The Middle Parts of Fortune, a novel about World War I by Frederick Manning (1887-1935), was published in an edition of 520 copies in 1929; an expurgated version, Her Privates We, followed the next year, but it was not until that version was reprinted in 1943 that the author's name was revealed. The original uncut text was published under his first name in 1972. Discerning critics like Arnold Bennett and E. M. Forster recognized its quality, but when Manning died he was known, if at all, as a second-rate writer of poetry and occasional light prose. Extremely modest and aloof, he is an example of self-effacement that may be unique in the world of letters, at least in modern times.
The literature (fiction and poetry) of World War I is much more distinguished than that inspired by World War II: the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, Goodbye to All That, The Enormous Room are only the most prominent works, those that immediately spring to mind, but I think Manning's novel surpasses them all, and in such a way as to cast these more famous works in an odd light, as we shall see.
The narrative begins in August 1916 as Bourne, the protagonist, is being withdrawn, with his decimated company, from trenches on the Somme to be sent to the rear for rest and recuperation. The rest of the book follows Bourne and A Company as they march from one bivouac to another, detailing the incidents and complications of army life. Finally they are sent back to the trenches for another offensive, in which one of Bourne's comrades is wounded, the other is killed before Bourne's eyes, and at the end Bourne himself is killed on a night raid into the German trenches. Mirroring the facts of Manning's service, who served in the ranks in the Somme and Picardy campaigns, Bourne is a gentlemen (in the old British class sense) serving in the ranks of a battalion recruited from the countryside and mining villages. There is a literary reason for this: as an educated, self-conscious man, he can articulate thoughts that the men may gropingly harbor but cannot express. He is a spokesman for them and also for himself, a role he could not play as an officer. His anomalous situation is recognized by all. He is friendly with everyone, he never pretends to any swank, but he exerts a slight, intangible authority over the men, even the NCOs. The best way to put it is that he has a certain force of character. This is important not only in the novel but outside it, because the reader must like and trust him as the men do.
From the beginning, there is pressure on Bourne to become an officer, but he would rather stay in the ranks.
When one was in the ranks, one lived in a world of men, full of flexible movement and human interest: when one became an officer, one became part of an inflexible and inhuman machine.
He justifies his refusal to the chaplain, trying to explain comradeship.
At one moment a particular man may be nothing at all to you, and next minute you will go though hell for him. No, it is not friendship. The man doesn't matter so much, it's a kind of impersonal emotion, a kind of enthusiasm . . . we help each other. . . . . We are all in it up to the neck together, and we know it.
Later, after a night march, when he tries to get some sleep with his two chums, he wonders about it himself.
They lay themselves down, as they were to get a few hours' sleep; and Bourne, dropping off between the two of them, wondered what was the spiritual thing in them which lived and seemed even to grow stronger, in the midst of beastliness.
Manning had a fine instinct for pacing, telling the story in such a way that interest never flags. Our attention is drawn from Bourne to some NCOs, to officers, to the men, and so on; he never dwells too long on one character or one action. We see this also in the way he uses the men. Aside from Shem and Martlow, Bourne's chums, and a couple of NCOs, we do not get extended portraits of the men. We see them in a mass, marching or camping, we see them in quick snapshots, as when Pritchard tells of his comrade's death.
". . . both 'is legs 'ad bin blown off, pore bugger, an' 'e were dyin' so quick you could see it. But 'e tried to stand up on 'is feet. "elp me up," 'e sez, "elp me up." -- "You lie still, chum," I sez to 'im, "and you'll be all right presently." An' 'e jes gives me one look, like 'e were puzzled, an' 'e died." . . . Tears were running down Pritchard's inflexible face, like rain-drops down a window-pane; but there was not a quaver in his voice, only that high unnatural note which a boy's has when it is breaking . . .
We also see a portion of the company discussing the war, when the author faithfully records the various opinions, which helps to give a strong feeling of realism to the novel. Bourne ends that discussion with a defense of staff officers.
. . . but after all, what is a brass-hat's job? He's not thinking of you or of me or of any individual man, or of any particular battalion or division. Men, to him, are only part of the material he has got to work with; and if he felt as you or I feel, he couldn't carry on with his job. It's not fair to think he's inhuman.
I have spoken of the realism of this scene, referring to its surface verisimilitude, but that speech of Bourne's is realistic in a larger sense, realism as a point of view, as an outlook on the war and how it is conducted. He is critical of tactical errors, as when men are gathered in exposed groups in an area under shellfire; it is said that "he felt that as a mechanical operation it left a great deal to be desired." Nevertheless, he accepts the war stoically because he does not see it as a monstrous event outside of normal life as most writers did:
. . . war was only the ultimate problem of all human life stated barely, and pressing for an immediate solution.
The problem which confronted them all equally . . . did not concern death so much as the affirmation of their own will in the face of death; and they realized that its solution was continuous and could never be final.
. . . when the searching flames took hold of their very flesh, the test was whether or not they should flinch, under them . . . they had to retrieve their own failures, to subdue their own doubts, to master their own pitiful human weaknesses . . .
Manning's style is not dramatic or arresting, but the accumulated effects of his plain narration are two: it emphasizes the realism of the story. This is fact, the words say in their simple iteration of daily activities, but like the reality they describe -- the company moving inexorably toward the trenches and another offensive -- they gradually accumulate tension, with its heightened consciousness, reflected in those last quotations. That's the other effect of Manning's plain style, the heightening by contrast of eloquence. Without ever raising his voice, the author commands our attention and makes us take him seriously.
This is a novel that embodies a way of looking at WWI that is strikingly different from the conventional view as recounted in the literature I mentioned earlier, which gave expression to a point of view held by other artists who had been in the war, by contemporaries in the cultural elite, and by others in their class: A point of view that was bitterly anti-war, cynical about conventions and authorities of any sort, nihilistic. Articulating what others felt but could not express, once crystalized in words it took on a life of its own, affecting generations unborn at the time, imbuing readers, even today, with the same point of view. This was not a spontaneous common insight; it was the point of view of the artistic avant garde even before the war (see the Dada exhibit currently at the Museum of Modern Art). It was the only line to take if one were to be regarded as modern. It was the birth, in literature, of the left-liberal point of view. These works facilitated Hitler's success in the '30s by fostering pacifism, distrust of the military and authority, and generalized contempt for middle class society, all of which paralyzed action until 1939. So today, left-liberalism continues to make things easier for our enemies.
I cannot recommend The Middle Parts of Fortune highly enough, especially to conservatives. It is the only novel of that war to see beyond the immediate to enduring reality, as those three quotations above show. And let us carry in our hearts these final words:
They turned from the wreckage and misery of life to an empty heaven, and from an empty heaven to the silence of their own hearts. They had been brought to the last extremity of hope, and yet they put their hands on each other's shoulders and said with a passionate conviction that it would be all right, though they had faith in nothing, but in themselves and in each other. *
"I am the first acknowledged comedian to receive a vote for the Presidency -- not the first comedian, mind you, but the first acknowledged one." --Will Rogers