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BOOK REVIEW / Looking forward to remembering: The missing of the Somme - Geoff Dyer: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 15.99

THE 'young men' of the 1930s, according to Philip Toynbee, had 'envy rather than pity' for those who had fought in the Great War; and he may have meant young writers especially. For Toynbee's yearning - to have been part of the biggest subject history has ever dealt the British - persists in writers of Geoff Dyer's generation, even as the last old soldier is about to depart with his memories. Now, if it is possible to have a new Great War literature, it is the disqualified who must write it. And it is the tension between recorded experience and Dyer's fortunate, voluntary relation to it - in short, the impertinence of his first person - that is the chief interest of his slight but ambitious new book.

The Missing of the Somme begins with a rather preciously isolated recollection of being taken as a child by his grandfather (a veteran of the Somme campaign) to a Natural History Museum, where they see butterflies in glass cases, their names 'scrupulously recorded' - 'row after row, bright and neat as medal ribbons'. It ends with a visit to the British cemetry at Thiepval (the inscription on Lutyens's memorial there supplies the title), where Dyer finds himself alone and the air full of butterflies: I remember the names of only a few butterflies but I know that the Greek word psyche means both 'soul' and 'butterfly'. And as I sit and watch, I know also that what I am seeing are the souls of the nameless dead who lie here, fluttering through the perfect air.

Within this pretty frame, the book disintegrates: fragments of travel writing (Dyer makes a second journey to the battle sites with two rowdy companions); bits of John Bergeresque 'reading' of photographs and memorials; addresses to an unidentified individual; pockets of lit crit.

This is in part the fate of a small book following big books. Wherever it ventures on the literature, it is bound to walk in the shadow of Paul Fussell's classic The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), as Dyer concedes: 'Reading him - or anyone else for that matter - I am searching for what is not there, for what is missing, for what remains to be said.'

He hazards some pages about Great War literature of recent years, but notes on novels by Susan Hill, Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks are likely to seem callow recruits to Fussell's formidable army of readings. Likewise, where Dyer looks at monuments, memorials and the institutions of remembrance, his materials overlap with those of Samuel Hynes's A War Imagined (1990), though that book is less generously acknowledged.

The book seems most itself where the subject is time: in the strange tenses Dyer finds in photographs of enlisters, for example (although 'those who are going to have died' is too close, for such lambs, to the gladiatorial 'morituri'). And the heart of it is its sense of the fading of remembrance: how the noise of London is encroaching year by year on the two minutes' silence at the Cenotaph service. For Dyer's personality does something similar wherever it intrudes on the general decorum: whether in drunken banter with his mates, in laddish parentheses - '(Perhaps the Somme was not only an indictment of military strategy but also of the British propensity for the long-ball game)' - or in the alternative solemnities of his anti-nationalism, deriding the 'ugliness' of the Union Jack or making the Thiepval memorial stand for 'the 'disappeared' of South America and Tiananmen'.

And yet - these strains notwithstanding - since the war is what Dyer's generation hasn't got, he feels bound to argue the primacy of remembrance over event. Thus, from a narrow base of selective detail (for instance, that Laurence Binyon's 'For the Fallen' was written in 1914, and is therefore 'the anticipation of remembrance'), he springs into generalisations which could only exist to serve his particular purpose: 'Even while it was raging, the characteristic attitude of the war was to look forward to the time when it would be remembered'; or 'the war seems, to us, to have been fought less over territory than the way it would be remembered'.

And, for all the insights scattered among its pages, The Missing of the Somme is really about its own writing, an exercise in self-fulfilment. There is a reflexive tic at work ('Photographs of the missing are themselves missing'; 'the debate itself becomes the main subject of debate') which gives parts of the prose the vacuous sophistication of certain fashionable criticism. Which is to say, it spirals happily into its own structure of words: 'The sense of imminent amnesia is, has been, and - presumably - always will be immanent in the war's enduring memory.'

At such moments, one fears for the future of the Great War - that it will end up, like literature before it, as so much ammunition for Theory.

(Photographs omitted)