Wednesday, November 10, 2010

An American Kafka in France...


I have finished reading The Enormous Room by e.e cummings, my copy used to belong to a Martin Reynolds who wrote inside the front cover "Aug 1971. I think I shall have to read more of ee cummings, having enjoyed this book more than somewhat. Partly, because first books have a certain raw charm."

I agree with Mr Reynolds assessment, I enjoyed the book more than somewhat also and would like to read more of cummings' work - he is better known for his poetry - and The Enormous Room did have a certain raw charm. Why? Well it begins with a quirky little interview with the author and then a moving foreword in the form of letters from e.e cummings' father to President Woodrow Wilson and a "My Dear Mr - ". The letters, dated December 1917 and February 1918, explain that his son and his friend had been arrested and are now being held in France without charges being laid. The two lads, Edward Estlin Cummings and William Slater Brown, were American ambulance drivers during World War One; it was due to some of Brown's intercepted letters back home that had the pair arrested. The true nature of this is never made very clear and the whole arrest, removal to the detention camp and admission therein is very Kafkaesque.

Before the war cummings had graduated Harvard with a Bachelor with honors and a Masters degree in English and Classical Studies, he loved Paris and in his time in France he had learnt to speak French. He joined up for the Ambulance corps with his Harvard friend John Dos Passos (writer of the lost generation,) and The Enormous Room chronicles the absurdity of his time spent in detention under suspicion. The book is eloquent and laconic at times, it can also be verbose and sarcastic. cummings is often filled with grace, humility and humor and then just as easily, spite and mockery. He certainly is a deft writer and his changes in style and approach position you within the narrative (often emotionally) and contribute to the strange and incomprehensible world that we are delivered into with him.

The book is interspersed with tales of individual people and events, fellow inmates, the women in the opposite building, the guards who appear as puppets that reminded me of Joseph Conrad's biting quip about "papier-mache Mephistopheles" in The Heart of Darkness. The title of the book comes from the space that the men had to inhabit, it was one enormous room, filled with straw mattresses, metal buckets for water, urine and defecation. The smell, the dirt, the spit on the floor all become common elements of the narrative and the deprivations of decent food, coffee, cigarettes etc. become the epicenter of many of the individual tales.

Despite the inhumane living conditions and the absurdity of cummings' and his friends predicament, this book has a lot of warmth. It is implicitly or inadvertently about the human spirit, about finding happiness in the smallest pleasures, about giving away your last piece of cheese or last cigarette because someone else needs it more. It is about realising that the people around you are unique and wonderful, filled with their own stories and pain. cummings shows us his experience of detention with wit, spirit, humility and empathy. It is a successful autobiographical novel and he draws sated conclusions from his experiences over just four months of incarceration. I personally struggled with some of the French that was utilised within the novel, it really tested my "learn French for travelers" skills. But I would recommend the book as a historical document, autobiographical text of a well known author and an interesting addition to the genre of prison writing.

3 comments:

  1. Oh the glories of ephemera! You don't get that with the Kindle. Any idea who Mr. Reynolds is, or what part of the world he's from? Thanks for the review. Cheers, Kevin

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  2. Fantastic inscription in your book! I'm reading this book at the moment and am having difficulty with the French but still managing to enjoy it. The characters sketches are marvelous.

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  3. I have just discovered your blog (via your sisters). I am really delighted as I love reading so much and get so frustrated with the "churned" out family sagas etc. I find little treasures at our wonderful local library which lead me to other little treasures. Now I have your guidance! I love e.e.cummings poetry so will be reading The Enormous Room when I can get my hands and eyes on it!
    Congratulations on your links and sunject matter. Regards Janelle

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