Friday, April 06, 2007

Reading Paul Fussell

I seem to have traded in one Paul for another. My Paul Auster immersion has given way to a Paul Fussell binge.

I read Fussell’s brilliant The Great War and Modern Memory a number of years ago on my dad’s recommendation and was thoroughly taken with it. So when I embarked on a bit of WWII research in connection with the novel I’m finally working on in earnest, it was a natural to pick up Fussell’s Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War.

Most recently though, it’s Fussell’s essays that have captivated me. I picked up Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays and The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations at the same time and I have been ricocheting between them in random fashion for a couple of weeks with enormous enjoyment. Each of Fussell’s essays is full of marvellously acerbic observations that invariably lead to deep insights. Particular favourites for me so far include "Literary Biography and Its Pitfalls"; "Travel, Tourism, and 'International Understanding'"; "'A Power of Facing Unpleasant Facts'"; and, "Being Reviewed: The A.B.M. and Its Theory" (the A.B.M., in case you’re wondering, stands for “the Author’s Big Mistake, that is, the letter from an aggrieved author complaining about a review”). I wanted to quote a few pithy passages for you, but the essays are so beautifully put together, each sentence organically stemming from or leading to the next, that it’s difficult to convey the overall effect via isolated passages. Better that you should read the whole of one for yourself.

While I was browsing among the Fussell books on offer at the library, I also nabbed a copy of his Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars. I haven’t begun that one yet, but it sounds like it’s right up my alley and I’m eagerly anticipating it. And in one of those lovely moments of blog synchronicity, I learned that Bloglily, prompted by an intriguing carpool encounter, sought out a copy of Abroad the very same week that I did. So there is the possibility of reading Bloglily’s thoughts on the book at some future point to look forward to as well as the book itself.

Something which has occurred to me as I move between Fussell’s books is that while it’s quite common for me to read a number of works of fiction by a single author in quick succession, it’s very rare for me to similarly immerse myself in the non-fiction of a single author. There are some biographers and travel writers whose books I’ll read regardless of subject, and certainly in my days as a graduate student I experienced the odd all-encompassing infatuation with the writing of a particular theorist. But on the whole, I select non-fiction based on subject rather than author. It seems to me now that in doing so I have been missing out on the pleasure of following the development of the thinking and writing of individual non-fiction writers. Perhaps I’ll have more to say on that point as my Fussell odyssey continues.

4 comments:

LK said...

Oh, grab that Literary Traveler one! You can't even get it on Amazon.

Anonymous said...

Having read the two books you mentioned regarding WWI and WWII, as well as Boy's Crusade (where I began), I have developed an appreciation of Paul Fussell not shared with anyone until now. Paul led me to Robert Grave's Good-bye to All That, another excellant book from the WWI era.

Smithereens said...

Your review made me want to check if my local library has got any Fussell. Actually the central branch has only Wartime in store but I need to file a special request. Do you think it's worth it? I'm very interested to hear some more about it from you :)

crazyclyde said...

I have reservations in re Paul Fussell's expertise of WWI. In "A
Conversation With Paul Fussell" he
stated the U.S. was only in The Great War a few months. Actually, my Uncle Harley was in a
rifle company that was one of the
first American units to be sent over to France. That was in June, 1917. American troops were over there until the Armistice went into effect on November 11, 1918.
That's one year and 5 months! - Ken Clark