Sunday, May 27, 2012

Paul Fussell, ex-soldier, literary Scholar & critic, dies at 88

Out of the mass experience of pointless death, a new way of speaking and writing, devoid of euphemism, arose, a plain style we associate with Hemingway.. The Great War chronicles the loss of the old rhetoric, of high pieties, of sacrifice and roseate dawns, in favor of “blood, terror, agony, madness, shit, cruelty, murder, sell-out, pain and hoax,” as Fussell lists it at one point; the sound of “ominous gunfire heard across water.” Fussell himself fought in World War II, and himself wrote in a candid style. “I am saying,” he concludes one chapter.. as if replying to a margin note from a junior editor, “that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.”

Paul Fussell, the wide-ranging, stingingly opinionated literary scholar and cultural critic whose admiration for Samuel Johnson, Kingsley Amis and the Boy Scout Handbook and his withering scorn for the romanticization of war, the predominance of television and much of American society were dispensed in more than 20 books, died on Wednesday in Medford, Ore. He was 88.

From the 1950s into 1970s, Mr. Fussell followed a conventional academic path, teaching and writing on literary topics, specializing in 18th-century British poetry and prose. But his career changed in 1975, when he published The Great War and Modern Memorya monumental study of World War I and how its horrors fostered a disillusioned modernist sensibility. “The Great War,” a work that drew on Mr. Fussell’s own bloody experience as an infantryman during World War II, won both the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and the National Book Award for Arts and Letters.  Fussell’s influence was huge, Vincent B. Sherry wrote in “The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War.” “The book’s ambition and popularity move interpretation of the war from a relatively minor literary and historical specialization to a much more widespread cultural concern. His claims for the meaning of the war are profound and far-reaching; indeed, some have found them hyperbolic. Yet, whether in spite of or because of the enormity of his assertions, Fussell has set the agenda for most of the criticism that has followed him.”

The lavish praise and commercial success of “The Great War” transformed Mr. Fussell into a public intellectual, or perhaps more accurately a public curmudgeon; he crabbed, for instance, about Graham Greene’s “inability to master English syntax.” Mr. Fussell brought an erudition, a gift for readable prose, a willingness to offend and, as many critics noted, a whiff of snobbery to subjects like class, clothing, the dumbing down of American culture and the literature of travel...

Also see :  Book Of A Lifetime: The Great War and Modern Memory, By Paul Fussell
"This book is about the British experience of the Western front," he writes, "and some of the literary means by which it has been remembered... I have tried to understand something of the simultaneous and reciprocal process by which life feeds materials to literature while literature returns the favour by conferring forms on life. And I have been concerned with something more: the way the dynamics and iconography of the Great War have proved crucial political, rhetorical and artistic determinants on subsequent life. At the same time as the war was relying on inherited myth, it was generating new myth"... Fussell observes humanity observing, the hows and to-what-ends of the work of Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, David Jones, Rosenberg and Owen. It is a history book; a personal introduction to the minds and methods of these wonderful writers; criticism; a threnody. He gives an account, for example, at once merciless and tender, of the great clichés of the Great War, from the obvious (poppies, birdsong over the ruined battlefield) to the ones you hadn't even quite clocked as cliches (young men swimmming in rivers, sunset blazing a gilded reflection from flooded shellholes, letters). With astonishing perspicacity, he identifies them, analyses them and explains why we love them; why they have proved so rich and so powerful for so long.

The book was published in 1975; every sentence remains strong, valid and beautifully put: "Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected... Its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends... Eight million people were destroyed because two people, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, were shot... But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing meliorist myth... It reversed the idea of Progress." So what precisely did I learn from this book? That war, this one especially, of its nature destroys that which it's trying (at best) or claiming, or purporting, or pretending (all too often), to protect. At national level this is important, today as then. At the level of the individual, it is shattering.

And: Man of War: How combat changed Paul Fussell, and how Fussell changed American letters Fussell iterates the thesis at length, and the result is a unique kind of masterpiece —a plausible argument by an ex-warrior in favor of literature as the most appropriate measure of the immense shock of not only war, but all social change. The Modern Library has rightly named The Great War to its list of 100 Best Nonfiction Books..

And this too: On Paul Fussell
To write The Great War, Fussell read every British war memoir of note and then churned through the archives of the Imperial War Museum, adding the voices of scores of Tommies to those of the famous war writers, among whom Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden loom the largest. The book traffics in higher literary criticism but is also crammed full of the demotic myths and rituals of the “Troglodyte World” of the trenches, so you catch the chill of the dawn, and stand-to and hear the tales of the corpse-eating rats from both poets and postcard writers. You learn a lot about how soldiers lived and also about how shockingly unexpected their experience was, not only in its unheroic misery but also in the amount of dissimulation, stupidity, and sheer incompetence they encountered. Fussell’s story of the Great War is of industrialized horror and bureaucratic mendaciousness rendering vocabularies and imaginations inadequate, and permanently scathed. 

Paul Fussell, the critic who fought the cant of military sacrifice