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The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929)

by Frederic Manning

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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346558,757 (3.92)36
First published anonymously in 1929 because its language was considered far too frank for the public circulation, The Middle Parts of Fortune was hailed by T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, by Lawrence of Arabia and Ernest Hemingway, as an extraordinary novel. Its author was in fact Frederic Manning, an Australian writer who fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and who told his story of men at war from the perspective of an ordinary soldier. Never before published in Australia, The Middle Parts of Fortune is now recognised as a twentieth-century classic.… (more)
  1. 00
    Life in the Tomb by Stratis Myrivilis (ten_floors_up)
    ten_floors_up: Another fictionalised account based on personal experience of an infantryman's life in the First World War. This one describes events in a part of Europe that an English-language reader might not associate with trench warfare of the time.
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» See also 36 mentions

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To a large extent, the popular British memory of the First World War is shaped by it's literature; the poems of [a:Wilfred Owen|4242|Wilfred Owen|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1211230350p2/4242.jpg], plays, notably [b:Journey's End|19422141|Journey's End (York Notes)|R. C. Sherriff|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1386922333s/19422141.jpg|27499570] by [a:R. C. Sherriff|7190389|R. C. Sherriff|https://s.gr-assets.com/assets/nophoto/user/u_50x66-632230dc9882b4352d753eedf9396530.png], and memoirs cum novels by the likes of [a:Edmund Blunden|31139|Edmund Blunden|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1335026460p2/31139.jpg], [a:Robert Graves|3012988|Robert Graves|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1251049332p2/3012988.jpg], and [a:Richard Aldington|94230|Richard Aldington|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1301735220p2/94230.jpg].

While these are all valuable documents, written as they were by men who served, there is a danger that they present an unrepresentative picture of life in the British army on the Western Front. Blunden, Graves, and Aldington, as well as [a:Siegfried Sassoon|146538|Siegfried Sassoon|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1210181586p2/146538.jpg], were all privately educated university men at a time when very few Brits could say that. As a result, the picture of Britain's war that emerges from the literature is disproportionately posh.

In it's unbowlderised form, [b:The Middle Parts of Fortune|19292587|The Middle Parts of Fortune|Frederic Manning|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1386524779s/19292587.jpg|366662] goes some way towards re balancing that. The hero is a slightly irritating semi toff who is presented as a bit of an ideal, but lots of space is given to the rank and file, characters like Shem, Martlow and Smart. With their grim humour and determination, these men, as much as their well educated officers, were the raw material of Britain's military success in the First World War. This book takes a closer look at them than any other and, as a result, is perhaps the most enlightening piece of British literature to emerge from the trenches. ( )
  JohnPhelan | Oct 4, 2016 |
Partly because of contemporary censorship, and partly because so many of the writers of the time were well-educated, middle-class boys, there is sometimes a tendency to imagine everyone from the First World War speaking in cut-glass Eton English. ‘Ready to give the Boche a damn good thrashing, Blodger?’ ‘Lumme, I should hope so old man,’ and so on. I mean you know logically that people still swore and cursed in the 1910s, but it's hard to take it on board instinctively when there's so little record of it. And then again, maybe people really were a bit more reserved in those days…?

I have fallen into that trap before; and linguistically speaking, The Middle Parts of Fortune has been a necessary corrective for me. Here, privates in the trenches are more direct:

‘Fuckin' slave drivers, that's what they are!’ said Minton, flinging himself on the ground. ‘What's the cunt want to come down 'ere buggerin' us about for, 'aven't we done enough bloody work in th' week?’

As soon as you read it, you think: ah. Yes. Of course that's how people spoke. I can hear people I know saying that.

Capturing this dialogue is one of Manning's key aims in this novel, and it was also one of the reasons the book got into trouble when it first came out (anonymously) in 1929. A year later it was bowdlerised and re-released as Her Privates We, the title under which it's still published by many modern editors, although it's not clear to me which version of the text is being used by who.

It's a great book anyway, and one that reminded me very much of Henri Barbusse's Le Feu. They have many incidents in common, but they also both depend stylistically on naturalistic slang, and they both spend the bulk of their time examining the interminable boredom that comprised ninety percent of soldiers' lives – the forced marches, billeting in tiny French villages in the rain, linguistic misunderstandings, trench philosophising, drinking binges in two-bit estaminets, the petty politics between different officers. All the time trying not to think about the next ‘show’: it was an existence based around rejecting the immediate future – what Manning describes as ‘their subterranean, furtive, twilight life, the limbo through which, with their obliterated humanity, they moved as so many unhouseled ghosts’.

As perhaps you can tell already, some of the prose is of quite an elevated register, especially compared with the speech. Manning is not averse to throwing in some rare archaisms like venusty to try and ratchet up the emotional effect of some scenes; I'm still not sure how I feel about that. I think the dialogue was more successful than many of the descriptive passages.

He does write very incisively, though, on many aspects of trench life, like its enforced masculinity. The lack of female interaction brings about all kinds of strange psychological symptoms – it instils a ‘sense of privation, which affected more or less consciously all these segregated males, so that they swung between the extremes of a sickly sentimentalism and a rank obscenity’, as demonstrated in several scenes.

I think ultimately Le Feu might be a better book. The Middle Parts of Fortune was very slightly let down for me by the central character, Bourne, who seems to move through a series of scenes that are designed to show off the excellence of his character: he is always the most level-headed, the most intelligent, the most judicious of his companions, and since he's a thinly veiled version of the author, this struck me as slightly off-putting. On the other hand, the portraits of other soldiers are very moving here, and I cared about some of them more than I cared about anyone in Barbusse.

They had nothing; not even their own bodies, which had become mere implements of warfare. They turned from the wreckage and misery of life to an empty heaven, and from an empty heaven to the silence of their own hearts. They had been brought to the last extremity of hope, and yet they put their hands on each other's shoulders and said with a passionate conviction that it would be all right, though they had faith in nothing, but in themselves and in each other.

The book ends with his company going over the top, and by this stage, after so much detailed uncertainty and procrastination, the effect is very powerful. My palms were sweating. Manning handles it perfectly: it feels as though you too, as a reader, have been waiting the whole time, with a sort of sick anxiety that can only be the tiniest shadow of its original, for this final, dreadful rush into hell. ( )
1 vote Widsith | Apr 27, 2014 |
The same bleak story over and over. It is always a wonder to me that anyone survived, let alone then set to write about it. For some reason I was reminded of Malouf's Fly Away Peter. ( )
  kcshankd | Nov 29, 2013 |
The First World War in literature makes me think of Farewell to Arms and All Quiet on the Western Front. Manning's Her Privates We is perhaps less known, but deserves a place with those classics. The book tells the story of Bourne, a simple soldier fighting in France, apparently quite like the author did.

As this is an honest book, it's not much about fighting and a lot about what happens in between. The life behind the front is boring, though the alternatives aren't charming either. Bourne is an intelligent man, perhaps somewhat unlike his fellows, yet he fits in and doesn't really want the promotion they want to give to him. There's the futility of the war, and then there's the strong companionship between the men.

Manning paints a beautiful literary picture of a horrid thing. The crude language of the soldiers (at least in the non-bowdlerized editions), the vivid descriptions of mud and ruins, of all the uncomforts of military life, it is all described in detailed, beautiful prose. If you're looking for a good book about war, particularly the First World War, look no further. (Review based on the Finnish translation.)

(Original review at my review blog) ( )
  msaari | Jan 24, 2008 |
Published as fiction but based on the experiences of the author as a very literate private at the Somme. ( )
  gmenchen | Aug 1, 2006 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Manning, Fredericprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Griffin, EriIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Malouf, DavidIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Information from the Dutch Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Voor Peter Davies, die me dwong het te schrijven
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The darkness was increasing rapidly, as the whole sky had clouded, and threatened thunder.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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An expurgated version was published as "Her Privates We".
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First published anonymously in 1929 because its language was considered far too frank for the public circulation, The Middle Parts of Fortune was hailed by T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, by Lawrence of Arabia and Ernest Hemingway, as an extraordinary novel. Its author was in fact Frederic Manning, an Australian writer who fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and who told his story of men at war from the perspective of an ordinary soldier. Never before published in Australia, The Middle Parts of Fortune is now recognised as a twentieth-century classic.

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 1876485825, 1921922389

 

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