Alice Winn's 'In Memoriam' - The soldiers' tale

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday July 4, 2023
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Author Alice Winn
Author Alice Winn

With her debut novel, "In Memoriam" (Knopf), screenwriter Alice Winn joins the ranks of the finest war writers this side of Homer and Heller. That's not to pigeon-hole her book, which also trades competitively in the boys-at-boarding-school-and-beyond genre that gave us some of the signal gay fiction of the last century, notably "Maurice" and "Brideshead Revisited."

War writing is a category of its own. Some of the least writerly examples of it, by the planners and executants of actual wars, are irresistible, like walking down a hospital hallway without looking into the open rooms. (If that got your interest, run, don't walk, to Luke Turner's very recently published "Men at War.") Some of the more consciously literary books crack on the high notes. It's not all Tolstoy and Stephen Crane out there.

Unflinching about the grizzly, banal horrors of the trenches while remaining equally courageous in depicting the horrors of a crumbling peace, "In Memoriam" makes unerring verbal strikes that coalesce into a driving narrative that never lets up or backs off. It holds its own in a crowded field of gay-men-in-World-War I sagas and towers above most of the others. Winn emerges a writer we've been waiting for.

Author Alice Winn at the Hay Festival in June (Instagram)  

Boy soldiers
In "Brideshead," Charles Ryder doesn't go off to the military until the promise of World War II. While his time in uniform is arguably the darkest part of Waugh's novel, the ever-present pull of the fairy-tale escape of the English aristocracy, a milieu with its own quiet horrors. Nothing else so devastates than the man who leads him out, Sebastian Flyte, who then finishes off their initially picturesque relationship with a spiral into alcoholic self-destruction.

In "In Memoriam," the protagonists, never far from center stage, are Sidney Ellwood and Henry Gaunt, frolicking, at first skittishly, at the rather chillingly-named Preshute academy and boarding school, the comparatively short "pre-shoot" prelude to the war story.

Following the drums of war and the rapidly deteriorating situation in cross-channel Belgium, the two enlist in reverse order.

The conflicted, gangly Gaunt is part German, and his family presses him to do his duty defending England. The more committed, if naive, Ellwood sets off "to save Gaunt."

Preshute, of course, is a cauldron of adolescent sexuality, where the boys with same-sex inclinations find each other even in an environment that demands secrecy; they mate like recombinant DNA molecules, switching partners and foretelling several of the boys' crossed paths throughout the novel. Otherwise "what boys did together was only acceptable if obscure."

Only Elwood and Gaunt look anything like a couple, and their sexual attraction is reported
discreetly. "In Munich, Gaunt had once pressed himself against Ellwood's leg and discovered that Ellwood was hard." Winn keeps her powder dry for her devastating descriptions of bodies torn by war.

It mildly strains credulity that these not-yet-men boys hurry to enlist, but for Winn there's no lingering in heaven when a more consuming hell awaits them. But there's a fearful economy in Winn's novel, despite its 400 pages, and Winn weaves the threads of her plot expertly. Preshute resurfaces in the form of the growing lists of wounded and dead alumni, the relevant pages of "The Preshutian" reproduced in the novel as they would have looked if real.

Letters home and abroad
Large expanses of the novel are given to letters, mostly by Ellwood and Gaunt to each other on and off the front, which gives Winn a shrewd stage for presenting each of them in his own voice. It allows Winn to change points of view in a way that's not confusing. Even her minor, walk-on characters are depicted with a specificity of detail that makes them not just individual but indelibly so. A sign of the best fiction, you think about them when you're away from the book.

The depredations of the return from war get relatively short shrift, but, as with the quick opening section, it balances the before and after over the unrelieved account of what the soldiers encounter on the battlefield daily. Much of that is really hard stuff to read, but, as in the novels of the late Cormac McCarthy and Richard Flanagan's "The Narrow Road to the Deep North," you never look away from the gore or want it to stop.

Winn first breaks the reader into the wanton violence of war in a letter from Gaunt to Ellwood about that war's infamous use of gasses as weapons:

"And then more Algerians came flooding by. Some were only choking, but others were coughing up scrambled bits of lung, their lungs were melting inside then and drowning them."

What keeps the writing this side of rank sensationalism is the clean cut of the language, devoid of cliché.

While there's plenty of literal blood and thunder, rendered in language or arresting originality, the core story of Ellwood and Gaunt's love is the substance and thrust of this remarkable novel. There's even a reflection of the difficulties that attend seeing a formerly handsome loved one's face half blown off, the challenge of living with ruined beauty.

Another binding force in the novel is poetry, which Elliott practices. The boys take a swat at Rupert Brooke, the legendary war poet of their time. (And who would not want to paddle the man W.B. Yeats called "the most handsome man in England"?) Winn reminds us that Tennyson's "In Memoriam," one of the most resonant poems of the time, was also written by a man who loved a man. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is printed in full in the dead center of the book. The most absorbing poetry, however, is by the boys of Winn's book.

The novel is unflaggingly moving. It's peopled by people. Perhaps it was a shudder in the collective unconscious that brought, this year, two extraordinary historical novels about gay couples in times of conflict. The first of them, Tom Crewe's "The New Life," was another brilliant debut novel, by an openly gay writer. Both books augur to become classics.

Alice Winn, 'In Memoriam,' Knopf, 377 pp., $28.

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