A Very Long Engagement
A Very Long EngagementIntroduction
Sébastien Japrisot's novel A Very Long Engagement was first published in France in 1991 and was translated into English and published in New York in 1994. Set in France during and after World War I, the plot revolves around the fate of five French soldiers who have been sentenced to death for shooting themselves in the hand to avoid military service. In January 1917 the men are marched to a frontline trench on the Somme, near Bouchavesnes. They are then pushed unarmed into no-man's-land between the French and German lines and abandoned to their fate. After the war, Mathilde Donnay, the fiancée of Manech, begins a long investigation into what happened to the five men. She hopes against hope that her fiancé is still alive. Through correspondence with the wives of the condemned men and with former military officers, as well as the placing of newspaper advertisements and the hiring of a private detective, she eventually discovers the truth about what happened.
A Very Long Engagement is an antiwar novel that exposes the cruelty and horror of trench warfare, and the official lies and corruption that allowed atrocities to take place. The novel is also a detective story, as Mathilde unravels the mystery of what happened to the five men. Finally, the novel is a moving love story, which shows that love can endure even when war destroys everything else that is valuable.
Jean Baptiste Rossi was born in 1931, in Marseille, France. Under the pseudonym Sébastien Japrisot, he is a mystery writer, film director, screenwriter, and translator. He lives in France.
Japrisot wrote and published his first novel in 1950, when he was eighteen years old. His first novel translated into English was The 10:30 from Marseilles (1963), which was published in its original French in 1962. The English translation was later published under a different title, The Sleeping Car Murders (1997). Drawing on the techniques of the police procedural novel, the story centers around a series of murders on a passenger train.
In Japrisot's novel Trap for Cinderella (original French edition published in 1964; English translation in 1964), two young women are burned in a house fire. The survivor is disfigured beyond recognition and suffers from amnesia. The mystery develops through a complex plot and descriptions of the same events from different points of view. The novel was awarded the Grand Prix de la Littérature Policiére.
Japrisot's psychological mystery The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (original French edition published in 1966; English translation in 1967) was awarded the Prix d'Honneur. It was followed by Goodbye Friend (original French edition published in 1968; English translation in 1969), in which a doctor returning from Vietnam is accused of murder. In One Deadly Summer (original French edition published in 1978; English translation in 1980), a daughter, conceived through her mother's rape, vows vengeance against her father, the rapist.
The English translation of The Passion of Women (original French edition published in 1986; English translation in 1990) was also published under the title Women in Evidence. It focuses on the death of a man falsely accused of killing a child. This novel was followed by A Very Long Engagement (original French publication in 1991; English translation in 1994), a tale of love and war, which won the literary Prix Interallia in 1991 and became a bestseller in France and abroad.
Japrisot's also penned Rider in the Rain (original French edition published in 1992; English translation in 1999), along with dozens of screenplays, some of them adaptations of his own novels, including The Sleeping Car Murders (1965), Trap for Cinderella (1965), and One Deadly Summer (1983). Negotiations were taking place in 2002 for a movie version of A Very Long Engagement, although Japrisot declined the invitation to write the screenplay himself.
A Very Long Engagement begins in January 1917, during World War I. Five French soldiers are being marched to the battlefront on the Somme. They are prisoners, having been condemned to death for shooting themselves in the hand to avoid military service. Their names are Kléber Bouquet (Eskimo), Francis Gaignard (Six-Sous), Benoît Notre-Dame (That Man), Ange Bassignano (Common Law or Nino), and Jean Etchervery (Manech, also known as Cornflower).
In August 1919, Manech's fiancée Mathilde visits Daniel Esperanza, a former army sergeant who is dying in a hospital. He tells Mathilde everything he knows about what happened to the condemned men. He was in charge of escorting them to the frontline trench called Bingo Crépuscule. His orders were that the men were to be thrown over the trench, with their hands tied, into the no-man's-land between the French and German trenches. He arranged for the condemned men to send letters to their loved ones. Then they were sent over the trench. Esperanza does not know exactly what happened after that, since he was transferred to another regiment, but he heard that all five prisoners were killed.
The White Widow
The wheelchair-bound Mathilde studies the information that Esperanza left her. She reads the copies he made of the men's letters and also reads a letter from Captain Favourier to Esperanza dated Sunday, January 7, which says the five men are still alive and he hopes to receive an order to bring them back at nightfall. Mathilde tries to piece the puzzle together. From Aristide Pommier she gleans some information about Manech as he was awaiting trial. She sees Esperanza again and suspects he is withholding information from her. She suspects That Man's letter is not what it appears.
The Good Old Days
Mathilde writes to the wives of the dead prisoners. She meets Six-Sous's wife and receives letters from the village priest in That Man's town and Madame Conte, who is Tina Lombardi's godmother. Conte says Tina received official notice that Common Law was killed in action January 7, 1917. Mathilde visits the bar owned by Little Louis, a friend of the Eskimo, who tells of how his friend was also declared killed in action. Louis tells of a quarrel between the Eskimo and his girlfriend Veronique Passavant, and between the Eskimo and one of his closest friends, a man known as Biscuit. Mathilde wants to believe that the Eskimo, a tough character, protected Manech and saved his life.
Queen Victoria's Tuppence
Pierre-Marie Rouviàre has at Mathilde's request discovered more information. A casualty list dated Monday, January 8, 1917, lists all five men as dead. But there is no evidence they were killed in the manner Esperanza says, and the lawyer knows that there was an official pardon for the men on January 2. Even though Pierre-Marie tries to convince Mathilde that Manech is dead, she is not convinced. She publishes an advertisement in the newspapers, asking for information. She believes that a casualty list can be altered and that at dawn on Sunday, January 7, all five men were still alive.
The Mahogany Box
Mathilde receives a letter from Veronique Passavant, saying that she believes the Eskimo is still alive, although she has no evidence. The mother of Urbain Chardolet tells Mathilde that when her son saw the five men lying in the snow, one or perhaps two were not the person or persons he expected to find. This gives Mathilde hope. Benjamin Gordes's wife Elodie writes to say that Gordes was killed January 8, 1917, in a bombardment. Mathilde learns that Gordes is the man named Biscuit and that in 1916, Gordes and the Eskimo quarreled over a woman. Mathilde suspects that Gordes later had some influence on his former friend's fate.
The Woman on Loan
Elodie Gordes explains what happened between herself, her husband, and Eskimo in 1916. The war was hard on Benjamin Gordes. He told his wife that if they could have another child, making six in all, he would be discharged from the army. But alcohol had made him impotent. He suggested that she allow his friend Kléber, the Eskimo, to make love to her when he came home on leave. After Elodie and Kléber did this, the two men quarreled. Mathilde also guesses that Veronique Passavant, who was living with Kléber, walked out on him because of his affair with Elodie. Mathilde also learns from Pire, her private detective, that the five men were buried by British soldiers and then interred two months later at a cemetery in Picardy.
The Mimosas of Hossegor
Mathilde and Manech first met in June 1910, when Mathilde was ten years old and Manech thirteen. Their love grew steadily, and Manech scratched the letters MMM in a poplar tree near the lake where they swam together. The letters stand for Manech's Marrying Mathilde.
In 1921, Mathilde buys the land on the shore of the lake, where her father builds her a large villa. The family makes a pilgrimage to Manech's grave. Mathilde receives an anonymous letter saying that Célestin Poux is dead.
The Terror of the Armies
Poux is convinced Manech was killed by machine-gun fire from a German plane, although he did not witness it personally. He describes the fates of the other men and the battle that took place that weekend. He asserts that the letter That Man wrote to his wife is in code, something Mathilde has suspected. They discuss Chardolet's comment that one or possibly two of the bodies were not who he expected. Poux believes that if any of them survived, it would have been That Man.
The Other Side of No-Man's-Land
Mathilde visits the former battlefield, which is now a huge freshly mowed field. At dinner, she meets Heidi Weiss, whose brother, a German soldier, was killed at the same trench at the same time as Manech. Weiss confirms that from what she was told, Manech was killed by fire from a German plane. Mathilde also hears via a newspaper report that Tina Lombardi has been executed for killing French military officers.
The Lovers of Belle de Mai
Mathilde receives a letter from Tina, written from Tina's prison cell. Tina explains that she killed the officers because they harmed her lover Nino. Like Mathilde, Tina had been searching for the truth of what happened to her lover. She provides information that fuels Mathilde's hope that Manech may still be alive.
The Sunflowers at the End of the World
With more information from Weiss, Mathilde is close to solving the mystery. She cracks the code That Man used in the letter he wrote to his wife. She finally finds That Man in a village called Bernay. He explains everything that happened, including how he managed to survive. He helped Manech away from the battlefield and thinks there is a good chance he survived.
Lieutenant-General Byng at Twilight
Mathilde learns that Manech is still alive, living under the name of Jean Desrochelles. He has amnesia and can remember nothing of the war. He lives with the mother of a soldier named Jean Desrochelles, who was killed in the war. The identity discs of the two men were switched. Desrochelles's mother went along with the deception, since her real son was dead and she needed someone to care for. Mathilde meets Manech, and although he does not recognize her, there are hints their romance will flourish again.
Ten soldiers from Newfoundland arrive at the Bingo trench on Monday, January 8, 1917. They find the five dead soldiers and bury them.
Ange Bassignano, also known as Common Law, is one of the five condemned French prisoners. He is twenty-six years old and handsome, but not of good character. He is regarded as sly, deceitful, and quarrelsome, and he has no occupation other than as a pimp. However, his girlfriend, the prostitute Tina Lombardi, is devoted to him. He was serving a five-year sentence for assault when he was plucked from prison and made to join the army. He is in the army for three months before he is condemned to death.
Bénédicte is the wife of Sylvain. She helps to take care of Mathilde.
See Benjamin Gordes
Kléber Bouquet, nicknamed the Eskimo because he once went adventuring in Alaska, is the oldest of the five condemned French prisoners. He is thirty-seven and a carpenter from Paris. He was falsely accused of self-mutilation and has thus been condemned to death for something he did not do. He is close friends with Little Louis and Corporal Gordes, although he and Gordes quarrel fiercely because Kléber has an affair with Gordes's wife, which Gordes himself encouraged him to do. At Bingo, the Eskimo is killed by machine-gun fire from an enemy plane, but not before he brings the plane down with a grenade.
Urbain Chardolet is a corporal in the French army who escorts the condemned prisoners. He dies from injuries he receives in July 1918 in a battle at Champagne.
See Ange Bassignano
Madame Veuve Paolo Conte
Madame Conte is Tina Lombardi's unofficial godmother and has known her since she was a baby. Madame Conte is just over fifty years old and not in good health. She writes to Mathilde from her home in Marseilles, telling of what she knows about Tina, whose whereabouts are unknown. She dies in 1923.
See Jean Etchervery
Jean Desrochelles is a corporal in the army who is killed at Bingo. Manech assumes Desrochelles's identity following the war.
Mathieu Donnay is Mathilde's rich father.
Mathilde Donnay was paralyzed by a fall at the age of three. She meets Manech when she is ten years old and their love blooms immediately. Mathilde comes from a wealthy family; she spends much of her time at her parents' vacation home in Capbreton, where she is cared for by Bénédicte and Sylvain. She is sixteen years old when Manech goes off to war, and seventeen when Manech faces his ordeal in no-man's-land. During the war, she teaches the children from a nearby town whose teacher has joined the army.
Mathilde is also a talented artist. She paints huge canvases of flowers, which after the war are exhibited in galleries across France. She loves cats and owns six of them.
After the war, Mathilde clings to the hope that Manech survived, even though all the evidence seems to suggest he did not. She is a resourceful woman and never gives up on her quest to find out what really happened that day. Like many women who lost their fiancés during World War I, Mathilde wants to marry Manech posthumously, although this feat proves impossible since Manech was too young to get married on his own.
Paul Donnay is Mathilde's older brother, for whom she has little affection.
See Kléber Bouquet
Daniel Esperanza, a sergeant in the French army, was in charge of the five prisoners as they were taken to the front. He ends the war as a regimental sergeant-major and is awarded the Croix de Guerre. After the war, he contracts Spanish influenza. When Mathilde meets him, he is dying in a hospital. He is forty-three years old but looks sixty. He dies shortly after their meeting.
Jean Etchervery, also known as Manech and Cornflower, is one of the condemned French prisoners. He is the fiancé of Mathilde and is nineteen years old. As a young man he was athletic and brave, a bit of a daredevil. In the army, he endured a traumatic experience when a torpedo exploded and he was drenched in another man's blood and scraps of flesh, leaving him fearful of the war. He deliberately gets himself shot in the hand because he wants a leave of absence to visit Mathilde. As a result of the injury, his right hand is amputated. By the time he is marched to the war front, he has almost lost his mind, and the expression on his face is a fixed smile. Once cast out into no-man's-land, he builds a snowman with his one hand.
See Captain Etienne Favourier
Captain Etienne Favourier
Captain Etienne Favourier is also known as Fancy Mouth because of his colorful language. He does not approve of sending the prisoners into noman's-land. He is killed during the battle at Bingo.
Francis Gaignard, nicknamed Six-Sous, is one of the five condemned French prisoners. He is a corporal who has been reduced to the ranks. Six-Sous is a welder by trade, and he is also a passionate socialist and trade unionist. His views were influenced by an incident in 1908, in which he was wounded when cavalry attacked a group of striking workers. Six-Sous is a pacifist who hopes that one day the working men of all nations will refuse to fight in wars. When he is tossed into no-man'sland, he shouts to the Germans that war is a disgrace and everyone should put down their weapons. He is shot by a German soldier.
Théràse Gaignard is the wife of Six-Sous. After the war, she works as a laundress near Paris. She receives a pension and raises her two little daughters herself.
Benjamin Gordes is one of the two corporals who escort the condemned prisoners. He is also known as Biscuit. He is a quiet and decent man, rather sad but well thought of by others. At the age of twenty, Gordes becomes a widower with four adopted children. He has adopted one more child by the time he marries Elodie. He and Kléber have been friends since 1910 and are in the same regiment during the war. They quarrel over Gordes's wife Elodie. Gordes hates the war and takes to drinking. He is killed at Bingo going to aid his friend Kléber.
Elodie Gordes is Benjamin Gordes's wife. Before she married Gordes, she had a daughter by a man who quickly deserted her. Elodie has an affair with Kléber, at the insistence of her husband, who wants her to have a sixth child so he can have permission to leave the army. But she does not become pregnant by Kléber.
Tina Lombardi is the companion of Common Law (she calls him Nino), whom she has known since she was thirteen or fourteen. She had a difficult childhood. Her mother died while giving birth to her and her father was a drunkard. She became a prostitute. After the war, she searches for the truth of what happened to Nino. She hates all the military officers who had a part in his death, and she kills several of them. She is arrested, convicted, and executed.
See Jean Etchervery
See Ange Bassignano
Benoît Notre-Dame, nicknamed That Man, is one of the five prisoners condemned to death. A large, thirty-year-old farmer from the Dordogne, he is a loner who keeps his troubles to himself. He is a good soldier and does what is necessary to survive. On one occasion, he strangles an officer in his company. He is patient, obstinate, and cunning.
Mariette Notre-Dame is the twenty-year-old wife of That Man. When she hears that he has been killed, she sells their farm and moves away with her young son. She is seen in February 1917 when she rents a furnished room, but after that her whereabouts are a mystery.
Veronique Passavant is the Eskimo's girlfriend. Eskimo refers to her in his letter as Véro. In 1916, after Kléber has an affair with Elodie Gordes, Veronique walks out on him and will not speak to him again. In spite of that incident, the love between them continues.
Germain Pire is a private investigator hired by Mathilde to unlock the mystery of what happened to Manech.
Aristide Pommier is a cook in Manech's regiment. He has known Manech since they were boys. Mathilde dislikes him. After the war, Pommier goes to live in Quebec and writes to Mathilde with some information about what happened to the five soldiers.
Célestin Poux is the young soldier known as the Terror of the Armies. He is known for his resourcefulness and determination in keeping his platoon supplied with food. He is extremely popular with his comrades. After the war, he serves as a corporal in the army of occupation across the Rhine, and then for a while he works at a garage. He loves his motorbike and does not like to stay in one place for too long. Eventually Mathilde makes contact with him and, during a long stay at her house, he tells her all that he knows about the events of the fateful weekend at Bingo.
Pierre-Marie Rouviàre is the family lawyer who assists Mathilde in her investigation. He is skeptical that the incident with the prisoners ever happened but he agrees to investigate.
Lieutenant Jean-Baptiste Santani
Lieutenant Jean-Baptiste Santani is the medical officer who treats the five condemned prisoners. He is killed two days later in an enemy bombardment.
See Francis Gaignard
Sylvain is a middle-aged man married to Bénédicte. The couple looks after Mathilde.
Louis Teyssier is a friend of the Eskimo and a former boxer. He owns a bar, where Mathilde visits him. He gives her information about Veronique, the Eskimo, and Gordes.
See Benoît Notre-Dame
Heidi Weiss is an Austrian woman whose brother was a German soldier killed at Bingo. She meets Mathilde and gives her information about what happened.
The enduring nature of love is set against the destructiveness of war. Mathilde is so devoted to her fiancé that she tirelessly works to discover his fate and clings to the belief he is still alive. It is clear her love was reciprocated. During the seven months Manech was at war, Mathilde received sixty-three letters and postcards from him. She has read these so often she could recite them all word for word.
When Mathilde rediscovers Manech, although he does not recognize her because of his amnesia, his first words to her are exactly the same as those he spoke when they met as children: "You can't walk?" This is a significant moment. So much has been destroyed and yet here is a hint the two young people can start again, almost as if nothing has changed. Love can survive, even under such awful circumstances. They must rebuild and get to know each other again, but they can still have a future together. Although the author chooses not to elaborate on how their renewed relationship develops, the reference to Mrs. Desrochelles as Mathilde's future mother-in-law makes it clear that Mathilde and Manech do eventually marry. The same inference is conveyed by the narrator's comment, as Mathilde gazes at her fiancé: "Life is long and can still carry a great deal more on its back."
The love theme can also be seen in the story of Tina and Nino (Common Law), even though their story is much darker. It is like a reverse image of the idyllic love between the admirable Mathilde and Manech. Nino is a pimp and Tina a prostitute, but her love for him and her dedication to finding out the truth about what happened to him are no less than Mathilde's. It is implied that even though Tina and Nino led lives that most would regard as disreputable, the love they shared was no less valuable or intense than that of the other couple. There are all kinds of people and all kinds of love in the world, and it is love that is the antidote to war.
The antiwar theme is brought out on all levels. The war is presented as barbaric, cruel, and senseless. Common Law, for example, gives thanks that he is not in the "first batch tossed into that meat grinder," an image that presents the soldiers as cattle being sent to the slaughterhouse. Daniel Esperanza, who was in the thick of the conflict, roundly condemns it and punctures any myths of the glory of war. He remarks on the photographs he possesses of soldiers showing "self-glorification for having captured a gun or an exhausted enemy soldier … self-satisfaction at the funeral of a fallen comrade."
Topics For Further Study
- Investigate the causes of World War I. What was the immediate cause and what were the main underlying causes?
- Research the history of the use of poison gas in warfare, from World War I to the present. When was the use of poison gas banned internationally?
- Research the role of the United States in World War I. Why and when did the United States enter the war? What were the main battles fought by American troops?
- Were the men in the novel who shot themselves in the hand cowards, or were they justified in their desire to escape the conflict? Is a soldier always, without exception, obliged to follow the orders of his commanding officer? Why or why not?
- War leaves many victims other than those killed or wounded in battle. In the novel, who, other than the five prisoners, are victims of the war? What are the different ways in which these victims react to and cope with their losses?
The barbarity of the sentences meted out to the prisoners is also condemned by many of the characters. Esperanza's commanding officer, as he passes on his orders to Esperanza, says that in his opinion, "a good half of the high command should be sent off to the nuthouse." And yet when a pardon is received for the men, five days before they are pushed into no-man's-land, it is ignored. There is an official cover-up of the incident. No officers are allowed to sign any papers relating to the affair, and they are told to just forget about what happened. The official version, that the men were killed in action, is just one example of what the narrator scathingly refers to as "the lies called History." There are other examples of the narrator making his feelings known independently of the characters. When Mathilde visits the cemetery, she finds the grave of Six-Sous, who like the others died for no reason. The narrator comments on "the obscenity of a war that hadn't had one [a reason], aside from the egoism, hypocrisy, and vanity of a privileged few."
Nonlinear Narration and Poetic Style
As befits a mystery novel, the plot does not unfold in a linear way. It jumps forward and backward in time, as the events of the weekend in which the prisoners were pushed over the trenches is retraced through the reminiscences and letters of a range of characters. The point of view remains that of Mathilde, and she acts as the unifying element and the fulcrum for the entire narrative, since it is through interviews with her, or letters addressed to her, that the truth of what happened unfolds gradually. The voice of the narrator is also heard occasionally, usually to deplore the stupidity of the war.
The style of the work is often poetic and somewhat wistful, as for example in the epitaph written by the Canadian patrol leader as he and others bury the bodies: "Here lie / five French soldiers, / who died with their shoes on, / chasing the wind, … where the roses fade, … a long time ago." The wistful, yearning tone can be seen again in the description of the painting on the back of the wooden sign from Bingo, showing a peaceful scene in which a British officer gazes into the distance where the sun is setting. It evokes the idyllic world of France that the war disrupted.
Through simple descriptions of nature, the novel also shows how some of that lost world can be recovered, as in the description of the site of the trench at Bingo, as it appeared several years after the war:
The huge, freshly mown field has a lush green hill for its horizon, a little stream flowing quietly beneath a wooden bridge, and two truncated elms with leafy lower branches, their trunks ringed by suckers.
The same idea is contained in the figure of speech used by That Man in which life is personified as a traveler that can carry many burdens on its back and still continue. The idea occurs again in the evocative chapter title "The Sunflowers at the End of the World." The end of the world is where That Man says he now lives. The significance of the phrase is that in a sense the war was the end of the world. Not only must it have seemed that way to the men in the trenches, it literally put an end to the European world that existed until the guns started firing in August 1914. The end of the world where That Man lives is also the beginning of a new world, symbolized by the presence of That Man's son, whom Mathilde meets before she meets That Man himself. It also sets the scene for the peaceful idyll in which Mathilde meets Manech again, in the French village of Noisy-sur-Ecole. Perhaps Mathilde and Manech are the sunflowers, ready to bloom once more now that the clouds of war have passed.
World War I
World War I was one of the most devastating wars in human history. The number of casualties was huge. In the battle of Verdun, for example, which began in February 1916 and lasted for five months, the French suffered 350,000 fatalities as they repelled the German assault on a strategically important fort. The Germans had 300,000 fatalities. In the battle of the Somme, which began in July 1916, the British army suffered over 57,418 casualties, one-third of who were killed on the first day alone. By the time the battle petered out in November, the British had suffered about 400,000 dead and wounded men, the French nearly 200,000, and the Germans an estimated 500,000. For that price, the British and French allies had gained only a small amount of territory, no more than 125 square miles. Between October and November 1916, the battle for Verdun flared up again, and the French regained the forts of Douaumont and Vaux. This was the battle in the novel in which Common Law participated for fifty days and which he describes in this way:
Fifty eternities of terror, second by second, horror by horror, to retake that ratrap stinking of the piss, [sh—], and death of all those on both sides who'd jerked one another around without quite managing to finish it off.
There are many nonfiction accounts of the peculiar horrors of World War I. Alan Lloyd, in his book The War in the Trenches, writes of Verdun:
"We had never experienced its like," recalled a French sergeant. "Shells of all calibres kept raining on our sector. The trenches had disappeared, filled with earth. We crouched in shell holes, increasingly smothered by the mud from explosions. The air was unbreathable. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died splashing us with their blood. It was living hell."
This is the background against which the twenty-eight French soldiers in the novel, including the five who are described in detail, decided to mutilate themselves in the early winter of 1916 rather than be exposed to this level of carnage.
The battles of Verdun and Somme in 1916 were examples of trench warfare. The first trenches on what became known as the Western Front were built by the Germans in September 1914, only one month after the war began. The trenches were built so that the Germans could halt the advance of the British and French. The Allies, seeing they could not break through the German trenches, dug trenches of their own.
Because the Germans had built the first trenches, they were able to choose the most advantageous positions for them, generally on higher ground. The British and French had to build their trenches at a lower level, on land that in some cases was only a few feet above sea level. Water was usually found only two feet below the surface. This meant that building and maintaining a trench was a constant battle against water and mud.
There were three rows of trenches: frontline trenches, support trenches, and reserve trenches. There were also communication trenches, designed for the transportation of men and equipment. Frontline trenches were usually about seven-feet deep and six-feet wide. The front of the trench was known as the parapet, the top part of which would be packed with sandbags to absorb enemy fire. To enable troops to see over the trench, a ledge known as a fire-step was added.
Life in the trenches was hard. Not only was there the constant threat of being killed by enemy artillery or poison gas, there was the daily annoyance of rats, who flourished in the unsanitary conditions. Many of these rats were large and showed no fear of humans. They were bold enough to try to take food from a sleeping man's pocket. Body lice were another problem and proved impossible to eradicate. Lice carried the disease known as trench fever, which afflicted many soldiers. The condition known as trench foot was another hazard. It was an infection caused by cold and damp conditions, when men had to stand in waterlogged trenches for hours at a time. If it was not treated, trench foot could turn gangrenous and require amputation of the affected appendage.
Compare & Contrast
- 1914–1918: Trench warfare is largely immobile. It involves large armies fighting for months to make very small territorial gains.
Today: Trench warfare is a thing of the past, as are conventional wars in which large armies clash on battlefields. More common today are what are called asymmetrical conflicts, which involve large differences in military power between adversaries. Terrorist groups attacking larger powers such as the United States or Russia are examples of asymmetrical conflicts.
- 1914–1918: Britain and France are bitter enemies of Germany.
Today: Britain, France, and Germany are allies and members of the European Community.
- 1914–1918: Poison gas is used by all sides in the conflict. An estimated 91,198 soldiers die as a result of poison-gas attacks and another 1.2 million are hospitalized. The Russian Army, with 56,000 deaths, suffers the most.
Today: Since the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the use of poison gas has been banned. The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is a global treaty that bans chemical weapons. One hundred and thirty-five countries, including the United States, have signed the treaty.
Reviews of A Very Long Engagement applaud Japrisot's skill in creating an intriguing mystery and the many ways in which he evokes the devastation caused by World War I. A Publishers Weekly critic praises Japrisot's "eloquently easy, almost
offhand style," and comments that his "re-creation of the nobility, futility and horror of trench warfare is harshly beautiful." The critic has one reservation, however, and that is the character Mathilde, whom the critic finds difficult to like.
Christine Donougher in the Times Literary Supplement admires the way in which the novel places ordinary people at the center of events. The effect, Donougher argues, is to make the reader aware that the noncombatant survivors of the war—wives, girlfriends, parents, children, and neighbors—were just as much victims of the war as the men who fought and died. Although Donougher feels the unsentimental tone of the novel is sometimes forced, she concludes that it is a "cleverly constructed detective novel, with strong elements of suspense and surprise, and, at the same time, it conveys the high price which was paid for a war that seemed to produce no victors."
A New Yorker contributor observes that "Japrisot writes with warmth, and has a gift for rendering almost every character instantly likable." Rachel Billington in the New York Times Book Review finds some elements of the plot unconvincing, but has high praise for the style exhibited by Japrisot and his translator Linda Coverdale, which is "deceptive, apparently without flourishes but rich in imagery and daringly abbreviated rhythms."
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses trench warfare, shell-shock, self-inflicted wounds, indiscipline, and punishment in the British and French armies during World War I.
The reader of A Very Long Engagement needs to stay alert. Japrisot is a master at veiling the truth at the same time he half-reveals it. He readily drops physical clues such as a pair of German boots, a button from a British uniform, a unique postage stamp, or a red glove. He offers hints and offhand remarks that only reveal their significance later in the story; he creates subtle differences in the way various people relate the story about the events of that fateful weekend on the Western Front. Also, like any good mystery writer, Japrisot plants red herrings, like the hints that the men who survived, if anyone survived, might have been Common Law or the Eskimo. And he piles up the evidence that Manech really is dead, fooling the reader all the time (but not Mathilde) and only revealing the truth at the end.
But perhaps what remains most vividly in the reader's mind is not the skillfully plotted mystery, or the moving love affair between Manech and Mathilde, but the devastation of war. This is a mystery and a detective story set against the background of "the war to end all wars," as World War I was known at the time.
A Very Long Engagement presents World War I as it was for the soldier at the front. In this aspect of the novel too, Japrisot uses his skills as a mystery writer. At various points in the novel, characters express disbelief that the French army could really have done something so callous as to toss their own men over the trenches to serve as shooting practice for the enemy. The reader wonders whether Japrisot invented the incident for the sake of telling a good story. This is, after all, a work of fiction. But near the end of the novel, the author very deliberately inserts a passage from the memoirs of General (later Field Marshall) Fayolle, a World War I commander. The memoirs were published in 1965 and include a record of a meeting of French generals in January 1915, during which General Pétain, later to become the French hero of Verdun, ordered that twenty-five French soldiers who had shot themselves in the hand should be bound and thrown over the trenches closest to the enemy. It is clear from Fayolle's comment about Pétain that he disagreed with the decision: "Character, energy! Where does character end and ferocious savagery begin!"
This insertion of a passage from a nonfiction memoir is almost as incongruous in a novel as a footnote might be; like a scholar documenting his sources, Japrisot provides the title, author, publisher, date of publication, and page number of his quoted material. Incongruous or not, the information hits home with the force of a barrage of artillery. The truth, unfortunately, is that acts of self-mutilation in order to avoid or terminate war service were not uncommon during World War I. Soldiers were exposed to a kind of warfare more hideous and terrifying in its squalor, deprivation, and danger than (many would agree) any country has a right to ask its young men to endure. And those who took drastic measures to avoid such horrifying conditions were punished.
In the British army, many soldiers hoped they would be wounded in battle, since this would be the equivalent of receiving a ticket to be sent home. Some soldiers took the logic of this further and inflicted wounds on themselves. This was an offense punishable by death. A total of 3,894 men in the British army were convicted of self-inflicted wounds. None were in fact executed, but all served periods in prison.
What Do I Read Next?
- Goodbye to All That (1929), by Robert Graves, is a bitter autobiography by the British writer who served as an officer in the trenches during World War I. Graves participated in several battles and on one occasion was wounded and left for dead for twenty-four hours before receiving medical attention. Graves expresses nothing but contempt for the British army commanders and the British government that allowed such senseless slaughter.
- Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), by Siegfried Sassoon, is a classic memoir of Sassoon's life in the trenches during World War I. It not only describes the horrors of trench warfare but also shows the emotional wounds of the survivors. Like Graves, Sassoon has only withering scorn for the British High Command.
- World War I produced an outpouring of memorable poetry. The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (second revised edition, 1997), edited by Jon Silkin, is an excellent anthology that contains the works of thirty-eight British, European, and American writers.
- Sébastien Japrisot's Women in Evidence (2000) is another mystery novel. It is set in the years following World War II and describes a woman's quest for the identity of the man who killed her husband. Like A Very Long Engagement, the plot is complex and leaves the reader guessing until the end.
Other frontline soldiers committed suicide rather than endure the hell of the trenches. They would place the muzzle of their rifle to their head and squeeze the trigger with their big toe. There were also recorded instances when men driven beyond endurance would put their heads above the parapet and wait until they were shot by an enemy sniper. This is a variation of what Manech does in the novel, when he holds up his right hand above the parapet, clutching a lighted cigarette to guide the German sniper to the target. Manech hopes this will get him out of the trenches and sent home as an invalid.
Executions in the British army were carried out, if not for self-inflicted wounds then for other offenses, including desertion, being asleep or drunk on post, striking a superior officer, abandoning a position, and cowardice. There were 304 such executions in the British army during World War I; the vast majority were for offenses committed in the trenches at the Western Front. The executions were carried out by firing squads. It is clear from later statements of the soldiers who were ordered to shoot their own comrades that the executions aroused as much dislike and distaste as is shown by some of the French soldiers in the novel regarding the five men tossed over the trenches. In one case, a British soldier who faced a firing squad was injured by only one bullet that hit him in the side. Everyone in the nine-man firing squad was deliberately firing wide, so that they would not have the man's death on their conscience. (The poor victim was eventually dispatched with a bullet to the temple fired by the officer in charge.) Just as in the novel, such men were officially listed as killed in action.
Another common punishment for disobeying orders in the British army was called Field Punishment Number One. Among other measures, such as forfeiting pay and other perks, this punishment called for the offender to be attached to a fixed object for up to two hours a day and for a period up to twenty-one days. According to some reports, these men were sometimes placed within range of enemy shell-fire (although this was against official regulations). Many at the time regarded this aspect of Field Punishment Number One as a barbaric punishment.
The French army also had its problems with discipline. As Guy Pedroncini states in his article, "The French Armies: Recuperation and Recovery," about the time A Very Long Engagement takes place, in early 1917, there was much discontent in the ranks because of factors such as reductions in leave time, inadequate food at the front, and inadequate rest facilities at the rear of the front. Drunkenness, insubordination, and desertions rose during the year, culminating in a mutiny of about 40,000 French soldiers in June. They refused to continue the kind of suicidal assaults on German lines that had produced large casualties and no results. The response of the French commanders was relatively mild. Five hundred and fifty-four men were sentenced to death, but only seven immediate executions took place. About half of the mutineers brought to court were granted extenuating circumstances, and one in eight was reprieved. Curiously, General Pétain, who had become the commanderin-chief of the French army, was in favor of leniency. "They are our soldiers," he reportedly said. This was the same Pétain who in 1915 had ordered the prisoners guilty of self-mutilation tossed over the trenches.
In most cases of indiscipline in the British and French armies, the problems were caused or exacerbated by the stresses of trench warfare. It is staggering for a modern reader to realize the extent of the system of trenches that crisscrossed Belgium and France during World War I. There were more than 12,000 miles of Allied trenches, and about the same number of German ones. It was almost possible to walk from Belgium to Switzerland entirely in trenches.
As far as living conditions were concerned, in addition to the ubiquitous rats, lice, and mud, there was the danger of being killed not only by the enemy but by one's own side. The passage in the novel where this is mentioned (Captain Favourier tells Esperanza about it) is not fiction. An estimated 75,000 British soldiers in the war were killed by British shells that had been intended for the Germans. The German and French armies also suffered casualties in this way.
One of the problems was that opposing trenches were very close together. In A Very Long Engagement, the trench known as Bingo Crépuscule is at its closest point only 120 meters (130 yards) from the German trench, and 150 meters (164 yards) at the farthest. The average distance in most sectors was about 230 meters (250 yards). The narrowest gap was at a place called Zonnebeke, where only 6 meters (7 yards) separated British and German soldiers.
The area between the trenches, known as noman's-land, was full of hazards. In front of the trenches was barbed wire that was sometimes thirty meters deep. Elsewhere in no-man's-land there would be shell holes and craters that made any advance difficult. Ironically, it is these difficult conditions that give the five French prisoners in the novel their best chance of survival. In front of Bingo, according to Esperanza, there were plenty of shell craters that gave the men the possibility of finding at least temporary shelter.
It was the stresses of trench warfare, including sleep deprivation combined with the trauma of constantly being under fire, that was responsible for the thousands of cases of shell-shock. At first, the British authorities did not recognize the condition as genuine, which meant that some of the men who suffered from it were executed for cowardice or desertion. Today, the condition is sometimes known by the more general term, battlefield exhaustion. Symptoms in World War I ranged from the milder cases of giddiness and headaches to complete mental breakdown. In the novel, Manech is a victim of shell-shock after a shell explodes near him and he is covered with the blood and flesh of another soldier. It is this experience that costs him his sanity. Given the unmitigated horror of trench warfare, the wonder is not that men such as Manech went insane but that more men did not do so. In the face of such madness, madness might seem like a logical response.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on A Very Long Engagement, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003.
Billington, Rachel, "No Man's Land," in New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1993, p. 24.
Donougher, Christine, "A War without Victors," in Times Literary Supplement, January 21, 1994, p. 20.
Lloyd, Alan, The War in the Trenches, David McKay, 1976, p. 84.
Pedroncini, Guy, "The French Armies: Recuperation and Recovery," in The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I, edited by Brigadier Peter Young, Vol. 8, Marshall Cavendish, 1984, pp. 2342–47.
Review of A Very Long Engagement, in New Yorker, Vol. 69, No. 31, September 27, 1993, p. 105.
Review of A Very Long Engagement, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 23, June 7, 1993, p. 51.
Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 1975.
Fussell examines World War I and how it has been assimilated, remembered, and mythologized by later generations. Chapter 2 gives an excellent account of life in the trenches.
Horne, Alistair, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, St. Martin's Press, 1963, reprint, Penguin, 1994.
Originally written in the early 1960s, this remains the best account of the terrifying battle of Verdun, between the French and German armies. Over a period of ten months, there were a total of 1,250,000 casualties. Horne's research includes personal interviews with survivors of the battle.
Kakutani, Michiko, "Seeking Fiancé's Fate, and Finding Bigger Issues," in New York Times, September 21, 1993, p. C17.
In this review, Kakutani views the novel as a gripping philosophical thriller and a meditation on the emotional repercussions of war.
Sixsmith, Major-General E. K. G., "Morale and Discipline," in The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I, edited by Brigadier Peter Young, Vol. 8, Marshall Cavendish, 1984, pp. 2348–56.
This is mainly a survey of discipline in the British army, which Sixsmith regards as generally excellent. He also discusses morale and discipline in the French, Russian, and German armies during World War I.