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Under Fire (Penguin Modern Classics) by…

Under Fire (Penguin Modern Classics) (original 1916; edition 2003)

by Henri Barbusse

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Title:Under Fire (Penguin Modern Classics)
Authors:Henri Barbusse
Info:Penguin Books, Limited (UK) (2003), Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library

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Under Fire by Henri Barbusse (1916)


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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
This novel consists of a series of vignettes about World War I as seen through the eyes of French soldiers in the trenches on the front lines. The images described are graphic and devastating, but the whole book has a poetical quality about it that is beautiful to read. The only criticism I have is that the last chapter got too preachy for my taste, which was unnecessary because the images in the book get Barbusse’s point across without any additional explanation. ( )
  AmandaL. | Jan 16, 2016 |
Read 11/11

This book, which is included on the 1001 list, is one of the most influential of all war novels. It contains powerful and graphic descriptions of war's horror, insanity, and, sometimes, boredom and drudgery. The descriptions of life in the trenches, and the saturation shelling that resulted in a de facto scorched earth policy, are visceral.

The book focuses on a unit in the French army. Each of the many characters has a segment in which he "stars", as we learn his backstory. Through the character under the spotlight, the book explores one or more particular aspects of the life of a soldier in the trenches. In one chapter, for example, Barbusse describes the various soldiers ("poilus") as they load up their packs to go on the move, and must decide what to take and what to discard. This section reminded me so much of The Things They Carried (one of my favorite books), that I can't help but wonder whether Tim O'Brien was familiar with this book.

I read this on Kindle, and I highlighted so many phrases and paragraphs, that I'm sure I've got half the book underscored. One of the less graphic descriptions of the dead on the field:

"Around the dead flutter letters thathave escaped from pockets....Over one of these bits of white paper, whose wings still beat though the mud ensnares them, I stoop slightly and read a sentence--'My dear Henry, what a fine day it is for your birthday!' The man is on his belly; his loins are rent from hip to hip by a deep furrow; his head is half turned around; we see a sunken eye; and on temples, cheek and neck a kind of green moss is growing." ( )
  arubabookwoman | Oct 1, 2015 |
Henri Barbusse's novel is perhaps the first written about World War One. Many of the familiar motifs in subsequent novels are found here and, especially in Robin Buss' visceral translation, it contains some of the most vivid writing about war I've ever read.

But this remains a French novel of its time, written in the shadow of Zola with the idea that a novel can emerge from the sheer accumulation of detail. The book never overcomes that perennial problem facing books about often boring professions like soldiering; writing about boredom without being boring itself. More importantly, Barbusse, subsequently a sycophant for Stalin, believes clearly in the brotherhood of economic classes across borders and the comparative falsity of national identities. As the rest of the blood soaked century would sadly show, many people remained wedded to these identities. ( )
  JohnPhelan | Jun 17, 2015 |
Semi-autobiographical and written from the notes Barbusse took while he was fighting in World War I, Under Fire is a boots-on-the-ground view of the war. And as even a glancing knowledge of war, and this war in particular, will tell you: it's not pretty. That doesn't mean that the writing can't be pretty, however. Within the first few pages of this book I'd made a note that said, "It's like a novel of Wilfred Owen poetry." I consider that high praise. Just like Owen, Barbusse chooses and layers words that communicate with precision: "slime, oozing, sticky, found, ruined, grey, leaden, pallid." The reader is instantly transported and nearly suffocated in the environment being described.

Our narrator takes us through open fields full of random death, half-destroyed towns full of suspicious civilians who extort the soldiers for whatever they can get from them, completely destroyed towns eerie in their emptiness, and the claustrophobia of the trenches. Hours and days pass in confusion, in close quarters with the rest of his squad, none of whom know any more about what's going on than he does. People are lucky and live through another day; some are luckier still and get a wound that will send them home, away from all of this. The unlucky can hardly be thought about in the moment, but the bodies remain around them for entirely too long, enabling the soldiers to think about them more than they ever wanted. Life and death are jumbled together at all times, and when a short respite comes from the immediacy of one's own mortality, catching up on their sleep or having a decent meal and some wine is foremost in the soldiers' minds. Mostly it's better if they don't expend a lot of energy contemplating why they're where they are, when it will end, or even if it will end, but Barbusse does get around to this conversation near the end of the book. Reading their thoughts with the benefit of hindsight is poignant. It's often difficult to read books about World War I that depict the conditions these men fought in, and the number of casualties - it's no coincidence that some of the most vivid anti-war literature came from this time period. I had never heard of this book before; I think it is deserving of more attention.

Recommended for: people who enjoyed Johnny Got His Gun or similar books, anyone who wants to look unflinchingly at the Great War.

Quote: "His life is twofold in hope; he is happy, for the imminent happiness that does not yet exist is the only real happiness down here." ( )
  ursula | Apr 30, 2014 |
In Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, the central character, having been wounded on the Italian Front, escapes from the army and takes refuge in a hotel in the Alps. While there he meets an old acquaintance who interrogates him on the subject of war literature:

‘What have you been reading?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘I'm afraid I am very dull.’
‘No. But you should read.’
‘What is there written in war-time?’
‘There is
Le Feu by a Frenchman, Barbusse.’
[…] ‘Those books were at the hospital.’
‘Then you have been reading?’
‘Yes, but nothing any good.’

I don't know if A Farewell to Arms can really be considered a war novel proper, but to the extent that it is one, it's a less successful one than Le Feu – and Hemingway, who drove ambulances in Italy, has got a goddamn nerve criticising the experiences of Henri Barbusse, who was a front-line footsoldier in the trenches.

This book, pace Papa, is good. It is really good, and not just in a documentary sense – which I had expected – but also in a literary sense, which I had not. The First World War was of course the first major conflict to field hordes of men that had benefited from a systematic education – hence the wealth of poetry and journals – and Barbusse is a case in point. Before being a poilu he'd been a literature graduate; at university, his tutor had been Mallarmé. Le Feu, which won the Prix Goncourt, shows a steady literary intelligence every step of the way.

The reason I had expected it to be of primarily documentary interest is, I suppose, because of its uniquely early appearance. Barbusse wrote the novel while on convalescent leave in 1915, and somehow managed to publish it (albeit in heavily censored form) the following year, when the war was still at its height. So these are dispatches from the very heart of the maelstrom, however fictionalised they may be.

You wouldn't call it enjoyable. It is oppressive and I found it often a slow read – but I've never before been given such a visceral idea of daily life in the trenches. The dreadful monotony of forced marches, the constant tiredness, the misery of trying to find your way through knee-high mud in the dark, of trying to sleep on wet mud while dressed in sodden clothes, negotiating the ever-changing labyrinth of trenches and boyaux, the exhaustion of heaving yourself up over the muddy parapet to charge at banks of barbed wire with mortar shells landing all around you – it's just so undramatically, so realistically described.

Some of the details are truly extraordinary. I hope never to gain a comparable understanding of the changes undergone by a friend's face after they drown in mud, or the exact pressure needed to pull the boot off an old corpse without also pulling off the foot. At one point the narrator's company, lost in the trenches in the middle of the night, is led through a sewage channel to try and find the front lines, so that they are literally marching ankle-deep in shit (‘dont on sent, parmi la bourbe terreuse, les fléchissements mous’). On another occasion, lost in the driving rain, he is about to lower himself into a trench when he hears German voices walk past and realises he's inadvertently wandered up to the enemy lines – an incredible reminder that the French and German positions were barely forty metres apart at some points.

Barbusse's most interesting tool though is dialogue: the earthy patois of the poilus, a rich mix of slang and regionalisms, is central here, and must make translating this novel an unusually challenging prospect. I certainly learnt a lot of vocab reading it. With the proviso that I am not a native speaker, to me it all had a deep ring of truth to it, and the many long conversational scenes are as close as you'll ever get to eavesdropping on the trenches of 1915. Here, for example, the men are bitching about all those officers that dress up in flash uniforms but stay well behind the lines:

— On les connaît, ceux-là ! I's diront, en f'sant l' gracieux dans leur monde : « J' m'ai engagé pour la guerre. — Ah ! comme c'est beau, c' que vouz avez fait ; vous avez, de votre propre volonté, affronté la mitraille ! — Mais oui, madame la marquise, j' suis comme ça. » Eh, va donc, fumiste !

[“We know all about their sort! They'll talk it up in company, putting on airs: ‘I signed up for the war.’ — ‘Oh! How noble you are! Facing the bullets, of your own free will!’ — ‘Well, you know, my lady – that's just the kind of guy I am.’ Well go on then, arsehole!”]

These are the kind of people back in society whose attitude is neatly summed up by Barbusse as ‘Sauvons la France! – et commençons par nous sauver!’ But talking about them is just comic relief, for us and for the men involved. More often they struggle with what the war is for, how it has turned normal people into brute machines that sleep on their feet and kill strangers, and how it could ever hope to be justified by some brighter potential future.

—L'avenir ! L'avenir ! L'œuvre de l'avenir sera d'effacer ce présent-ci, et de l'effacer plus encore qu'on ne pense, de l'effacer comme quelque chose d'abominable et d'honteux. Et pourtant, ce présent, il le fallait, il le fallait !

[“The future, the future! The work of the future will be to erase this present, and to erase it even more than we realise – to erase it as something abominable and shameful. And yet, this present – we needed it, we needed it!”]

He is trying to convince himself, of course. The gritty details in this book are the more powerful for being set alongside equally representative scenes of inactivity and soul-destroying monotony – monotony for the soldiers, I hasten to add, not for the readers. The readers are in for something altogether different.

Barbusse is the real deal and I feel changed for reading this remarkable document. I'll leave the final analysis on the mess we're presented with to one of his mud-encrusted colleagues: Deux armées qui se battent, c'est comme une grande armée qui se suicide! Two armies fighting each other is just one big army committing suicide. ( )
  Widsith | Feb 16, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (16 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Henri Barbusseprimary authorall editionscalculated
Buss, RobinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Winter, JayIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To the memory of the comrades who fell by my side at Crouÿ and on Hill 119 January, May, and September 1915
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Mont Blanc, the Dent du Midi, and the Aiguille Verte look across the bloodless faces that show above the blankets along the gallery of the sanatorium.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0143039040, Paperback)

Based on his own experience of the Great War, Henri Barbusse?s novel is a powerful account of one of the greatest horrors mankind has inflicted on itself. For the group of ordinary men in the French Sixth Battalion, thrown together from all over France and longing for home, war is simply a matter of survival, lightened only by the arrival of their rations or a glimpse of a pretty girl or a brief reprieve in the hospital. Reminiscent of classics like Hemingway?s A Farewell to Arms and Remarque?s All Quiet on the Western Front, Under Fire (originally published in French as La Feu) vividly evokes life in the trenches?the mud, stench, and monotony of waiting while constantly fearing for one?s life in an infernal and seemingly eternal battlefield.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:38 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Based on his own experience of the Great War, Henri Barbusse's novel is a powerful account of one of the greatest horrors mankind has inflicted on itself. For the group of ordinary men in the French Sixth Battalion, thrown together from all over France and longing for home, war is simply a matter of survival, lightened only by the arrival of their rations or a glimpse of a pretty girl or a brief reprieve in the hospital. Reminiscent of classics like Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" and Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Under Fire" (originally published in French as "La Feu") vividly evokes life in the trenches -- the mud, stench, and monotony of waiting while constantly fearing for one's life in an infernal and seemingly eternal battlefield.… (more)

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