25 January 2018

René Benjamin: Gaspard (1915; repr. 1998 with Preface by Pauline Bochant)

René Benjamin's Gaspard was the first World War I novel and won the Prix Goncourt in 1915. Other books about the war that followed are Barbusse's Le Feu, Genevoix's Ceux de 14, and Dorgelès's Les Croix de bois. Benjamin wrote the book from the notes that he made: he was a very early casualty of the war, seriously injuring his arm in it.

The novels that followed are darker than this, much of Gaspard being amusing, playful, and full of the main character Gaspard's slang. World War I, like any war, was no joke, although his antics here, his jokes, songs, bragging, casual stealing and almost constant cheerfulness could to some extent be seen as a coping mechanism. But offsetting that idea is the fact that he seems to be this way most of the time.

So the novel follows Gaspard, a Parisian snail-seller, through the journey to Lorraine in north-east France, seeing the devastation of battle and being wounded in the backside, going to hospital and seeing three wonderful nurses there,* and then back in action only to return to civvy street with an amputated leg. Throughout there are another coping mechanisms: a lust for food, large quantities of wine and beer, and women.

But working-class Gaspard has his serious side, and he befriends Burette (a journalist) and Monsieur Mousse (an academic) in his two separate visits to the front, in which both of them die and he visits Burette's widow, and respects Mousse's wishes by handing over a letter to M. Farinet, Professor of Arts. Farinet's attitude to Gaspard is similar to Gaspard's reception at a rather plush hotel he went to for a meal on joining the outside world after his first stay in hospital – very condescending to the point of rudeness, and it's obvious that Benjamin is exercising a strong criticism of class prejudice in this novel.

This is a novel which is occasionally re-published, thus reviving the almost forgotten René Benjamin. Apart from during the war scenes and the sad scenes in the hospital, I was frequently struck by the original cartoon-like energy in the novel. Quite exceptional.

*While in the military hospital in Angers, Benjamin met Élizabeth Lecoy, a volunteer nurse whose parents owned property in Saché, and who also loved Balzac like he did. He made a marriage proposal, and she accepted.

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