Geoff Dyer: The Missing of the Somme

A couple of years ago I tried to read Geoff Dyer’s novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varnasi on an airplane, and I didn’t get past the first few pages.  It’s true: I cannot read on airplanes for some reason.  Still, when I landed I moved on to another book, and, consequently, I’m coming late to the Geoff Dyer party.  I was thrilled when I found out he had a new book coming out that is based on Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (how in the world did he sell that?) and thought it was high-time I get to know the man who would write such a book (just not through Jeff in Venice – I haven’t been able to get over that terrible pun).  I chose to begin with Dyer’s short book on The Great War, The Missing of the Somme (1994).  And so, a short review:

I say “book about The Great War,” but, though there are dates and statistics, The Missing of the Somme is more a book about memory and forgetting, as well as how we control or even transform memory.  Of course, Dyer uses this to redirect our focus on The Great War itself, being, as it is, the subject of many campaigns of remembrance, some, in fact, even before the battles were fought: “Even while it was raging, the characteristic attitude of the war was to look to the time when it would be remembered.”

Dyers wonders in this book how — and whether — the War will be remembered in the future, assuming, as he believes the generations before him have, that his would be the last generation to try to remember it.  It’s been over fifteen years since Dyer wrote this book, and it’s nearly been a century since The Great War began.  In the last couple of years, the last veterans of the war have died.  I wonder, too, whether my generation will be the last to “remember” — or, rather, perhaps, the last generation to remember people “remembering.”  It really is only a matter of time:

‘Memory has a spottiness,’ writes Updike, ‘as if the film was sprinkled with developer instead of immersed in it.’ Each of these photos is marred, spotted, blotched; their imperfections make them seem like photos of memories. In some of them is an encroaching white light, creeping over the image, wiping it out. Others are fading: photos of forgetting. Eventually nothing will remain but blank spaces.

But some of the more fascinating passages of this book focus on the ways people have tried create a specific type of memory of the war.  In particular, Dyer looks closely at poems and monuments as two more or less permanent ways to remember and control memory, and my favorite portions deal with the monuments.  It is here that we get what I take to be one of Dyer’s signature moves — inserting himself into the text.  While I’m not sure it was necessary, we follow Dyer as he and some of his friends travel around to various monuments erected to remember The Great War.

I wouldn’t say this is the best book on World War I or even a necessary one, but it is, particularly for its short length, one that pays of and that enlightens, particularly as it focuses on the strangeness of memory and the quest to remember.  It certainly has me anxious to read his book on D.H. Lawrence (which I have) and on Stalker (which I’ll be getting soon).

6 thoughts on “Geoff Dyer: The Missing of the Somme

  1. I count myself a Dyer fan — Paris Trance (he has a thing for bad pun titles) was one of the trio of opening posts on my blog. And I thoroughly enjoyed Jeff in Venice, etc.. This review is a timely reminder however — the book was out of print in Canada when I looked for it three years ago and I should hunt it down.

    Have you read Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy? For me, it is not just the best literature on the Great War, but the on war itself — an outstanding achievement.

  2. Trevor says:

    I have only read The Ghost Road, Kevin. Even though people told me I didn’t need to read the first two in the trilogy before The Ghost Road, I think I needed to. At the time (it was one of my first posts on this blog), I see that I didn’t really like the book but I remember being very engaged. Fortunately, I remember it well enough to want to read it again but I’ve forgotten enough it will still feel like a fresh read.

    Okay, in the time it took to write the above, you’ve convinced me to get the first two books and read all three in order.

    It also sounds like I need to give Jeff in Venice another go. I really didn’t give it much time before moving on to other things, so it will also feel like a fresh read.

  3. For what it is worth, I thought The Ghost Road was the least strong of the three, although I still thought it was a good book. I read the trilogy in order so I can’t comment on it as a stand alone book — I certainly felt the first two were necessary to setting it up. I’ve always felt that the Booker was awarded for the whole project rather than the single book, but that’s just my bias.

  4. leroyhunter says:

    I liked this as my first dip into Dyer-land, but I admit I prefer the books he talks about (Remarque, Junger, Manning etc).

    But it did lead me to Out of Sheer rage, which is just superb, really impressive. I have his Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered on the shelf and just last week broke my rule about multiple unread books by the same author by snapping up Zona.

  5. nicole says:

    I wonder, too, whether my generation will be the last to “remember” — or, rather, perhaps, the last generation to remember people “remembering.”

    I tend to think it will be (the latter); even now, so few remember the remembering. I thought Dyer’s discussion on this aspect of the Great War and this whole strangeness of memory helped refocus my ideas about the war in important ways, too.

  6. Teddy says:

    Oh yes, please read the Regeneration Trilogy. As KevinFC says, its a master piece of the war itself. Have read it 3 times and love it. The first book is fantastic, so ignore whoever told you to skip those first two volumes.
    Dyers Somme book is also a favorite and just today I bought Zona:-)
    As alwys, a pleasure to read your views on books,
    T

Leave a Reply