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).