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Tracey Thorn: Every angle, every light

Elizabeth Taylor is an unfairly underrated writer. Her novels of middle-class manners are much more complex than they look.

It was Virago Modern Classics that introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor, just as Virago had introduced me to so many other women writers years earlier. At Hull University in the early 1980s, I’d had a shelf-ful of green-spined books and they marked me out as a “rad fem” student just as surely as did my side-shaved haircut and big, clumpy boots. My education up to that point hadn’t fully alerted me to the existence of something called “the canon”, but a year or so in to my degree course, I was happily challenging it at every turn, thumbing my nose and waving my Virago paperbacks in the face of the literary patriarchy.

It would be another 30 years before I discovered Taylor when Virago reissued her novels in a set of chic new covers resembling 1960s film posters. On each was a black-and-white photo, full-face, extreme close-up, with a band of bold colour below. They looked simple and modern, with a vintage twist. In 2010 I bought one to take on holiday and within a day I was hooked.

She wasn’t necessarily the kind of writer I would have liked all those years ago in Hull. Back then my taste veered more towards the “madwoman in the attic”; I was fiercely feminist and wanted my reading to reflect this. Subtlety was not always top of my list of requirements. But by the time I read Taylor for the first time I was in my mid-forties, no less feminist, but perhaps differently feminist, and more receptive to the kind of wit and wisdom her novels offered. Her voice seemed to be a voice of experience, the insights those of a woman who had lived a few years, watching and listening, taking notes. I felt I was ready for her.

I started with A Game of Hide and Seek, her fifth novel, first published in 1951, which traces the arc of an intense but thwarted love affair. It is a finely detailed and perceptive book, constructed with a discreet skill that you hardly notice. As part one ends, the young lovers, Harriet and Vesey, seem doomed to be parted for ever, their love for each other undermined by his indolent flippancy, her timidity. Yet you turn the page and begin part two with something of a jolt – Harriet is in Vesey’s arms at a dance. “Has it all come right after all?” you think. But no. Twenty years have passed in the blink of an eye. Harriet is married to someone else and has a teenage daughter and Vesey has returned like a spectre from the past to threaten all the calm and respectability of Harriet’s adult life. What follows is a kind of tortuous non-affair, a not-quite-above-board friendship that can’t fail to be slightly sordid, while never being properly illicit.

They make a funny pair of romantic leads – he is half-hearted and she, frankly, is a bit of a drip, forever blushing and bursting into tears – but their plight is moving for all that. Nothing much happens; there’s a walk in an icy park, a Brief Encounter-style meeting on a foggy station platform, passion that goes mostly unexpressed. Yet Taylor has you believe in them as lovers, by first making you believe in them as people. As in all great writing, the joy lies in the closeness of the observation, the eye for detail. Taylor writes of Harriet that “In her diary, she walked right round Vesey and viewed him from every angle and in every light” and in just such a way does Taylor scrutinise her characters. Hers is an unflinching eye that does not glance away from an insight just because it seems cruel – “He knew that she was a good wife, though a bore.” Relatively narrow in focus, she homes in on the middle classes in a domestic setting, but though she writes about “nice” people, she is not particularly nice about them.

After A Game of Hide and Seek I went on to devour her other novels. I found out that she had shied away from publicity during her career, keeping her writing and her family life in a perfect and fiercely guarded balance. Elizabeth Jane Howard, in her introduction to A Game of Hide and Seek, writes of interviewing her on a television book programme, during which she answered monosyllabically and looked “like a trapped and rather beautiful owl”. I realised she was a woman after my own heart. She was shy, and she understood the shy. In The Soul of Kindness (1964) two of her characters agree: “ ‘I could never tell anyone how terrible it is. The dreadful awkwardness and embarrassment.’

‘They are under-rated forms of suffering.’” This reserve informs the very style of Taylor’s fiction, in which subtlety, economy and understatement reign supreme. Even her humour – and she is an extremely funny writer – is dry and precise, capturing moments when characters believe they are unobserved; as if she were eavesdropping on private conversations.

In A Game of Hide and Seek, for instance, she pinpoints the way shopgirls talk when men are out of earshot, a wonderful mixture of the genteel and the bawdy – “Harriet’s virginity they marvelled over a great deal. It seemed a privilege to have it under the same roof. They were always kindly enquiring after it, as if it were a sick relative.” She is the kind of writer you long to have had as a friend. How witty she would have been to talk to, with that sharpness that misses nothing, that wry acceptance of the way things are.

This acceptance extends to all her characters. Despite the acuity of her observations, she is never cold towards them, seeming rather to understand and forgive her most monstrous creations. And some of them are outright monsters – Flora in The Soul of Kindness is a manipulative, passive-aggressive nightmare (“she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine”), while Angelica Deverell, the heroine of Angel (1957), is a hilarious personi - fication of self-delusion (“she saw nothing as it was, everything as it should be”). I think “Angel” is my favourite of all Taylor’s characters. Proud, arrogant, ambitious, mad and lonely, she is every fictional artist rolled into one, the twist being that she is completely talentless. Hers is an  archetypal struggle – the portrait of the artist as a young woman – rewritten as comedy, even farce. It’s like reading the early-years story of Jeanette Winterson only for her to end up writing the novels of Barbara Cartland. It’s terribly funny, and terribly sad.

I think when I was younger I liked my books to have heroes, or, even better, heroines. One of the great things about getting older is you don’t need that so much; you don’t look to every book for self-verification, or confirmation of your identity. I find I don’t care so much whether or not I like the characters in a book. I just want them to seem true, and for a writer to show me things that seem real. Elizabeth Taylor does exactly this; she finds interest and drama in the tiniest details, the dustiest corners of our lives, and in revealing these details to us so accurately and gracefully she transforms the mundane into something vivid; she makes sometimes dull lives seem worth noticing, and so worth living.

Tracey Thorn’s memoir, “Bedsit Disco Queen”, will be published by Virago in February “Complete Short Stories” by Elizabeth Taylor is published by Virago (£14.99).

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle