Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Middle Parts of Fortune, by Frederic Manning

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

In this little known classic Australian author Frederic Manning takes the reader deep into the disturbed psychological states of soldiers during the First World War.

It's a curious thing that this novel about trench life during the First World War isn't better known. It should certainly be more widely read, especially in high school and university. Its grim realism and intricate exploration of the shattered minds of British soldiers is certainly an antidote to the glorification of war that still predominates today. Frederic Manning was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1882. He moved to England in 1898 and managed,  after repeated attempts due to poor health, to enlist in 1915. He went on to fight at the battle of the Somme. The Middle Parts of Fortune is based on his experiences in the trenches.

Manning's central character is Bourne, a rather laconic and introspective soldier whom his superiors want to promote. Bourne, however, prefers to stay with the common soldiers. The novel basically follows Bourne and his fellow men through their day-to-day lives. We get the boredom, filth, hardships, death, violence and anger of the soldiers. The novel is also noteworthy for its frank dialogue – there's a lot of ‘f’ and 'c' words used throughout. (Various  editions over time have censored this language.) Unapologetically, there's no plot. The ending, when it does come, is so starkly realistic and matter-of-fact that it feels like a punch to the stomach. In fiction we tend to hope for either a happy or meaningful ending. Manning provides neither, almost as a reproach to such sentiments.

Although this is primarily a war novel that tries to speak the truth about life at the front, it's also a deeply existential work that is quite original in tone. Manning is very much concerned with the mystery of being and the secrets we keep, from others and ourselves. For example:

“As soon as one touched the ring of the mystery which is oneself, too many unknown possibilities confronted one, everything seemed insecure and unstable.”

The sections that deal more directly with the mens' feeling about war show resentment and anger at others, notably older men and politicians, for sending them off to their deaths. Manning has some remarkable passages about the nature of war and how soldiers struggle to maintain any coherent moral sense amongst such madness and destruction.

“There is nothing in war which is not in human nature; but the violence and passions of men become, in the aggregate, an impersonal and incalculable force, a blind and irrational movement of the collective will, which one cannot control, which one cannot understand, which one can only endure...”

This is a fine and carefully written novel with a unique psychological perspective. Its style is quite understated and subtle, yet powerful. Once I'd turned the last page I wanted to immediately read it again to uncover some of its hidden meaning. This is a forgotten classic that provides a window on the harrowing experiences of the men who fought in the First World War.

The Middle Parts of Fortune, by Frederic Manning. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780143571681  RRP: $9.95

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