Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

In Parenthesis
reviewed by Bryan Alexander

In Parenthesis
by David Jones, W.S. Merwin (Foreword), T.S. Eliot (Introduction)
NYRB Classics, 2013

This is one of the most inspired and complex fictional treatments of World War I that I have yet to come across. In Parenthesis is also a great work of British modernism, which doesn't get discussed nearly enough.

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As a WWI book this is very strange. On the one hand it has a  classic war story structure, following a group of soldiers from training into combat. Here this is a Welsh unit which ends up on the Somme. Jones introduces us to a variety of characters, mostly enlisted men, and we see them experience boredom, extreme violence, loneliness, comradeship. We don't get far beyond introductions, however; this is not a psychological novel. Even our protagonist, John Ball (this is whom I first thought of) is not realized in depth.

On the other hand, In Parenthesis is a work of surrealism or fantasy, because early British mythology and literature mixes into the trenches of 1916. This happens by allusion and reference, by characters' visions, and through the act of writing itself. Arthurian legend looms large, mostly through old Welsh poetry and Malory's Morte d'Arthur. It reminds me of subsequent war novels that partake of fantasy and surrealism, like Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and, to a lesser extent, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, but Jones creates an unusual and very moving interpretation of the British experience of WWI that seems almost unique.

At the same time readers should know that this is a work of subtle and mysterious complexity. In Parenthesis mixes prose and poetry, for starters. Moreover, Jones is capable of shifting tone, speaker, register, and time period between sentences, usually without hints to the reader. For example, during a description of wounded soldiers and people helping them, we see this:

Lower you lower you - some old cows have malhanded little bleeders for a mother's son.
Lower you lower you prize Maria Hunt, an' gammy-fingered upland Gamalin – down cantcher – low – hands away me ducky – down on hands down and flattened belly and face pressed and curroodle mother earth
she's kind:
Pray her hide you in her deeps
she's only refuge against
this ferocious pursuer
terribly questing.
Maiden of the digged places
let our cry come unto thee.

Daily speech shifts to heroic/mythic discourse, prose to poetry, each word capable of mutation. It's a version of stream of consciousness, if you realize that the consciousness isn't a single Woolf or Joyce character, but a combination of a military unit with a mythic imagination. This is serious literary modernism, even featuring author's extensive end notes to explain what he and his first readers thought was too obscure. And those references are rich beyond the Arthurian, from Shakespeare to popular songs, paintings and minute soldierly bureaucratic details.

David Jones,  Soldier
You cannot skim this, but have to pick your way carefully along each line (or paragraph). And it is worth every second.

I very much want to tell you about the passages I annotated, except I wrote on every other page. I really want to include this in a WWI or war lit seminar. For now, let me share some highlights and notes.

There some minute scenes that portray the war, like a Tim O'Brien-like things they carried list (90), a classic encounter between two enemy soldiers (168-9), a soldier falling asleep on sentry duty (53-55), two bored soldiers shooting the breeze (139-40), or Ball dealing with a comrade's horrible death (174). There's Ball, wounded, struggling with his rifle. Then there are stranger scenes, like Dai Greatcoat's awesome and epic boast (79-84), which ranges through history, like something from Flann O'Brien , or the astonishing visit of the Queen of the Wood, who gives magical gifts to soldiers transformed into mythic heroes (184-6).

Here is aerial combat, seen from the vantage point of a ground-bound soldier:

Fair-dressed young men about the hanger-stays
(heaven itself would hasten to the south sky)
Break throttle on you sudden, just over;
disturb the immediate air at take-off,
bring you on the napper you'd think, bearing so low
over the long column
getting up the fluence
making the four horsemen speak comfortable words, and smooth
her tossing manes; her black-beauty quivering.
Barely clear the poplar top
at cant and obliquely
as Baroque attending angels surprise you with their
air-worthiness - but fleet, with struts braced, to mote in the
blueness, to discover his dispositions...

Here is the protagonist's first experience of bombardment:

He stood alone on the stones, his mess-tin spilled at his feet. Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came - bright, brass-shod, Pandoran; with all-filling screaming the howling crescendo's up-piling snapt. The universal world, breath-held, one half second, a bludgeoned stillness. Then the pent violence released a consummation of all burstings out, all sudden up-rendings and rivings-through - all taking-out of vents - all barrier-breaking - all unmaking. Pernitric begetting - the dissolving and splitting of solid things. In which unearthing aftermath, John Ball picked up his mess-tin and hurried within; ashen, huddled, waited in the dismal straw. Behind 'E' Battery, fifty yards down the road, a great many mangolds uprooted, pulped, congealed with chemical earth, spattered and made slippery the rigid boards leading to the emplacement. The sap of vegetables slobbered the spotless breech-block of No. 3 gun. (24) Here is Ball under fire, facing German machine guns and rifles...:

Print by David Jones,  Artist

he [Germans] finds you everywhere.
Where his fiery sickle garners you:
fanged-flash and darkt-fire thrring and thrrung athwart
thdrill a Wimshurst pandemonium drill with dynamo druv
staccato bark a you like Berthe Krupp's terrier bitch and
rattlesnakes for bare legs...
rattle a chatter you like a Vitus neurotic, harrow your
vertebrae, bore your brain-pan before you can say Fanny - and
comfortably over open sights:
the gentlemen must be mowed.

...then being shot:

And to Private Ball it came as if a rigid beam of great weight flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk let fly or aft-beam slwed to clout gunnel-walker
below below below.
When golden vanities make about,
You've got no legs to stand on.
He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the
fragility of us.

In British WWI literature In Parenthesis may be unique. It is certainly visionary and powerful.

by Bryan Alexander


  1. This is a very helpful introduction to an extremely complex literary work. The work itself is well worth the effort however. It would indeed by nice to have a seminar on this book. DB