Paperback review: Her Privates We, by Frederic Manning

 

David Evans
Sunday 24 November 2013 01:00
Comments

Frederic Manning, an Australian writer who settled in Britain in 1903, was little known before this fictionalised account of his experiences in the trenches was published in 1930, attracting praise from Hemingway and E M Forster. But while the wartime poetry of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke has become lodged in the collective consciousness, Manning’s extraordinary novel, reissued here by Serpent’s Tail, remains somewhat obscure.

The book’s themes are folded into that odd, iambic title. First of all, “Her Privates We” refers to the common soldiers who trudged through the mud and blood of the Western Front, “like flies through treacle”. Manning’s meandering narrative, book-ended by two vividly-described battle scenes, mostly describes the minutiae of their days together.

“Privates” is also an obvious sexual pun (the phrase is lifted from a passage of ribald wordplay in Hamlet, referring to lady fortune’s “secret parts”). And verbal courseness is key to Manning’s intentions, as he sets about rendering the soldiers’ speech in earthy, realistic detail. The idea that these heroes said “cunt” and “fuck” makes them seem all the more human and vulnerable; the enormity of their sacrifice somehow more intelligible.

“Private” has a more philosophical meaning here, too. “Every private soldier”, writes Manning, was a “man in arms against a world, a man fighting desperately for himself, and conscious that, in the last resort, he stood alone”. Each man is desperate to preserve a sense of privacy, of “self-reliance”, but at the same time reluctant to turn inward, for fear of confronting the “grotesque terrors” conjured by a shell-shocked mind. Such psychological acuteness marks this book out as both a precious document of the First World War and an imperishable Modernist masterpiece.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in