The Unwomanly Face of War

I’ve always enjoyed reading about war: the bold – or daft – decisions taken, the soldiers tales – hardship and heroism, the comradeship – the sense of the sweep of history. Once wars are done this is what they become. Historians, politicians, even the survivors themselves seem to conspire in trying to make sense of what has happened, casting the waste and horror of it all seem necessary, worthwhile even, conformable somehow to the norms of peace.

Even the famous memoirs of the First World War – which lives in popular imagination as the most futile and bloody of conflicts – are removed from the fearful reality of what was actually experienced. We are cushioned and protected from the physical reality by literary convention,  reticence, or perhaps by the sense that those bloody experiences are stories are not only untellable, they are not fit to be told.

The Unwomanly Face of War is different. Svetlana Alexievich spent years collecting the stories of women who took part in the Great Patriotic War against the Germans, serving in every part of the armed forces.

The memories of the women interviewed are unmediated, funny, heartbreaking, truly horrifying at times. They are drenched in blood. The women staunch it when they can; work and fight in clothes so stiff with dried blood that the cloth cuts you; they bleed themselves – as soldiers and as women. For the first time, in these stories, blood isn’t incidental, it is the war itself. This is Maria Yakovlevna Yezhova, a Lieutenant of the Guards and Commander of a Medical Platoon who, on her first day at the front rushed straight to the trenches because the quicker she started, the sooner the war would be over.

I would come to the medical platoon, wash up, grab some clean clothes – and go back to my trench.At the front line. I didn’t think about myself. You crawl, you run…Only the smell of blood…I couldn’t get used to the smell of blood…
After the war, I became a midwife in a maternity ward – but I didn’t stay there for long. Not for long…For a short while…I’m allergic to the smell of blood; my body simply wouldn’t accept it…I had seen so much blood during the war that I couldn’t stand it anymore. I left Maternity and went to Emergency Aid. I got nettle rash, I was suffocating.
I sewed a blouse from a piece of red cloth, and by the next day some of sort of red spots had spread all over my hands. Blisters. No red cloth, no red flowers – roses or carnations, my body wouldn’t accept it. Nothing red, nothing that had the colour of blood…Even now I have nothing red in my house. You won’t find anything.
…Human blood is very bright, I have never seen such a bright colour, not in nature, not in any painting.
Pomegranate juice is something similar, but not entirely. Ripe pomegranate.”

After reading this I searched out those pictures of poppies flooding the moat around the Tower of London (walls hiding its own Bloody Tower) and saw them again more mindful than before of what they stood for – that ‘blood dimmed tide’ we loosed upon the world. I also reflected that, over the years since it was first adopted, the poppy – symbol of spilt blood – has itself helped normalise the idea that the sacrifice – the blood price – was worth paying. Always a dangerous illusion because a price wort paying becomes by easy steps affordable.

Alexievich’s book is written as an antidote to that sort of complacency. Talking about  her six year old daughter, Alexievich writes:

‘how am I to explain war to a child? To explain death? To answer the question of why people kill? Kill even little children like herself. We, the adults, are as if in collusion…I would like to write a book about war that would make war sickening, and the very thought of it repulsive. Insane. So that even the generals would be sickened…

§

You read this book slowly, wanting time to reflect on each woman’s story, not to rush past any of these hard won histories. We are privileged to share in truly untold memories. This is an unburdening.

§

The title points to one of the tensions that runs through the book and through the stories the women tell.

War is ‘unwomanly’. It is man’s business. Women don’t find glory it, as men do. They are not fascinated by it. If they fight it is only for peace.

The army asserts its intrinsic manliness in all sorts of ways.  It will accept women as soldiers, but cannot accommodate them. Women are always non-conformists. In a real sense – whatever their qualities as soldiers – they cannot fit into the uniforms the army provides.

The consequence is that, although their comrades acknowledge their contribution, you could never trust them to stick to an agreed line or tell the right stories. Even 40 years after the war Alexievich was told she shouldn’t publish her book, because women’s memories would be unreliable. They would make things up. They would focus on the wrong things.

Alexievich resists this. Women’s testimony she says (and every story attests) is uniquely important because it is different. She writes:

There is a concept in optics called ‘light-gathering power’ – the greater or lesser ability of a lens to fix the caught image. So, then, women’s memory of the war is the most ‘light-gathering’ in terms of strength of feelings, in terms of pain. I would even say that ‘women’s’ war is more terrible than ‘men’s.’ Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and conflict of ideas, of interests, whereas women are caught up in feelings…They are capable of seeing what is closed to men. I repeat once more: their war has smell, has colour, a detailed world of existence: “They gave us kit bags and we made skirts out of them”; “I went into the recruiting office through one door wearing a dress, and came out through the other wearing trousers and an army shirt, with my braid cut off and only a little lock left on my forehead…”; “The German’s gunned down the village and left…We came to the place: trampled yellow sand, and on top of it one child’s shoe…”

§

And sometimes all you can do is laugh: listen to the irrepressible Anastasia Leonidovna Zhardetskaya, Corporal, Medical Assistant:

And my husband…It’s good he isn’t here, he’s at work. He told me strictly…He knows I like to talk about our love…How I made my wedding dress out of bandages overnight. By myself. My friends and I spent a month collecting bandages. Trophy bandages…I had a real wedding dress! I still have a picture: I’m in this dress and boots, only you can’t see the boots. But I remember I wore boots. I concocted a belt out of an old forage cap…An excellent little belt. But what am I…going on about my own things…My husband told me not to say a word about love – no, no, but to talk about the war. He’s strict. He taught me with a map…For two days he taught me where each front was…Where our unit was…I’ll tell you, I wrote it down. I’ll read it…
Why are you laughing? What a nice laugh you have. I also laughed…What kind of historian am I! I’d better show you that photo, where I’m in that dress made of bandages.
I like myself so much in it…In a white dress.

§

Sasha Dugdale has written some verses in response to these stories, published in her collection, Joy. This is one of them:

I have no right to grief
I am whole
I have no right to grief
I am whole
I have no right to grief
I am whole
From Days by Sasha Dugdale

The Unwomanly Face of War

Past, present and future

I drove home last week from a friend’s funeral reflecting on the way that grief will always find you unprepared. It is so particular – to person and circumstance. You can be caught out by its absence as much as by an unlooked for depth and intensity.

At K’s service, I hadn’t anticipated such a sense of loss. We hardly met face to face, had drifted apart after a disagreement over a year ago, yet I found myself, in the silence of the crematorium chapel, filled with sadness for the loss of her voice. So much of our friendship, the respect I held her in, sprang from the sound of it, found most often in her writing: fluent, intelligent, always ready with story or example, full of wit and humour, insight and mischief.

The sense of affront was a surprise too. I ought to be familiar with how arbitrary life can be – but I was angry with death that day – K’s loss was premature; death, rude and unmannerly. After all K was one of us, mid-stride in her life. She should have lived. She ought to have lived.

Afterwards I found comfort in this thought, taken from Iris Origo’s wonderful partial autobiography Images and Shadows. Thinking about her own griefs she writes:

‘All that I can affirm is what I know of my own experience: that though I have never ceased to miss my father, child and friend, I have also never lost them. They have been to me, at all times, as real as the people I see every day, and it is this, I think, that has conditioned my attitude both to death and to human affections.

It is very easy, on this subject, to become sentimental or woolly, or to say more than one really means. I think I am only trying to say something very simple: that my personal experience has given me a very vivid sense of the continuity of love, even after death, and that it has also left me believing in the truth of Burke’s remark that society – or I should prefer to say, life itself – is ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. Not only are we not alone, but we are not living only in a bare and chilly now. We are irrevocably bound to the past – and no less irrevocably, though the picture is less clear to us, to the future. It is this feeling that has made death seem to me not less painful, never that – for there is no greater grief than parting – but not, perhaps so very important, and has caused my affection, in its various forms, to be the guiding thread of my life’.

Past, present and future

Things you learn on Twitter #2 – that winds have names and colours…

I came across this lovely thread a while ago. It began with Robert Macfarlane again, choosing as his word of the day, ‘Helm Wind’ – the UKs only named wind that blows from the North East and pours down off Cross Fell in Cumbria.

@AnneLouiseAvery responded:

In medieval Ireland, the winds were each said to have a particular colour (see Saltair na Rann, a collection of 162 Early Middle Irish poems)

So the north wind is black and the south, white, while a wind from the SSE is greyish-green. IMG_0300

Fascinating enough – then @iandhig adds this from Flann O’Brien – scholar and poet that he was:

‘People in the old days had the power of perceiving these colours…a better occupation than gazing at newspapers’ (From the Third Policeman)

I feel guilty about passing on these conversations – albeit they are public ones but, as John Aubrey says:

How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellowes as I put them down.

Things you learn on Twitter #2 – that winds have names and colours…

The Soul

I believe in the transmigration of souls … I’ve come to this belief through experience. My own soul, in all the time of my earthly suffering, has traversed many animals and plants, and endured all the stages and realms spoken of by the Buddha.

I was a pup when I was born, and a goose when I entered public life. Starting in government service, I became small potatoes. My boss dubbed me a brick, friends—a jackass, freethinkers—a sheep. Traveling along the railroads, I was a rabbit; living in a village among peasants, I felt myself a leech. After one instance of embezzlement I was for some time a scapegoat. Marrying, I became horned cattle. Embarking, finally, on the one true path, I acquired a belly and became a triumphant swine
Anton Chekov)

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/08/30/some-thoughts-about-the-soul-2/

The Soul

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

This week on Radio Four the BBC is broadcasting extracts from Svetlana’s Alexievich’s oral history of the experiences of Russian women soldiers in the second world. It’s marvellous – terrible and sad, horrifying, moving and inspiring too. Well worth a listen on iPlayer.

Here’s a review of the book from the Guardian:

[A] sense of absolute directness and immediacy lies at the heart of Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary oral history of the Russian women who fought in the second world war, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Over seven years in the late 1970s and early 80s, she interviewed many hundreds of women, the pilots, doctors, partisans, snipers and anti-aircraft gunners who served on the front line, and the legions of laundresses, cooks, telephone operators and engine drivers who backed them up.Very few of those she approached refused to talk to her. One former pilot, who turned her down, told her that she could not bear to return in her mind to the three years during which she had felt herself not to be a woman. When, in the ruins of Berlin, her future husband proposed to her, she had been outraged. “How, in the midst of chaos? Begin by making me a woman,” she told him. For the rest, the women poured out their memories to her, not simply recounting them, but reimagining them. The simpler the women, the more their stories were “uninfected by secondary knowledge”.

Source: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich review – for ‘filth’ read truth | Books | The Guardian

I have been looking at Svetlana’s books for a few months now, since they started appearing on the bookshelves (Penguin have published her oral history of the Chernobyl Disaster Chernobyl Prayer and a lovely edition from Fitzcarraldo Editions of stories from people living through the end of the the Soviet Union, called Second Hand Time

I didn’t buy because I had enough in my unread pile already, but thought, if I’m lucky, here’s a new Studs Terkel…

Did I mention she’s a Nobel prize laureate too?

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

Choosing Logres

Jeremy Corbyn has been stuck like a fishbone in the craw of the Labour Party almost since he was first elected back in the eighties.

Irritating but immovable, the party learned to overlook him – along with the smaller band of refuseniks who sat with him on the backbenches resolute in their – deeply unfashionable – principles.

Fashion, though, has a way of coming full circle. Just as we can be certain that mullets and bell bottoms will one day return to triumph – so Corbyn triumphs now. It’s biblical: remember Psalm 118 v22:

The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.

So, with socialism back on the table, we have a choice on Thursday. It is political of course, but I wonder if it isn’t deeper than that too. Here’s something I read years ago in CS Lewis’ strange novel, That Hideous Strength. One of his characters, Dimble, asks if we had noticed:

“How something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres. Haven’t you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind every Milton, a Cromwell: a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers; the home of Sidney–and of Cecil Rhodes. Is it any wonder they call us hypocrites? But what they mistake for hypocrisy is really the struggle between Logres and Britain.”

It crops up in Howards End too as the contrast between the life of the mind – and heart – and the world of ‘telegrams and anger.’ Margaret Schlegel, here:

The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched–a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There, love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here’s my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one–there’s grit in it. It does breed character.”

Margaret’s wisdom is to see that you have to have the grit of the outer world as well as the world of ‘personal relations’ – but it shouldn’t be all about those ‘telegrams and anger’. In Lewis’ terms Logres and Britain will always need each other.

The problem today is that, for the last forty years ‘Britain’ has been in the ascendant. The voice of the practical woman and man has been supreme in the land. Some things have improved, but a great deal of what we most value – children and families, health, the environment, has been – is being – threatened. We need to redress the balance, bring back some of those other qualities – where people matter, where the heart has value, and where what counts is not merely money.

Corbyn – for all his many faults (he’s no King Arthur) does represent something different. Maybe Thursday is the time to give Logres its chance.

Choosing Logres

Victor Hugo and Daemons

I’ve just come across this from Victor Hugo:
‘It is our conviction that if souls were visible to the naked eye, we would clearly see the strange phenomenon whereby every individual member of the human race corresponds to one of the species of the animal kingdom … Animals are nothing more than the forms our virtues and our vices take, trotting around before our very eyes, the visible phantoms of our souls.’

Was this starting point for Philip Pullman’s daemons?

Victor Hugo and Daemons