Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Non-Combatants and Others

Rose Macaulay's Non-Combatants and Others is a strange little novel, replete with humorous episodes and dark, heartbreaking sadness. Macaulay is herself a strange writer, as anyone will know who has read The Towers of Trebizond, a classic which combines humor, travel, camels, and Christianity. I don't mind admitting that I read Non-Combatants and Others because I noticed Capuchin Classics had reissued it (it's not out in the U.S. till April, but there are plenty of used copies). I love the Capuchin cover.

But this 1916 novel is worth reading as a passionate excoriation of World War I. Alix, the unconventional heroine, an art student with a limp, does everything possible to avoid acknowledging the importance of the war. The daughter of a pacifist activist and the sister of a boy in the army overseas, she doesn't care about politics, doesn't support the war, and certainly doesn't want to think of its effect on the men she knows. She moves to London to live with a suburban lower middle-class cousin and her two very ordinary daughters, partly to escape from the relatives who think she's lazy for not contributing to the war effort. Although she appears almost hard, she is ultra-sensitive and nervous, on the edge of breakdown if she analyzes too closely what is happening.

Despite her horror of jingoism, Alix gradually has to confront the reality of the devastation. First, a friend of hers comes back with a hand injury: traumatized by war, he now wants only to be around the healthiest people, even if they are shallow. He hurts Alix by rejecting her in favor of the beautiful, stupid Evie, her cousin's daughter, a milliner. And then Alix learns of her brother's death: his psychotic break in the trenches, his shooting himself in the shoulder, and dying of an infection. And she has to find some kind of support: religion, politics, something.

Actually I'm not quite done so I'm not sure what her support will be. The novel seems to go off-track a bit as she explores Catholicism. Macaulay first proffers a beautiful argument for atheism, but then Alix experiences the sophistication of the theology and emotional consolation of the Church. I know Macaulay herself was very religious and wonder if she underwent a conversion.

This is a good, if uneven, novel, not great. There is lots of fascinating dialogue among intellectuals, artists, writers, and journalists scorning the truisms that the war effort brings out the best in civilians. I'm very glad that Capuchin reissued it. If not, I would never have discovered this book.


Hannah Stoneham said...

Thanks for this review which is fascinating and which has encouraged me to look at this. I admire the way that you have shown how the book is interesting but imperfect. I am currently a bit obsessed with this period so am particuarly interested. I have just enjoyed Good evening Mrs Craven: The wartime stories of Mollie Panter Downes which is more light hearted and about WW2 - but has the same themes of how people relate to conflict. Thanks for sharing, Hannah

Frisbee said...

I'm glad to have introduced you to this book. I also love this period. And Macaulay is one of those writers I'll always try, because she has written one or two really good, almost great, books.

I'll look for Good Evening Mrs. Craven.

Buried In Print said...

I'm planning to spend some more time with Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain this reading year; it sounds like Rose Macaulay -- or at least this particular one of her books -- might make a good choice for companion reading.

Frisbee said...

There are so many great women's novels of this, well, mostly interwar period. Some of Macaulay's are quite good.

Vera Brittain's novels are as terrific as her memoirs). Just hearing HOltby's name makes me think I should abandon my stacks of books and return to this period.

Vintage Reading said...

I'm interested in Rose Macaulay, too. Never read her, but I quite like the sound of this. Very nice review.