Better known as the author of Clochemerle, the 1930s satire of French morals, Gabriel Chevallier was called up by the French army at the start of the First World War and fought all the way through as a humble poilu. He was wounded once and emerged at the end with a chest full of medals, a fact that might come as a surprise to anyone reading this “rediscovered” classic. Fear, first published in 1930, tells the story of his alter ego Jean Dartemont, and is characterised by the sort of behaviour you might think hardly likely to earn a man a medal.
Instead, Dartemont huddles in trenches, tries to escape duties and, like any old salt, is always on the lookout for food, drink and a place to sleep undisturbed. There is nothing exactly new in any of this and, although he is present on some of the war’s worst battlefields – Verdun, for example, and the Chemin des Dames – his fear of being killed or wounded, his contempt for his officers and his dislocation from the rest of society doesn’t come as a surprise to us now, having had 80 years or so to re-evaluate the war. Can it have been possible that this was revolutionary stuff in 1930?
There are enough flashes of intense colour and incident to make this translation a worthwhile exercise, though, and distinctly French: “A strange scent hung in the air, at first rather sweet and sickly, but then giving off the richer notes of a still-contained putrefaction – in the way that a thick sauce slowly reveals the strength of its seasoning.” He quotes some of the encouraging notices that appeared in French newspapers: “It was time war came to France to revive the true meaning of the Ideal and the Divine.” And he neatly encapsulates the ideal of the infantryman when meeting two newly arrived American troops: “They have chucked away their weapons, considering them useless, keeping only items of protection and comfort. Such a precise grasp of the needs of the present fills us with admiration.”
If Fear has an English equivalent it is The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning or, in German, Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger, each of which give a view of the war from the perspective of lowly infantrymen, and both of whom, like Chevallier, remain stoutly immune to the old lie that dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.