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Old War Stories: An Interview with Geoff Dyer

By Chris WallaceAugust 17, 2011

Old War Stories: An Interview with Geoff Dyer
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.

— Chris Wallace


"I again work more in black and white than in color," Paul Klee noted on October 26, 1917. "Color seems to be a little exhausted just now."

Geoff Dyer: The Missing of the Somme was written in the early 90s when I went to live in Paris to write a novel, and failed to write the novel, and ended up writing this book instead. So I think it really is quite an important artifact in my development, as somebody who wasn't going to wed himself to the novel; in fact, as someone who has, in a way, drifted away from the novel. But also in terms of breaking down that binary opposition between nonfiction — which seems to be content or information driven — and fiction.

I've had such an unusual writing life. I am just now writing about Alan Hollinghurst's new book, and he's written these five novels through which you can nearly chart his progress, very, very clearly. Whereas with me it is a bit more dispersed. Chancing upon or arriving at the freedom to write this kind of book, I think it really did diminish the importance of being just a novelist to me. At the same time, given my limitations as a novelist, maybe it was important because it represented a way I could go on being a writer longer than I could have, just being a novelist. I say chancing because when I was living in Paris, in a state of some despair really — because I was very conscious of having failed to write this novel I was there to write — I made this trip, to the cemeteries on the Somme. It was a really big experience for me so I wrote a magazine article about it, and thought maybe, for a very brief time, that that would satisfy my curiosity about what the experience had meant. But when I came back to England I continued writing about the first World War and started doing more research. I had access to lots of books, but the big thing was the achievement of this form, which could be very free: a form that was self-generated and seemed singularly appropriate to the subject.

The Great War ruptured the historical continuum, destroying the legacy of the past. Wyndham Lewis sounds the characteristic note when he calls it "the turning-point in the history of the earth," but there is a sense in which, for the British at least, the war helped preserve the past even as it destroyed it. Life in the decade and a half preceding 1914 has come to be viewed inevitably and unavoidably through the optic of the war that followed it. The past as past was preserved by the war that shattered it.

Geoff Dyer: The idea of the book recording the journey of discovery, the book being the record of the process by which it came in to existence; that's common to a lot of my books. The Somme book was my first to also do away with chapter breaks, to stop relying on that kind of external scaffolding, instead keeping things flowing in an organized but associative way. Instead of doing the research and then sitting down to write it up, which is how I imagine people who write PhDs do it: instead of that, I was writing it as I went along, so that the finished thing has preserved within it that steady bit of discovery.

In the case of the jazz book [But, Beautiful] the form came relatively quickly. With the photography book [The Ongoing Moment] I got an idea of how it might go rather early on. WithThe Missing of the Somme, I think that came quite late in the day. I knew early that it wouldn't be a straightforwardly structured book with a chapter on recruitment, a chapter on the trenches, etc. For me, part of the excitement of writing a book has been coming up with a suitable form for it. Quite unusually for a nonfiction book, this one was un-contracted. I hadn't prepared a proposal or synopsis. But that was a great advantage, because it meant I didn't have something to adhere to. In truth I wouldn't have been able to put together a proposal; the only time I could have written a proposal for it was when I'd finished writing it.

In total 918 cemeteries were built on the Western Front with 580,000 named and 180,000 unidentified graces. ... All, whether large or small, are scrupulously maintained, immaculate. This is strange: cemeteries, after all, are expected to age. In these military cemeteries there is no ageing: everything is kept as new. Time does not exist here, only the seasons. The cemeteries look now exactly as they did sixty years ago.

Joshua Foer's got a point, in Moonwalking with Einstein, when he says there's a real danger about the way we've outsourced our memory and let it all become so externalized. As he says, if you remember stuff it means you know stuff, so the problem is not just one of memory and forgetting, but of ignorance and knowledge. When they decided to memorialize the first World War in a certain way — since they wanted to preserve a particular version of events — the official thing was to memorialize sacrifice. And then you get the unofficial version, the sort of war poets thing, of waste, futility and bungling. Recent historians have pointed out that even that is a sort of mythmaking. That is, there are people who say that, compared with the mines in Manchester, it wasn't so bad at the front. The mythmaking continues on with so many levels of accretion and debunking. What was the most striking, for me, was that they were reworking it even during the war. I reckon that's one of the really quite original points of the book.

Fiction plays less of a role for me than it did. The standard of fiction that I was once quite happy with, I've now become much choosier. It's not for nothing that I am writing about someone of the quality of Hollinghurst. I grew up with the parochial belief that to read meant to read novels, but now if I read fewer novels I read more widely, so rather than being in the grips of some sort of shrinkage, I would say I have a more expanded idea of what reading involves and the many different forms and shapes that great writing can come in.

LARB Contributor

Chris Wallace is an Angeleno adrift in New York. He writes novels and contributes regularly to The Paris Review Daily and The New York Times among others.


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