Friday, 7 February 2014

'Under Fire' by Henri Barbusse - Literature of the First World War

This week, as promised, I'm writing about Henri Barbusse's Under Fire, a French novel about the experience of French soldiers at the front. This post is part of the "series" of Literature of the First World War, in which I am discussing a piece of literature or art, inspired by or created during the First World War up until the 28th of June, the anniversary of the assassination on Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for many marking the beginning of the First World War.


Henri Barbusse was half French, half British and born in 1873. Compared to the other authors discussed up to now, he was quite old when he signed up for the French army at the age of 41. Although he was injured often, he served for 15 months until he was placed into a clerical position. He published Under Fire (Le Feu in the original French) in 1916, just after the end of the First World War, in which he describes his experiences fighting. Similarly to the other works, it is very harsh and naturalistic and has been criticized for this but it is simultaneously recognized as one of the best French war novels. As one of the first, it also formed an inspiration for Remarque while writing All Quiet on the Western Front

Under Fire is written in a way very similar to a journal. Different sections are partitioned by lines as the unnamed protagonist describes his days in the War. By writing it as a diary, Barbusse perhaps hoped to bring his experiences closer to the reader and get away with the very brusque and harsh way in which he describes the War. Having been translated from French, my reading experience is of course a bit removed from the original one, but the translator left French expressions and words in the text which does make you feel as if you're surrounded by French soldiers. Similarly to Remarque's novel, there is mention of a lot of different soldiers which is slightly confusing at the beginning. But as the novel continues, the reader grows attached to them and the anonymous protagonist , which makes the constant threat of death all the more horrible. But where Remarque very much supported the sense of brotherhood that the War creates and the alienation of the soldiers from the normal world, Barbusse is mainly negative of the entire War. After his own experiences, he became pacifistic which is definitely noticeable in the novel.

One of the things I enjoyed in this novel from the get go is the way the protagonist describes the equality that seems to exist between the different soldiers. Although he still describes the rich and powerful as seeing themselves above them, he goes to great lengths to show how they are all one.
'Our races? We are of all races; we come from everywhere... Yes, we are truly and deeply different from each other. But we are alike all the same. In spite of this diversity of age, of country, of education, of position, of everything possible, in spite of the former gulfs that kept us apart, we are in the main alike. Under the same uncouth outlines we conceal and reveal the same ways and habits, the same simple nature of men who have reverted to the state primeval.'
The brutality of the War brings something animalistic up in these men that shows them that at their very nature, they are all the same despite the differences they have grown up seeing in each other. The First World War also signified the end of some of the major monarchies of Europe and thereby the decline of nobility. Having to fight next to each other must have encouraged a certain disintegration of the class-systems that they were used to. Realising there was no difference between them must only have made their return into society much harder than it already was.

I did not enjoy this novel as much as All Quiet on the Western Front, perhaps because I have been very busy, but I felt that the writing style in that novel was a lot more imaginative in the way it described the War, whereas Barbusse tried to bring the horror close to the reader by keeping it naturalistic. Therefore, I give this novel...
4 Universes. 

Next week I will be writing about Her Privates We by Frederic Manning.

1 comment:

  1. Wait a minute, you say: "He published Under Fire (Le Feu in the original French) in 1916, just after the end of the First World War". It was not after de end of the war, ¡It was published in the middle of the war that ended at 1918...!
    (I consider this novel is excellent)

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