This is my review of Les Champs d’Honneur by Jean Rouaud.
This may resonate for French people with memories of taciturn chain-smoking grandfathers driving leaky Citroen 2CVs through the interminable drizzle of the Lower Loire. With the admitted extra handicap of being an English speaker reading this in translation, I found the whole chapters devoted to driving a beaten up 2CV, the rain, or the religious mania of a spinster aunt the literary equivalent of watching paint dry.
There were some striking descriptions, say of the landscape of Provence, and the book culminates in some haunting scenes on the experience of a gas attack in the First World War, or the exhumation of a brother, hastily buried by a stranger after a battle, but for me the build up to this was too slow and tortuous.
I gradually realised that the book was a study of how the First World War blighted the lives of not only the generation who suffered it directly but also their descendants. However, in "working backwards" through a series of in the main very mundane incidents with attention to minute detail of little interest, not to mention the endless digressions, I felt that I was reading fragments of a story in a fog.
I was always unclear in exactly which decade the narrator's boyhood was set and I was left quite confused by the last chapter at the cemetery (it's an unremittingly gloomy book) as to the blood relationship between the various characters, which until then I thought I just about understood.
The only motivation for reading this book was to improve my "literary" French, in which regard it serves a useful purpose.
I used the translation by Ralph Manheim to guide me through some of the obscurer passages. It did not help that the translation seems very stilted and I had to wonder if English was Manheim's first language!