Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: Three Soldiers

Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos: World War I reading challenge

This early novel by the author of the classics Manhattan Transfer and the USA Trilogy takes place during and after World War I, and reveals the big difference between novels about the war from the European perspective (British, French and German) and the American perspective. That difference lies in the fact that the United States wasn't in it that long -- really, only a little more than a year. My grandfather was drafted (at the age of 25) and spent a whole three months in the Army -- he simply wasn't needed after the Armistice. And, according to Dos Passos, thousands of American troops were stuck in France with nothing to do, waiting to make sure Germany meant it when it surrendered. The soldiers endured drills, hikes and marches until they were demobilized. (This experience contrasts greatly with American participation in World War II, which lasted four years and involved U.S. troops fighting around the world.) Thus this is Dos Passos' starting point -- and really, he spends very little time on actual combat. His point here was that Army live was deadening for anyone who had any ambition, artistic ability or desire for a better life through revolution.

The title says Three Soldiers, but Dos Passos focuses mainly on one -- John Andrews, a would-be Harvard composer and pianist who finds himself in the U.S. infantry. Two other soldiers get less focus, although they tend to appear and disappear in Andrews' life, and much of the early narrative focuses on their thoughts -- Dan Fuselli, a San Francisco clerk who yearns for promotion, and Chris Chrisfield, a borderline psychotic from Indiana. A sense of doom hangs over the novel, but not in the sense that the characters are going down -- just in the sense that their expectations will be dashed. Fuselli gets stuck on a broom in France, and Chrisfield, who is buddies with the calming Andrews, vows vengeance on a sergeant. Chrisfield even gives us insight into a forest campaign. But Andrews takes over when he's wounded -- we follow him to the hospital through the Armistice, back to his unit and finally, after some desperate finagling by a fellow college grad, to a cushy post taking music classes at the Sorbonne while he's still in uniform. Most of the novel takes place in this gray nether-time, when the soldiers had nothing to do but drill, drink and wait to go home. As a result, the novel (although exquisitely written with wonderful descriptions of Paris and the French countryside) is kind of a drag. Andrews is a passive character, until a mistake and a fateful act completely change his life, and even then you want to hit him on the head and get him to do something rational.

Of course, many of the characters talk about revolution longingly in this novel -- it's Dos Passos between Harvard (and his wartime ambulance service and his eventual disillusionment with left-wing politics at the hands of the pro-Soviet forces fighting for the Spanish Republic in the 1930s. I was expecting more class warfare in this novel, but Dos Passos takes it easy on the politics. A fair number of officers, Y-Men and noncoms are brutes and prejudiced jerks, but others are more human. Of course, in 1921, when the novel was published, the horrors of the Soviet Union had not started in earnest (the allied invasion is mentioned). In one telling scene, a chaplain (people of faith are bad news in this novel) reports to the wounded soldiers that Germany is not repentant and that Germans don't believe they really lost. In 1921, readers would shake their heads at the prejudice of the remarks, although history proved them true. (That's why it's a a good intellectual exercise to read about the Great War without World War II as context.) And really, Andrews, for all his bellyaching about being trapped as slave in uniform obeying orders, has perhaps the greatest opportunity a private in the U.S. Expeditionary Force could hope for. (I think Dos Passos thinks he's kind of  a twit, too, because lots of other characters tell Andrews so.) Anyway, now I want to get around to reading Manhattan Transfer and the USA Trilogy, something I've been trying to do since college, and leave John Andrews to his fate.


Anna and Serena said...

Thanks for joining the challenge and sharing your review link. A snippet will post on the main War blog page on June 25.

Irene Jennings said...

Well written novel. Depicts life for American troops in the last year of the great war.Many consider it the best war novel to come out of WW 1.
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