Reviewed in The Guardian 2 February 2008
Europe's charnel house
Michael Rosen celebrates the work of the French first world war poet, Marcel Martinet
In 1919, France's foremost literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, was won by Proust. One of the runners-up was Marcel Martinet with La Maison à l'Abri ("The House out of Harm's Reach"). It's a novel about the first world war seen through the eyes of a group of tenants living in the same house, and George Paizis' account of the book suggests shifts and conflicts reminiscent of Chekhov or Sean O'Casey. Martinet was someone who not only opposed the war in the build-up to 1914, but, unlike many of a similar outlook, went on opposing it throughout. The book can't be pigeon-holed as an "anti-war novel" though, because it gives voice to a whole range of attitudes that develop and twist as loved ones are injured or killed. So, Paizis has excavated someone whom very few English-speaking readers will have heard of and he is keen to place Martinet both in his times and in the context of his own political activity - which was considerable.
Martinet was born in Dijon in 1887, to parents with migrant origins (Italian and Polish-Jewish). He was heading for a degree in France's top college when he gave it up with a lifetime commitment to a refus de parvenir, a "refusal to 'make it'", a turn-away from careerism. In the first years of the Communist party, he was at its heart, writing pages in its daily paper on what we would now call literary theory. But it wasn't long before he was on the outside, finding himself in the company of other socialist and Marxist critics of Stalinism – though he seems to have been uncomfortable with being too close to André Breton and the surrealists on this matter. What's more, he wrote a play, La Nuit, which Paizis argues anticipates Brecht both in its method and its intent. If we need labels, Paizis tucks away in a footnote the suggestion that at heart, Martinet wasn't anyone's "party" man, he was probably a "revolutionary syndicalist".
The central 100 or so pages of this book are taken up with a selection of Martinet's poems, printed here in both French and newly translated by the author. A first reading immediately suggests a politicised anger, very similar to Sassoon at his most agitated, as with his famous "Fight to a Finish" which closes: "I heard the Yellow-Pressmen grunt and squeal; / And with my trusty bombers turned and went / To clear those Junkers out of Parliament." It emerges from this book that in order to avoid the censors – or worse – Martinet published the poems in Switzerland, from where they were distributed as samizdat. Like Wilfred Owen or Ernst Friedrich in his book of photos War Against War, Martinet gives us the horrors of industrial warfare, piling up bodies and documenting horrific injuries. But he also wanted to express rage at the betrayal of the international socialist leaders who, he thought, could have united to prevent this carnage, and likewise at the clerics, "newspaper warriors" and learned professors who sell the war. There's fierce sarcasm here too: "Beautiful Europe, light and conscience of the world, / O charnel house."
Martinet didn't see action – he was deemed to be not fit enough – so when he imagines the other side, it's not as another soldier, as with Owen's "Strange Meeting", but as a German poet who in parallel will be "weeping over our dead and yours". Then, as if expanding Sassoon's idea of turning the guns on his own leaders, Martinet pleads for some kind of revolutionary revenge.
Across the poems, his style shifts, one moment focusing on the detail of a woman asking her lover if they'll start up "where they'd left off" and the next using a declamatory: "Ah! c'est un crime affreux." He moves between free, blank and rhymed verse and adopts compressed expressions, as with "O people, who cut each other's throat on the chessboard of their rulers". In fact, this equality of victims is the key to the poem cycle, expressed at its simplest and most powerful in these lines, written in July 1914: "Docker from Le Havre, before you stands / A docker from Bremen, / Kill and kill, kill him, kill each other, / Worker, set to work."
Our attitude to French literature in this country seems seriously skewed towards the 19th-century novel, with such figures as the Musketeers, les Misérables and Emma Bovary leading active lives well away from the page. Twentieth-century French literature is a different matter, where the novels, plays and poems seem caught up in a complicatedly French crossfire – both literal and literary. Anyone unacquainted with the story of the occupation or the position of the French Communist party, settling down to a comfortable read of Le Silence de la Mer by "Vercors" or a night-out to see Sartre's Les Mains Sales, might well wonder why these works became important in France. And in several ways, I found that this scholarly and fascinating book reads as a preface to the life and work of Sartre. The themes that he worked on in, say, Les Mains Sales and What is Literature? seem to be prefigured by Martinet, so, if nothing else, it's helpful to be reminded that Sartre didn't just invent his position out of nowhere.