Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Killer’s Home: The Returning First World War Veteran in Modernist Literature

On the 13th March Dr. William Blazek (Liverpool Hope University) presented the eleventh contribution to the Centre for American Studies’ 2013-14 seminar series, entitled, Killer’s Home: The Returning First World War Veteran in Modernist Literature.  In a deeply engaging, thorough and times rather moving analysis of the veteran experience in World War One, Blazek diverted from typical scholarship that focused primarily on the veteran for one that examined the effects their return had on their respective communities.

Blazek opened his discussion by noting that comedy has strongly skewed our perceptions of World War One, creating what he argued was a Blackadder-esque distortion that has omitted the darker qualities of the veteran experience.  He noted that the blurring of legal and illegal frameworks once veterans returned home caused one of the first initial contrasts between war and peacetime life, where in the example of murder, veterans found themselves lifted out of the legal status of killing.  It is this example, amongst many others that Blazek illustrated how the returning soldier posed a threat to the construction of the ideal of home or family life. 

This irreconcilability between war-time behaviour and peacetime norms was further demonstrated in his analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934), and the two veteran characters of Abe North and Tommy Barban.  Both North and Barban find it difficult to adjust to life after returning home from the war, but utilise different strategies to deal with it.  North finds himself susceptible to the climate of post-war debauchery, and exhibits a sort of comic surrealism, what Blazek described as a Marx Brothers-like anarchic dynamism in his behaviour.  These comical qualities are however evidence of North’s status as a veteran, qualities Blazek argued were borne out of the chaos of the war and the lack of meaning that confronted the veterans of the war on their return home.  North’s nonsensical qualities, rather than being trivial, emerge from a hard cynicism that many veterans felt in realizing that they were never going to be able to adjust to the stability of peace-time life.  Barban in sharp contrast to North utilises his experiences of the war to control his behaviour.  In addition to this, he seizes the opportunities of post-war Europe, whilst North ignores it.  Barban’s showmanship and incessant machismo is in itself its own defence mechanism against the dissonance he finds in peace-time Europe, where Blazek’s description of Barban as the professional soldier is confronted by a world he finds difficult to adjust to.  Although both adopt different strategies to cope within post-war Europe, they both resign to the irreconcilability of peace-time life as men who have been permanently tainted by the horrors of warfare, what Blazek noted as their recognition of never being able to find new or unpolluted identities amidst the ashes of the war. 

In another example from Ernest Hemingway’s Soldier’s Home (1925), Blazek discussed the main character Harold Krebs’ own alienation from his home town after returning from the war.  Kreb’s inability to communicate his experiences of the war in his home-town, to voice the dark, sinister actualities of battle, leaves him retreating into an eternal silence.  Dr Blazek provided a further example in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) and the character of Septimus Warren Smith, who suffers shell-shock and hallucinations of his deceased friend Evans.  In his analysis of Septimus’ incapacity for emotional intelligence, Woolf’s description of Septimus’ perception of viewing beauty through a pane of glass, Blazek noted that the returning veteran often stood as a reminder of the fragility of life in their local communities, and perhaps more starkly, as a reminder of a form of death that cannot be buried.  He continued with an example from Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918).  Following the shell-shocked character of Captain Chris Baldry as he returns home from the war, Blazek noted the stark irony in Baldry’s treatment of his home and local community as a form of certain death compared to the horrors of war.  This text, as Blazek noted, depicted the home and the local community as something not just alien to the returning veteran, but sometimes entirely threatening compared to the abnormal normalcy of warfare.  This was later reinforced in his examination of the classic returning veteran narrative in Homer’s Odyssey.  Blazek commented that Odysseus’s war-like manner shaped by combat is displayed in his dissonance upon returning home, which leads him to seek out additional adventures to quench his warrior-like thirst.  Additionally, and one that ties into his analysis of West’s The Return of the Soldier, Odysseus’ slaying of the suitors in the text’s conclusion once again signifies that even the home for the returning veteran is far from safe.

In what was one of the most well-received segments of his paper, Blazek concluded by discussing his own experiences of working alongside students and professors at university, a large number of whom were veterans of the Vietnam War.  He noted that the inconspicuous signals between veterans, often no more than a nod, were enough to identify themselves amongst civilians.  This fraternal marking of each other in peace-time America and within their new identities as professors or students was, Blazek noted, a reminder of the inimitable relations many veterans cultivated after the war towards each other.  It was also one that many, including Blazek, recognised and respected in those who had seen and returned from the horrors of warfare.  Dr. Blazek presented an enlightening analysis of World War One literature and the treatment of the returning veteran.  With reinforcement from post-war writers such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Woolf, and peppered with interesting and touching personal accounts of his own family’s involvement in the Great War, Dr. Blazek provided an excellent contribution to the Centre for American Studies’ 2013-2014 seminar series.

- By James Nixon
PGR at the University of Glasgow
The Centre for American Studies 2013-14 seminar series at the University of Glasgow returns with Dr. Hazel Hutchison: “The Turn of the Page: Henry James in the 1890s” on Thursday 27th March.  This will be hosted in Room 202, 4 University Gardens at 5.15pm.  All very welcome!

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