‘In Parenthesis’ by David Jones (1937)
In his introduction to ‘In Parenthesis’, David Jones describes himself as a soldier: “not only amateur, but grotesquely incompetent, a knocker-over of piles, a parade’s despair.” – hey, that sounds like me if I had ever been a soldier. I couldn’t march in step in formation to save my life. David Jones was an artist and a poet. He had no business being a soldier, but there he was, a private in his platoon marching through northern France and Belgium during World War I.
There is one statistic about World War I that I find absolutely devastating. In one single day during a battle and a German poison gas attack at the Somme, more than 19,000 English soldiers died. It’s hard to imagine that many soldiers dying in a single day, considering only about 3,500 people died on 9/11.
‘In Parenthesis’ is probably the best description ever of what it was like to be a platoon private in World War I. It’s all there. Marching in the heavy rain through the trenches with the water sometimes coming up to their waists, the camaraderie with their fellow soldiers, the mustard gas and clumsy gas masks, the wire everywhere, the sudden random enemy explosions killing and maiming members of the platoon.
- The repeated passing back of aidful messages assumes a cadence.
- Mind the hole
- Mind the hole
- Mind the hole to left
- Hole right
- Step Over
- Keep left, left
- One groveling, precipitated, with his gear tangled, struggles to feet again
- Left be buggered
- Sorry mate – you all right china? – lift us yer rifle, and don’t take on so, Honey – but rather mind
- The wire here
- Mind the wire
- Mind the wire
- Mind the wire.
- Extricate with some care that taut strand – it may well be you’ll sweat on its unbrokenness.
T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden considered this book a masterpiece, the greatest book about the First World War. Auden wrote that David Jones had done for the British and the Germans what Homer did for the Greeks and the Trojans.
I discovered the book, because The Complete Review gave it a grade of A. I agree with that grade. However I’m hesitant to recommend it to everybody. Why not? It is a difficult book. Although much of the book is easy to follow as the platoon makes their way through northern France and Belgium, It is also filled with allusions to obscure ancient Welsh, Arthurian, Greek, and Roman legends. Scholars cannot decide whether ‘In Parenthesis’ is a novel or an epic poem. This is not a book for the casual follower of literature.
I consider ‘In Parenthesis’ a stranded-on-a-desert-island book. If I were stranded on a desert island with only five books, this would be one I would want. There is so much in this book, it would take years to understand it all, and it would still be interesting after several readings.
‘In Parenthesis’ would be a great book for anyone who has read so many modern novels that they are sick of the sameness of them, for anyone who can appreciate good poetry as well as good prose, for anyone willing to challenge their brain to the utmost. The limitations are not in ‘In Parenthesis’, the limitations are in us as readers.