In the High Peaks

Saturday, June 28, 2014

La Peur by Gabriel Chevallier--A World War I Novel

What struck me most about this novel narrated by a French infantryman of the intelligentsia is the utter isolation of his experience apart from his comrades. Yes, I know so far I'm not explaining myself well. Aside from a just a couple of comrades, Negre being one, the narrator experiences this universe of the absurd alone. We know his fellow infantrymen are near and that they share their bodily and psychic miseries, but the narrator doesn't draw us into these relationships or into these characters. The focus is solely on the narrator's personal relationship with Total War.

While reading this book, it seemed to me that the French infantryman was less well-provided for than his British counterpart, in terms of food, clothing, and other sustenance. I may be wrong in my interpretation, and I should study the facts. But the French war machine seemed less well-prepared to care for the men in extremis. I was shocked that in the Vosges mountain region that soldiers were expected to endure -25 to -35 degrees below zero. I'm assuming that's Fahrenheit? Was Celsius the norm in France in World War I? (If you know, I'd love the information. Obviously, I need to research that as well.) In any case, I know how extreme cold can fatigue the human body to a point where an individual ceases to care about anything, including his survival, very quickly. I was so surprised that it was that cold, and that they had to endure it without respite. When it is -25 below Fahrenheit here, everything stops.

I loved the narrator's rebellious, solitary nature and admired his sneering, scathing point of view of the military, the war machine, the governments involved, as his thinking evolved.

I feel Chevallier's voice is one of the very strongest in WWI literature. So why isn't he more popular? Yes, his work was censored during WWII, but it was available during the 1930s and after WWII. I wonder how popular it is in France, and in the rest of Europe.

The only copy of the novel that I could obtain was for my Nook. I found much text to highlight.


  1. Sorry, I didn't get to you earlier.
    It's true that he's very isolated, isn't he?
    You are correct that the French were less well equipped than the Germans but not much worse than the British, i think, Fussell says a lot about this in his book The Great War and Modern Memory.
    -25° to -30° is Celsius. To this day we measure Celsius in Europe. I actually even thought that only the US has Fahrenheit. It would be -13° to 22° Fahrenheit. Still - very cold with out proper clothes.
    Thanks so much for joining this month and for your thoughts.

    1. Thank you so much, Caroline, for the information. The temperatures you mention, -13 to -22 degrees F are those we have here, especially at night. I cannot imagine standing on sentry duty with that, not in the clothing Chevallier described.
      Thank you again,

  2. Thanks for this review of what sounds like an interesting book. I would read it, but I don't like to read about war. To do so just gets my anti-war sentiments revved up and I want to go and protest what happened during WWI.

    So many brilliant young people, including two fantastic water colorists died. Such a loss to everyone.

    After reading this, I searched for information on Chevallier. I found that this book was considered an anti-war book. I guess it was censored during WWII because the French government wanted soldiers for the war and didn't want young people reading this book.

    Interesting that you're keeping up your WWI reading. You'll be a expert on the war.

    Are you reading Pat Barker's trilogy on the war? She wrote about "shell shock," which affected so many soldiers in Britain. I guess we'd call that PTSD these days.

    1. Kathy,
      I have read parts of the first book in Pat Barker's trilogy. I would like to read more, but I'm suffering from World War I fatigue at the moment, I think, having read three novels on the subject this year, and many many other WWI novels in previous years, both fiction and nonfiction. However, I still WILL READ Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth this summer. Looking forward to it as soon as I've had a bit of a rest.
      Yes, Chevallier's book was definitely anti-war; in fact I don't know of any WWI soldier who wrote pro-war books, unless one counts Rupert Brooke's early WWI poetry. If you know of any pro-war literature, please let me know.
      Best wishes!

  3. Ooh, I wouldn't know about pro-war fiction, as I'm so anti-war that I can't even read about war, as I get sick over the loss of lives, injured young soldiers, destruction of villages, farms, cities, animals, etc.

    I've stopped reading the war news in the NYT or online, can't do it.

    Just want to sit on the stoop and play with dogs and read travel and book review sections of the paper, etc.