THE STORY OF GEOFF DYER'S GRANDFATHER signing up for World War I, as it was handed down, fits into the uniform legends of the time. "Like many young men, my grandfather was underage when he turned up to enlist," Dyer writes in The Missing of the Somme. "The recruiting sergeant told him to come back in a couple days when he was two years older." And like all of the other soldiers in the family's scrapbooks, Dyer's grandfather was, he says, "already a ghost," romanticized in myth even before he marched off to a muddy grave in northwest France alongside nearly a million other British men.
This legend soon began to crumble, however - Dyer discovered that, in fact, his mother's father had been 20 at the time he enlisted - and the author's focus was drawn to the apparatus of collective remembrance that began in lockstep with the actual march to war. For example, Laurence Binyon's For the Fallen was actually written "in September 1914: before the fallen actually fell." Ernest Brooks's iconic photograph of a soldier with his head bowed over a grave, taken in August 1917, is a visual expression of a similar sentiment, namely: "We will remember them." And it became clear to Dyer that, "even while it was raging, the characteristic attitude of the war was to look forward to a time when it would be remembered."
In The Missing of The Somme Dyer deftly knits his grandfather's story together with that of his own car tour around the Somme, Wilfred Owen's life and myth with that of the Unknown Soldier, and Dyer's native Cotswolds with Flanders. Meditations on Erich Maria Remarque, Robert Capa, and the memorial sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger illuminate the elegiac image at the center of the work: a great parade of soldiers, marching out of Dyer's family scrapbook in undulating waves against the German bullets, in piles over the swells of cold Flemish mud, and back through Whitehall as ghosts on the Day of Remembrance. Through all manner of shaggy dog discursiveness, he mixes the personal (scrapbook and grandfather), the national (Army and poets), and the mythic (Unknown Soldier and Owen). When he drops in the factoid that the creek running past his childhood backyard touches the graveyard where Owen is buried, you suspect Dyer is playing with space and time to fit his narrative.
Published in the United Kingdom in 1994 and finally released here this month, Somme was Dyer's fifth book (of now some dozen or so) but the first in which he fully realizes the potential of his allowing his subjective experience of a project, as he explains in the interview below, to drive the narrative. After narrowly escaping a massive car accident in the rental car that he and his friends call "the tank," one says to him, "Think of the publicity that would have gotten for your book, getting killed before you even wrote it." This self-reflexive rupture introduces the method Dyer would pursue in his subsequent books. We get a whiff of what's to come when, while visiting the monuments, Dyer is watching himself, wondering what to feel. Just as he writes that the war "had been fought in order that it might be remembered, that it might live up to its memory," Dyer's book reveals itself to have been written in order that it might be lived. Dyer's statements below were in response to my questions, the quotes all from The Missing of the Somme.