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

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Gossip from the Forest
reviewed by Bryan Alexander

Gossip from the Forest

by Thomas Keneally
Sceptre Publishing, 1988 (first published in 1975)

An interesting idea for a work of fiction, Gossip from the Forest is a historical novel about the end of WWI's combat in November 1918. Thomas Keneally turns this narrow slice of time into a story without a great deal of elaboration, but clearly has fun along the way.

The Forest of the Title: Setting for the Armistice Negotiations, November 1918

We follow two negotiating teams to a railway car in Compiègne. The Allies, dominated by Generalissimo Foch, are in triumph, armed with ferocious terms for ending fighting. The Central Powers—well, Germany—are a rag-tag group including a politician, a self-hating naval officer, a continuously drunk count, and a useless general. Keneally probes each character through dialog, flashbacks, and dreams, bringing forth their unique natures and approaches to the Great War's finale. The first half of the book is about the teams assembling and traveling to the famous railroad car, while the second covers the negotiations there.

The delegations' leading members are probably the most interesting. Matthias Erzberger appears as both very competent and good at improvisation, while also being terrified and far out of his depth. He is frequently afraid of being shot, a fine premonition of his fate, after the novel's events. Ferdinand Foch begins the novel and broods over the negotiations, a man obsessed with concepts and sleep, utterly confident of his powers almost to the point of unreason.

Gossip from the Forest is fine fodder for students of WWI. We see the once-domineering German Empire starting to crack, as workers form soviets, the Kaiser quits, and, most astonishing of all, soldiers question orders. We receive glimpses of the war's terrible costs, from German mass starvation to the ruin of northeastern France and the shell-shocked nature of the surviving troops. The German Revolution begins. 

Alas, this doesn't work too well as a novel. Conflicts arise but, thanks to history, don't proceed very far. The Germans are defeated, long for honor, and are swiftly let down into the abyss without much chance of doing anything about it. It's a socially limited book, as we don't engage with soldiers, keeping the novel largely to the top of society, and women barely appear. Too much of the book is nonfiction with a layer of dialog.

However, the dialog is fun, as are many of Keneally's pithy asides:

[I]t was insufferable to think that in such a little space, round a table no bigger than a family dinner table, with note paper and pencils, it was possible for eight men to weave a scab over that pit of corpses four years deep.

The Marshal stood still, his legs together, his precognitive passion all at once folded away as neatly as a beetle's wings.

The Kaiser, who a week ago had been an evocation of the sun, yet today was just a comic train traveler. 

And this micro-story:

His name was Prince Max of Baden and his nickname was Max-Pax. Within three weeks he caught severe influenza, took too much sleeping draught and did not wake again until Turkey had surrendered and Austria sought an armistice. His ruinous reawakening made him prejudiced against sleep.

For WWI aficionados, a pleasant four stars. For the general reader, three by the end.

Bryan Alexander


  1. Sounds I just ordered it.

  2. I ordered it too. Thanks so much for the unbiased review!