So today, I’ve decided to fill you all in a bit. Who is this Sassoon fellow and why should you care? Well, if my fascination with WWI is an addiction, then Siegfried Sassoon was one of my gateway drugs.
And what a poetical BAMF of a drug. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This is how it happened:
Last semester (fall of 2012), I took a course on total war in Europe from 1914-1945. Our midterm assignment was to read two WWI memoirs or novels and write an essay comparing them. I opted to re-read All Quiet on the Western Front (since I hardly remembered a thing about it) and Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire, a book published during the war and the first novel to depict life in the trenches as it really was. My professor was an ardent fan of Barbusse (like, he wrote the introduction for the edition that I got out of the library), so I figured it was a good option.
But when I started reading, I just couldn’t get into it, at least in part due to the translation (I think I would have enjoyed it more in its original French), and also partly due to the voice. Whereas the narration of Paul Bäumer in All Quiet had gripped my attention from the first page, I found myself pushing my way through each chapter of Under Fire with the grim determination of a soldier slogging through mud in the trenches. It got to the point where I lamented to my friend Sophia over dinner one day that I despaired of ever finishing it in time to write a paper on it.
“Do you have to read this book?” she asked.
“No, but I have to read a book, and my professor likes this one, so–”
“Well, that’s just silly. Go pick another book that you like.”
Easier said than done. I recall staring at the list of titles in my course packet, with little to no idea what each one was about. But the name Siegfried Sassoon jumped out at me a bit (as it tends to do). I remembered him from our readings on shell-shock, and flipping back through my packet, I reread his story as it was sketched out there. An interesting fellow indeed. And Mr Sassoon had written a memoir called Sherston’s Progress, and it was on my reading list.
I frowned at his picture there in the packet for a bit, shrugged, then returned Under Fire and checked out Sherston’s Progress.
To call this a “good decision” would be a drastic understatement.
Right from the beginning, I genuinely WANTED to keep reading. It wasn’t just that Sassoon’s voice was charming (though it was). It wasn’t just that I liked the writing (though I did). It wasn’t just that I was interested in the story (though I was). The most salient part of my experience as I read was how much I grokked this man. I got him. I don’t know how else to explain it. His thought processes, his sense of humor, his flaws and foibles, his self-acknowledged self-contradiction—they all made perfect sense to me, because they were mine too. My suitemate Hana can attest to the fact that I spent an afternoon and an evening on the couch in our common room delightedly spouting quotes at her whenever she walked into the room. “I love this guy,” I told her. “I love the way he thinks!” It was the feeling of walking in someone else’s footsteps on a beach and finding it the most natural thing in the world because that person’s legs moved just the way yours do.
Sherston’s Progress is actually the third part of Sassoon’s fictionalized memoirs, the first two parts being Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. I was dying to read them as well, but given the volume of work I had, I couldn’t afford to get hooked on a non-academic book. I contented myself with reading Wikipedia articles and such in my non-existent spare time. The more I learned about Sassoon and the First World War and the other war poets (Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, etc.), the more fascinated I became, and as NaNoWriMo approached, I was struck by the notion of writing a story set in the trenches. The idea was inspired in part by a poem of Sassoon’s (called “Sick Leave”) which begins:
“WHEN I’m asleep, dreaming and lulled and warm,
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.
While the dim charging breakers of the storm
Bellow and drone and rumble overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
‘Why are you here with all your watches ended?
From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the Line…’”
Arthur, my protagonist, is definitely not Sassoon, but I did draw a lot of ideas from Sassoon’s experiences. And what experiences might those be? Tune in later this week for the crazy story of Sassoon’s life during the war, and then finally, the tale of how I got to “meet” Sassoon last Thursday.
Missed part of the Ari and Siegfried Sassoon series? Here’s the rest:
And because I’m curious, dear readers and raptors: Do any of you have a friend crush on a historical figure? Or a crush-crush? (I wouldn’t classify my interest in Sassoon as a crush-crush, but for or those of you who are prone to them, I suggest you check out this Tumblr.) Who fascinates you and why?