In Parenthesis by David Jones (1937)
A sentence or two from T.S. Eliot is perhaps the best way to describe this book of over 200 pages:
‘A work of literary art…about the experiences of one soldier in the War of 1914-18. It is also a book about War, and many other things also, such as Roman Britain, the Arthurian Legend, and divers matters which are given association by the mind of the writer…it will no doubt undergo the same sort of detective analysis and exegesis as the later work of James Joyce and the Cantos of Ezra Pound.’
Now here are a few extracts that might well persuade you to buy or borrow this unique eye witness account:
'Reveille at 4.30 with its sleepy stretching and heavy irksome return of consciousness - the lettings in of the beginnings of morning, an icy filtering through, with the drawing back of bolts; creeping into frowzy dank recesses... The gulped down tea, the distribution of eked-out bacon, the wiping dry of mess tins with straw...'
'You bunched together before a tarred door. Chalk scrawls on its planking - initials, numbers, monograms, signs, hasty, half-erased, of many regiments. Scratched out dates measuring the distance back to antique beginnings.'
'Proceed without lights... Cloud shielded her bright disc-rising yet her veiled influence illumined the texture of that place, her glistening on the saturated fields; bat-night-gloom intersilvered where she shone on the mist drift...'
‘Intermittent gun flashing had ceased; nothing at all was visible; it still rained in a settled fashion, acutely aslant, drenching the body; they passed other bodies, flapping, clinking, sodden…’
‘Modulated interlude, violently discorded - mighty, fanned-up glare, to breach it: light orange flame-tongues in the long jagged water mirrors where their feet go…’
‘Rotary steel hail spit and lashed in sharp spasms along the vibrating line; great solemn guns leisurely manipulated their expensive discharges, bringing weight and full recession to the rising orchestration.’
‘Saturate, littered, rusted coilings, metallic rustlings…by rat, or wind, disturbed. Smooth - rippled discs gleamed, where gaping craters, their brimming waters, made mirror for the sky-procession – bear up before the moon incongruous souvenirs. Margarine tins sail derelict, where little eddies quivered…’
‘The road, broken though it was, seemed a firm causeway cutting determinedly the insecurity that lapped its path, sometimes the flanking chaos overflowed its madeness, and they floundered in unstable deeps; chill oozing slime over unstable ankle… Three men, sack-buskined to the hips, rose like judgment wraiths out of the ground…’
‘You can hear the silence of it:
you can hear the rat of no-man’s-land
weasel-out his patient workings,
scrut, scrut, sscrut,
harrow-out earthly, trowel his cunning paw;
redeem the time of our uncharity, to sap his own amphibian paradise.
You can hear his carrying-parties rustle our corruption through the night-weeds – context the choicest morsels in his tiny conduits, bead-eyed feast on us…’
‘Even now you couldn’t see his line, but it was much lighter. The wire-tangle hanging, the rank grass-tangle drenched, tousled, and the broken-tin glint showed quite clearly. Left and right in the fire-bays you could see: soft service-caps wet-moulded to their heads moving… Very slowly the dissipating mist reveals saturate green-grey flats, and dark up-jutting things…’
‘Others coaxed tiny smouldering fires, balancing precarious mess tins, anxious-watched to boil. Rain clouds gathered and returned with the day’s progression, with the west wind freshening. The south-west wind caught their narrow gullies in enfilade, gusting about every turn of earth-work, lifting dripping ground-sheets, hung to curtain little cubby-holes.’
Black chemist’s smoke thinned out across the narrow neck of sky. The pandemonium swung more closely, with a 5.9 dud immediately outside; cascades of water charged with clods of earth, emptied on them from above. Two shrapnel -bursts high-over, by good fortune fused a little short for such exact alignment, drove hot fumes down to hang in the low place where they waited helplessly, white-faced, and very conscious of their impotence.
Each half-second the fields spout high their yellow waters with a core of flame. For ninety seconds black columns rise – spread acrid nightmare capitals. Corrosive vapours charge their narrow world. Their sack-wall tremors – the trench seemed entirely to list and to not recover after that near one – here it bulges nastily.’
The continuing rain came softly, in even descent, percolating all things through. A low shelter stood, it's galvanised inclining roof reflecting the sky's leaden, resounded to the water-pelter, each corrugation a separate gully, a channel for the flow. The trench- drain, disintegrated, fallen-in before the strong current was built to canalise. Aquatic sackings betrayed where some tiny trickling found new vent-way for the rising inundation. The trench tramway went straightly, losing its perspective in the rain-mist, off to the left. This trackway led to a juncture, met another single track, where ill-oiled wheels screech on quiet nights... This was a country where men from their first habitation had not to rest, but to always dyke and drain if they would outwit the water...' 'Corporal Quilter made investigation round about the lean-to. No human being was visible in the trench or on the open track. A man, seemingly native to the place, a little thick man, swathed with sacking, a limp, saturated bandolier thrown over one soldier and with no other accoutrements, gorgeted in woollen Balaclava, groped out from between two tottering corrugated uprights, his great moustaches beaded with condensation underneath his nose. Thickly greaves with mud so that his puttees and sandbag tie-ons were becoming one whole of trickling ochre.'
‘The sky overhead looked crisp as eggshell, wide-domed of porcelain, that suddenly would fracture to innumerable stars. The thin mud on fire-steps glistened, sharpened into rime. The up-to-ankle water became intolerably cold. Two men hasten from the communication trench. They deposit grenade-boxes in a recess used for that purpose and quickly go away.’
‘They came out to rest after the usual spell. The raid had been quite successful; an identification had been secured of the regiment opposite, and one wounded prisoner, who died on his way down; ’75 Thomas, and another, were missing; Mr. Rhys and the new sergeant were left on his wire; you could see them plainly, hung like rag-merchants’ stock, when the light was favourable; but on the second night after, Mr. Jenkins’s patrol watched his bearers lift them beyond their parapets. Private Watcyn was recommended for a decoration, and given a stripe; the Commanding Officer received a congratulatory message through the usual channels.’
‘So through the short summer night they slept on, and their companions of the Line.
But under the chalk ridge worried gunners wrinkled their brows, plotted exact angles and toiled with decimals, emerged from flimsy shelters strewn of greenery with logarithmic tables.’
‘But they already look at their watches and it is zero minus seven minutes…this drumming of the diaphragm…
Racked out to another turn of the screw
The acceleration heightens…
And the surfeit of fear steadies to dumb incognition, so that when they give the order to move upward to align with ‘A’, hugged already just under the lip of the acclivity inches below where his traversing machine- guns perforate to powder white -…
You have not the capacity for added fear only the limbs are leaden to negotiate the slope and rifles all out o balance, clumsied with long auxiliary steel
and fresh stalks bled
runs the Jerry trench.
And cork-screw stapled trip-wire
to snare among the briars
and iron warp with bramble weft
with meadow-sweet and lady’s smock
for a fair camouflage.’
‘Lift gently Dai, for gentleness befits his gunshot wound in the lower bowel – go easy – ease at the slope – and mind him – wait for this one and …