Back in print
Her Privates We
Frederic Manning Serpent's Tail, 247pp, £8.99
Frederic Manning's remarkable novel has spent rather more time tucked away in Lady Fortune's nether regions than on the button of her cap. Its fate in posterity has mirrored the elusiveness of its author, a frail Australian critic-poet who led a solitary literary life in pre- and postwar England, never fully repaying the confidence of his admirers and patrons, who included Ezra Pound and T S Eliot. Never, that is, until Her Privates We, a fictionalised account of his experiences on the Somme and Ancre fronts coaxed out of Manning as the appetite for war novels grew.
First issued as The Middle Parts of Fortune in 1929, the novel had to be expurgated for general release, with beggars replacing buggers. Both versions maintained the author's anonymity, stoking press interest to fever level. In retrospect, the entire episode seems like something of a promotional coup, although the anonymity probably had its source in the author's sense of shame: Private Manning had had an inglorious war marked by bouts of heavy drinking. With the original version before us again, one can only wonder why an audience as culturally besotted with the first world war as ours has largely ignored it for so long (as it has Death of a Hero by Manning's friend and foe Richard Aldington). Perhaps one reason is that this was a book written by a scholar unused to playing to the gallery. It is an attempt by the engaged intellectual to understand the experience of the common man - a fascinating synthesis, but one short on heroism and plot. Ernest Hemingway and T E Lawrence extolled the novel for its truth, but it's certainly not true to the notion of war literature manifested in their fiction. With its action suspended in the idle days between two big shows, Her Privates would make for a slow-moving movie.
Jonathan Marwil, Manning's diligent biographer, has written that the narrative is often only "a pronoun away from being a diary". Private Bourne, the central character, is certainly transparently an improved version of the author himself. Yet the pronoun's distance is crucial: had the book been written as a memoir (the favoured genre of the war writers), it would have risked self-absorption and condescension. Instead, it is brought alive by the mirage of objectivity.
Bourne, as Manning before him, is a private by choice. Ruminative and aloof, he nevertheless has more respect for his colourful comrades than for his superiors. Mocking the officers' futile efforts at mapping and planning, he espouses a Tolstoyan philosophy of passivity in the face of an arbitrary future.
The war, Manning suggests, is above all a private affair of the mind, even in its most critical moments; going over the top is a foray into blindness, physical and metaphorical, when thoughts are necessarily turned inwards, not just the thoughts of Bourne, but the conscious and unconscious mental processes of every soldier. To the modish concerns of his time - trauma, dreams and the unconscious - Manning brings the refreshing precision of the classical scholar he always was and the flavour of real experience. Perhaps it is, as Hemingway thought, the truest novel of war; certainly few others have dug so deep below its surface.
Oliver Ready is books editor of the "Moscow Times"