Young blood: an English sergeant rests at a memorial to the Italian soldiers of World War I, Sicily, 1943
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Lambs to the slaughter: In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds

An ambitious and wide-ranging novel about allied soldiers in Sicily during the Second World War.

In the Wolf's Mouth
Adam Foulds
Jonathan Cape, 323pp, £16.99

Adam Foulds’s last novel was the Booker-shortlisted The Quickening Maze (2009), a beautifully imagined story based on a real episode in the 1830s, when John Clare and Alfred Tennyson were both resident in the same asylum in Epping Forest. But it’s The Broken Word (2008), his Costa-winning narrative poem about a boy caught up in the brutal British response to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, that sets the tone for this new novel. The two books share a fascination with chaos and order, violence and its consequences. They show how easily young men lose their innocence, like snakes slipping from their old skins.

In the Wolf’s Mouth is ambitious and diffuse, its three narratives threading together in short chapters before meeting in Sicily in 1943. The American thread follows Ray Marfione, a young, gentle, film-obsessed Italian-American soldier fighting his way along the North African coast and over to Sicily. The English thread follows the same geographical route with an Oxford graduate named Will Walker, grudgingly assigned to the Field Security Service (“If I may, sir, I was hoping for the Special Operations Executive . . .”) and sent to restore civil authority in the war’s wake.

The Sicilian story is denser and the historical backdrop less familiar. It begins in 1926 in a rural town where the local Mafioso Cirò Albanense is being squeezed by the Fascist government’s crackdown on organised crime. Albanense escapes to New York, where he progresses from racketeering to importing morphine. Twenty years on, he seizes his chance to return to Sicily, joining the US army under the pretence of helping the troops bring order to the island.

Sicily, with its singing shepherds, has the feel of a classical rural idyll. But the silver-leaved olive trees and warm earth are misleading: the trees get torched and the earth stained with blood. Albanense, returning on the American invasion fleet, has the air of Satan surveying his new kingdom: “He would be part of the new order on the island. Dense smoke, full of the pollution of random burning, rolled back elegantly over the surface of the cold sea. Cirò inhaled.”

Walker, an Arabic scholar in the mould of T E Lawrence, also wants to be part a new order, believing that he can “make elegant and decisive shapes out of the shapelessness” of war. Foulds neatly captures the young Englishman’s mixture of moral seriousness and awful smugness. In North Africa, Will meets Arab royalty and believes he has “won England a part of the world”, writing up his report in what he imagines to be “the best Whitehall style”. In licentious, chaotic Sicily he believes he can sort the Fascists from the non-Fascists and re-establish the rule of law. He is, of course, doomed to fail (bringing to mind other, more recent post-invasion projects). Like Tom, the protagonist of The Broken Word, Will becomes part of the “animal” behaviour he despises, losing his virginity to a prostitute in a rubble-strewn courtyard.

The war is full of boys – virgins, reading The Wind in the Willows, alien comics or movie magazines – thrust into a world “of possible annihilation from three hundred and sixty degrees at any split second in time”. Foulds is excellent at defamiliarising death. A sniper blows off a jawbone and it lands on another man’s arm, “warm and light as a teacup”. Ray sees a fellow soldier crumple, eyes shut: “Both hands were closed around the barrel of his rifle the way a mouse holds on to the stem of grass with its little white hands in the picture on the cereal packet.” Even the shooting of a partridge is unexpectedly shocking, recalling a landowner butchered at his dining table in The Broken Word: “The bird was thrust sideways. It sat heavy, startled, like somebody suddenly shoved out of a chair.”

There is perhaps too much material funnelled into this novel: the shifting relationship between peasants, Mafia, fascists and aristocracy in Sicily would make a book in itself. Juggling three different narratives is not easy and the transitions don’t always work. But Foulds is a master of concision and clarity, and his prose is “poetic” in the best sense: never florid or rambling, each short sentence weighed and parcelled out.

The response to the Italian good-luck wish “In bocca al lupo” – “In the wolf’s mouth” – is “Crepi!”, meaning: “May the wolf die!” But this wolf’s mouth is capacious and it does not tire: “The battle was stubborn and grinding. It had two jaws. It was eating men.”

That forceful image is a rare big-picture moment in a book that generally resists the epic. In the Wolf’s Mouth is not so much about the horrific waste of war: Foulds is more interested in how, as individuals, we deal with violence. Do we flee? Do we fight? Or do we see an opportunity?

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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