‘In Parenthesis’ by David Jones

‘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.

Self Portrait (c)The David Jones Estate

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.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. 19,000 men dead in a day is an obscenity – but what was even more obscene was that the war went on regardless.
    It makes you wonder what our world might have been like if all the lovely young men whose lives were wasted had lived, doesn’t it?
    All Quiet on the Western Front is a masterpiece too, but I’ve added this to my wishlist.
    Lisa

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    • Hi Lisa,
      You mention ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. Two other World War I novels I’ve read and really liked are ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’ by Juroslav Hasek which is a black humor approach and a more recent novel by Canadian author Timothy Findley called ‘The Wars’. Both of these novels are excellent.

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      • A favourite WW1 novel of mine is David Malouf’s Fly away Peter.

        I have read one Findley book, Pilgrim, which I rather enjoyed though probably wouldn’t rave. I always thought I should read another, and this WW one sounds like it could be a goer.

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  2. Great review, Tony. I had not heard of this book before and, now, I feel I must read it. Of course, you expertly set the hook with your hesitation to recommend it despite it being one of your desert island books. I doubt I am up to the task given, almost certain, relative lack of knowledge regarding Welsh, Arthurian, Greek, and Roman legends. But, I have read far too little about the First World War. It was, in so many ways, more brutal for the participating soldiers than the Second. And, yet, the horror of Nazism and the grasping at world domination of two totalitarian empires during the Second overshadows the incredible tragedy of the First. At least, that is the explanation that pops to mind at the moment. The Second certainly has received much more comprehensive treatment in culture both high and low.

    Thank you for bringing an overlooked and excellent novel to my attention. I look forward to reading it.

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    • Hi Kerry,
      Yes I set ‘In Parenthesis’ up as a book that is too difficult for the ordinary person intentionally so that some damned well will read it, sort of reverse psychology. In many ways World War I was the worse war. I think it led to modernism, because people saw that the old ways had failed.

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  3. Wow, and I have never even heard of David Jones … just goes to show how many great books there are out there. I spent a lot of time in the 1980s searching out forgotten authors (I assume Jones is fairly forgotten or am I just ignorant?) and reading them. It is such a treat to find someone “new” and special. That excerpt you included makes me think I would love the language of this one… Thanks for bringing it to my attention Tony.

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    • Hi Whisperinggums.
      It looks like I may have stumped you with David Jones. He is one of those writers that only wrote about three books in his life. He is more famous as an artist, and I even noticed that some of his paintings are in a New South Wales, Australia museum. Jones was born and lived in Wales. I guess you could say that David Jones is an author more praised than read.

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  4. I’ve read Timothy Findlay’s The Wars – brilliant book, and I’d also recommend it to everyone. One of my book groups read The Good Soldier Schweik’ but I missed the discussion: I’ll look out for it.

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