mist-coiled waterways; thus to be riding out with a sense of spacious discovery was it not something stolen from the lie-a-bed world and the luckless city workers even though it ended in nothing more than the killing of a leash of fox-cubs? I knew Sassoon as a war poet, of course, but this book showed me a completely new side to him dry, witty, full of a kind of naïve and faux-pompous enthusiasm that allows for some admirable characterisations of hens (the providers of that universally respected object, the egg), for instance, or a local churchwarden (his impressive demeanour led us to suppose that, if he was not yet on hat-raising terms with the Almighty, he at any moment expected to be). It's consequently quite horrific to head off to the trenches with such a jovial narrator after endless chapters of cheerful rural pranks like seeing Bertie Wooster given a rifle and thrown in a dug-out. But he clearly wants to root their power in this long, dreamy remembrance of pre-war country life, so that we all understand what was lost.
4.5 stars This is the first of Siegfried Sassoons trilogy relating to the First World War; part of my reading for the anniversary this year. I have also read the criticisms of Sassoons work being anti-modernist and rather maudlin. Graves and Sassoon did fight and saw the chaos of war and the shattering of lives and they both went off on other tangents rather than embracing modernism. You cannot avoid the fox hunting in this novel, however there appears again to be ambivalence from Sassoon. Sassoon can also be self-critical; The mental condition of a young man who asks nothing more of life than twelve hundred a year and four days a week with the Packlestone is perhaps not easy to defend Not the attitude of someone longing for a lost past. Sherston (and Sassoons) entry into the war was delayed by a riding accident. It will be interesting to see how Sassoon handles this journey in the second novel. This is an interesting novel, not the simple evocation of a lost past that I was expecting; there is much more nuance and Sassoon was clearly expressing a good deal of ambivalence (sitting on the fence if I am being cynical).
In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
3 3.5 stars On the one hand Siegfried Sassoons _The Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man_ (the first volume in a trilogy)can be seen as a paen to the idyllic way of life of a country gentleman before the war to end all wars destroyed any pretence to concepts of chivalry and gallant action. George Sherston (a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Sassoon) is the hero of our tale, a young upper-middle class/lower-aristocratic orphan being raised by his well-meaning and generally absent aunt in the idyllic English countryside. Young Sherston also seems to take quite some time to grow into himself, and his longstanding feelings of being a virtual outsider in his own society, exiled to live in the far-flung environs of his aunts estate while the rest of the fashionable world seems to mostly pass him by, also allows him to be a fairly sympathetic narrative voice for readers who are also looking in on his world from the outside. The two soon grow quite close, aiding each other in their attempts to ensure they come up to the requirements of a model huntsman (which really in their case means horseman since their primary concern is having a good piece of horseflesh with which to jump over fences and race across the countryside) and take part in the best outings of the season. The only other significant character in these memoirs (aside from genial old Aunt Evelyn who remains mostly a passive and amiable figure in the background) is the enigmatic Denis Milden, a young fox hunter hero-worshipped by Sherston in his younger days who eventually reappears as a Master of the Hunt whose friendship and approval George prizes above almost all else. I have to admit that there isnt exactly a lot of high octane action, but Sassoon keeps things moving as each chapter highlights various events of signal importance to young Sherstons growth as both a horseman and a man, from his initial successful cricket matches and his time spent with various hunting groups, to his purchase of his first excellent piece of horseflesh and eventual success at the all-important point-to-point races. The latter segments are likely where most readers main interest will lie (as well as in the next volume of the trilogy that makes up the memoirs of George Sherstons experiences as an Infantry officer at the front) in order to get some insight into how a relatively feckless young man could grow into a soldier and leader in one of the most crushing episodes of the modern era. Still, he has to experience the hardships of army life and quietly, almost without comment in the memoirs, he experiences the deaths of his best friend Stephen Colwood and mentor Tom Dixon (the latter having joined up even though he was nearing fifty). Not a feeling we are likely to find surprising, or all that blameworthy given his circumstances, but even then Sherston is conflicted and we are left with a final sight of the young officer standing watch across no-mans land as a bird sings to the sunrise on Easter morning: Standing in that dismal ditch, I could find no consolation in the thought that Christ was risen.
Possessed of an inherited income that allowed him to avoid work, Sherston spends his winters fox hunting and his summers playing cricket, and very little else. Sassoon is an excellent writer and in his hands a village cricket match or a local point-to-point race are made to seem like events of high tension and drama. Probably there are quite a few people who will be put off reading this book by its title, but the author does not actually describe the death of any fox, and his motivation for hunting seems to be the companionship of like minded people and the opportunity for a good gallop around the countryside. Knowing something about horses probably also adds to the enjoyment of reading this book.
An early love of Sassoon's poetry (trench warfare poetry is as good for gothic teenage tastes as Sylvia Plath) led me to finally read this book, the first in the Sherston trilogy, a fictionalised trio of biographies written by Sassoon between the two world wars. Sherston is not Jewish either - something which mattered a great deal in England, and made Sherston's sense of being an impostor, not quite up to the task of being what he was expected to become, ring a little false. By excising his Jewishness (he was not religious, his father having been rejected by his very correct anglo-indian family for marrying a christian for love) Sassoon removes the most obvious barrier to Sherston's social mobility and makes him seem reticent in a manner which rings false to his personality.
Sassoon, and so many others and so much more, went over the cliff in World War One. It is the first of the three books known as the Sherston trilogy. I am scraping the caked mud off my wire-torn puttees with a rusty entrenching tool. The sound of the shell is like water trickling into a can. One of our shrapnel shells, whizzing over to the enemy lines, bursts with a hollow crash. Whether it has or whether it hasn't, I continue to scrape my puttees, and the weasel goes about his business."
However a change was coming and the catalyst was the slaughterhouse now known as WW1, although at the time it was known as the 'Great War' of 'The War to end all Wars.' In essence, the privileged life narrated in the first part of this book is thrown into stark relief as the horrors of life in the trenches is described in equally vivid detail.
His Anglican mother and Jewish father separated when he was five. In November Sassoon received word that his brother Hamo had died at Gallipoli. It was here that he met Robert Graves, described in his diary as a young poet in Third Battalion and very much disliked. After time on leave, on the 18th of May, 1916 he received word that David Thomas had died of a bullet to the throat. Unfortunately, Siegfried did nothing to consolidate the trench; he simply sat down and read a book, later returning to a berating from Graves. It was in 1917, convalescing in 'Blighty' from a wound, that he decided to make a stand against the war. In 1918 he briefly returned to active service, in Palestine and then France again, but after being wounded by friendly fire he ended the war convalescing.