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The October Revolution, Russia Occupation of Persia: WWI Soldier Viktor Shklovsky’s Sentimental Memoirs, by Michael Carson

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The October Revolution, Russia Occupation of Persia: WWI Soldier Viktor Shklovsky’s A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922

by Michael Carson

 ViktorSbookcoverBook cover art by Dương Tường, Vietnamese writer and artist

 “After the explosion our soldiers, surrounded by enemies, were waiting for a train to come for them; while waiting, they busied themselves by picking and putting together the shattered pieces of their comrades’ bodies.

They picked up pieces for a very long time.

Naturally, some of the pieces got mixed up.

One officer went up to a long row of corpses.

The last body had been put together out of the leftover pieces.

It had the torso of a large man. Someone had added a small head; on the chest were small arms of different sizes, both left.

The officer looked for a rather long time; then he sat on the ground and burst out laughing….laughing….laughing….”

                                                                         ----From Viktor Shklovsky’s A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922

VSpaintingNewYorkerViktor Shklovsky; portrait by Yury Annenkov, 1919Why read Viktor’s Shklovsky’s Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922 a hundred years after the First World War? Why remember this account of the October Revolution and the Russian occupation of Persia when we have forgotten so many other accounts of the First World War, those charnel-house memories of gallant-British officers at the Somme and Ypres? What does this young Russian commissar have for us today except for yet another account of yet another endless bloody war that few remember now and now one at all will remember in a hundred years?

For one, A Sentimental Journey’s perspective on the First World War is unique—difficult—not simply because of its various, diverse, and relatively obscure (from an Anglo-American perspective) experiences but because of its form. Shklovsky writes in stilted sentences, delays information, mixes up chronology. He claims he only wants to report the facts. He wants to become a primary source. But he insists the facts must be reshuffled, drawn out, ironically juxtaposed, removed from their logical spot in one paragraph and placed at the end of the next. He has a terrible memory. Here is Shklovsky on his brother’s death:

“He cried hard before dying.

Either the Whites or the Reds killed him.

I don’t remember which—I really don’t remember. But the death was unjust.”

A leitmotif, ignorance and naivety—a sort-of forced dramatic irony—winds through Sentimental Journey, disturbing and disrupting moments of solemnity and despair, moments that, as Cassandra says before her fated death in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, “that truly break the heart.” Here is Shklovsky in Persia, a commissar in the Army, tasked with pacifying the local population and keeping the Russian forces there from mutiny:

“One morning when I got up and opened the street door, something soft fell to the side. I stooped down and looked….Someone had left a dead baby at my door.

I think it was a complaint.”

Later Shklovsky demands through telegram that the Russian government withdrawal the Russian units stationed in a foreign country:

“Have inspected Kurdistan units. In the name of revolution and humanity, demand withdrawal of troops.

This telegram didn’t go over to well—apparently, it’s naïve and funny to demand the withdrawal of troops in the name of humanity.”

Occasionally the chain of ignorance gives way to clarity, as when he explains why the Petersburg garrison played such a prominent role in the February Revolution, contradicting pretty much every historian’s account of the insurrection:

“This may be childish, but I’m convinced that restriction to the barracks, where men torn from their duties rotted on bunks with nothing to do, the dreariness of the barracks, the dull despair and resentment of the soldiers being hunted down on the street—all this stirred up the Petersburg garrison more than then constant reversals in the war and the persistent rumors of “treason.”

His summary of the Russian experience in Persia will resonate with anyone who has taken part in ill-advised imperial projects:

 “We had gone to a foreign country,” he says of his time in Persia, “occupied it, added to its gloom and violence our violence, laughed at is laws, hampered trade, refused to let it open any factories and supported the shah. And for this purpose we kept troops—kept them there even after the revolution. It was imperialism—what’s more, Russian imperialism, which is to say, stupid imperialism.”

And then the question at the heart of this Journey: what good is memory without responsibility?

“All our shrewd and far-sighted policies were for nothing. If, instead of trying to make history, we had simply tried to consider ourselves responsible for the separate events that make up history, then perhaps this wouldn’t have turned out so ludicrously.”

RussiansinPersonRussians troops photographed with Persian children in Kermanshah, August 1917. (IWM 5Q 25384.) Courtesy of Imperial War Museum http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205266818

 

Like Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, A Sentimental Journey is a sad book with much hysterical laughter. Graves’ famously dismissed his own memoir as a cobbled together hack job—“people like reading about food and drink, so I searched my memory for the meals that have had significance in life and I put them down…People like hearing about T.E. Lawrence, because he is supposed to be a mystery man…people like reading about poets. I put in a lot of poets”—for Shklovsky the cobbled together nature of the whole is not like Graves’ marketing technique, a satire on the system that made it possible. The cobbling together is no by-product or accident; it is the most important point of A Sentimental Journey’s structure.

Shklovsky was a formalist. He believed art had certain forms, patterns. The artist rearranged these patterns, delayed them, inverted them. “Formalism,” he said, “does not deny the idea content of art, but treats the so-called content as one of the manifestations of form.” His sentimental journey (itself a re-patterning of Lawrence Stern’s novel of the same name) takes the lopped off limbs of people and history and reconstitutes bodies. It places them in the wrong place. It makes the reader see the whole by making it un-whole, by distorting the corpse, disturbing to revivify, to, as he explains in his Theory of Prose, “make the stone feel stony.” He called this process “ostraniene” or “estrangement.” All writers worth reading estrange in one way or another, “return sensation to our limbs” by making what was familiar unfamiliar and alive. If they do not, they give the reader what they already have; they deliver them into the same old plots—the same old histories, the same old wars. They add more dust.

russian infantry ww1 lgRussian Infantry WWI, photograph by George H. Mews

This writing process did not make Shklovsky many friends, either in the world of artists or those of memoirists. It has made him even fewer friends among historians and the later literary theorists who abandon language entirely for structure. But it has the advantage of being true. Artists—whether writing about war or not—do succeed in so far as they can manipulate forms of language, and their success depends less on the force of their content but how that content is manifested in form, in how assiduously they study and internalize the movements of syntax, the historiography of plot. Formalists resist, as Gerald L. Burns argues in an essay on Shklovsky, “the urge to experience an object as something other than it is”; they make the “stone feel stony” and consequently realize the truly subversive truth and possibility of art—that it does not merely imitate, that it can at its best, as Shklovsky contends in his “Theory of Prose,” “incite insurrections among things.”

But the content cannot speak for itself. Shklovsky dismissed most accounts of the war. He mocked Barbusse’s 1916 novel of the trenches. “Contrived,” he said. “Glossy.” Barbusse’s novel did not have a sense of what happened—“with its jumble of corpses, its end washed away by various conclusions.”

Shklovsky understood that writing about war, and writing generally, must not be a jumble of corpses; life might be random, but art must be, above all, precise, meticulous. This is what the artist does. This is what a human can do in the face of the immensity and horror of so much relentless blood and history, so many disproportionate parts, so many competing claims to truth: they cannot give themselves over to representations and interpretations that dismiss through explication; they must both respect the thing itself and the artists role in manipulating the thing; they must make the stone feel stony.

“When you cut off a leg,” he says toward the end of A Sentimental Journey, “you have to cut through the muscles, pull back the flesh with forceps and saw through the bone.

Otherwise, the bone will eventually pierce through the stump.

If you don’t like this description, don’t make war. As for me, I’m ashamed to walk down the streets of Berlin and see the cripples.”

Shklovsky suggests that we might have little control over the sweep of history but we do have a responsibility to represent the particular and then to rearrange the particulars for maximum effect; memory in and of itself is nothing—it is all about how the writer arranges the memory; how she organizes the pieces; how the audience responds to the rearrangement.

But still. Why this particular account of war? Why should we remember the Russians in Persia when there were bigger battles? Bloodier massacres? Because “nowhere,” Shklovsky tells us, “was the inner lining of war, its predatory essence, so clear as in the crevices of Persia,” and it was clear, he argues, because “there was no enemy”; only there, in the sad corners, where forgotten armies disintegrated, starved, and marauded, where ancient enmities yielded slaughter and counter-slaughter, could you see the war, see war, for what it was.

Persiantroops1914Photo of Persian troops, 1914

And Shklovsky’s war—despite the memoir’s title—is not a sentimental one. His brother is killed and he does not remember who killed him. A bomb explodes in Shklovsky’s hands and he gives next to no detail as to the consequences. There are no enemies here, no friends. “No,” Shklovsky says after describing the American ambassador to Persia, Doctor Shedd, trying to get as many Aissor children inside his surrey, to protect the youth from the general butchery, to deliver them back to their fathers, “I shouldn’t have written that. It warmed my heart. It….aches.”

Unlike the American ambassador, Doctor Shedd, trying to get those children into the surrey, Shklovsky did not have a bucolic home and an orderly small town to forget the far-flung horrors of empire. He did not have the luxury of sentimentality. He was caught in the horror, both perpetrator and victim, both criminal and innocent (we don’t count corpses in the East, he tells the ambassador). Shklovsky was like America a hundred years later, like America in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nigeria where the innocence of Doctor Shedd is only a memory, a pleasant memory, but a memory nonetheless. 

But Shklovsky did have art. He did have the skill to make those corpses and human life something other than numbers, something other than a lie.  He could make something comic and horrible and lovely out of leftover body parts. He could hold a bomb in his hands and watch it explode.

Vladimir Nabokov, another survivor of this wretched period of Russian history, caught like Shklovsky in a war that had no front, no rear, no perspectival dichotomy to control and assuage the violence like their Anglo counterparts, also like Shklovsky exiled (his was to last his entire life), once wrote a novel that accomplishes exactly what Shklovsky said art should accomplish; Lolita’s inspiration, Nabokov claimed, was an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientists, “produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

SchlbeachRussian writers Vladimir Mayakovsky and Viktor Shklovsky on beach in Germany, 1923 by Alexander Rodchenko

One more quote from Shklovsky:

“Of course, I’m not sorry that I kissed and ate and saw the sun. I’m sorry that no matter how hard I tried to direct events, they went their own way. I’m sorry that I fought in Galicia, that I got mixed up with armored cars in Petersburg, that I fought along the Dnieper. I changed nothing. And now, as I sit by the window and look at the spring, which goes past me without asking what weather it should arrange for tomorrow—which doesn’t need my permission, perhaps because I’m not from around here—I’m thinking I should have probably let the revolution go past me in the same way.

“When you fall like a stone, you don’t need to think; when you think, you don’t need to fall. I confused two occupations.

The forces moving were external to me.

The forces moving others were external to them.

I am only a falling stone.

A stone that falls and can, at the same time, light a lantern to observe its own course.

Shklovsky steals this from Baruch Spinoza. But what is art but the manipulating of old forms? Old ideas? Ancient juxtapositions? Enduring analogies? What is art but the moving around of the limbs we have left to us? What do artists do but—as Shklovsky contends in his Energy of Delusion—“convert both torment and joy into experience?” Transform and transmute this torrent of parts into content? Into life?

Few talk of Shklovsky anymore. Few talk of the Russian Persian garrison of 1917. Few know what to do with the leftover pieces. It’s just the way of things. There are new writers. New wars. New bodies. We continue to fall, trying, with poor Prufrock, to hear voices dying “beneath music from another room.” But we can still hold up the lamp, we can manipulate the forms, we can see our plummeting stone, illuminate the bars of our cage, convert the horrible sweep of long ago and ongoing violence into experience—clean the dead world, make it alive, make it hum, turn it to art.

New PlanetRussian Revolution Konstantin Yuon, New Planet (detail), 1921. State Tretyakov Gallery/Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery/© DACS 2016. Shown in exhibition, Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932, Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 11 February – 17 April 2017.

 

Author's bio

Michael CarsonMichael Carson served in the United States Army as an Infantry Officer, including a 2006-2007 tour of duty in Iraq, holds an MA in History from the University of Connecticut and an MFA in Fiction from Vermont College, and helps edit the Wrath-Bearing Tree, a site dedicated to exploring the causes and consequences of different kinds of violence. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology, The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War, and Numéro Cinq Literary Magazine. He is currently working on a novel.

 

 

 

 

 

One Year to Go! WWrite Blog Twitter Feed Launched Today

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One Year to Go! WWrite Blog Twitter Feed Launched Today!

La delegation americaine image gaucheAmerican Delegation in Lyon France Today to Commemorate 1917 Entry into WWI

Stay up to date with the latest writerly WWI posts and events!

Today, to mark the final centennial year, WWrite launched its Twitter Feed that will be linked to the blog. These Tweets will replace the weekend updates and will appear regularly. The Twitter account is just getting off the ground and will continue to evolve and improve over the next 12 months. We will also be working to link it to all relavent information on the WWI site. All suggestions welcome at jennifer.orth-veillon@worldwar1centennial.org. Please find us at: WWriteBlog@orthveillon, #WWrite 

Pierre Lemaître's The Great Swindle: A Prize-Winning WWI Novel Hits the Screen During France's Great War Centennial

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Pierre Lemaître's The Great Swindle: A Prize-Winning WWI Novel Hits the Screen During France's Great War Centennial 

 

filmaurevoirDDyt c5XoAAFSB4 1 800x445

 

"Those who thought this war would end soon were all long dead. Killed by the war. And so, in October, Albert treated reports of an impending armistice with a healthy dose of scepticism. He gave these rumours no more credit than he had the propaganda at the beginning of the war which claimed that the bullets of the Boche were so soft they burst against  French uniforms like overripe pears, leaving soldiers roaring with laughter. In four years, Albert had seen his fair share of guys who died laughing from a German bullet."
-----
first paragraph of Pierre Lemaître'sThe Great Swindle, translated by Frank Wynne

 

In the U.S., November 11th is a day for honoring and celebrating military veterans from all wars with parades, church services, and other commemorative gatherings. On this day, while France also acknowledges the sacrifices of military personnel from multiple conflicts, the country devotes most of the national holiday to November 11, 1918, the day warring nations signed the armistice to end the Great War. The numbers are diminishing as years pass, but crowds of French people still turn out for morning gatherings in front of the WWI monuments that take up a central place in every French village, town, and city. After reading the names of the war dead, local government officials place flowers and flags in front of the memorial. Parades, fanfares, children chorales, and, of course, the glass of locally-made wine offered by the mayors follow. In the Commonwealth nations, the poppy appears everywhere as a sign of remembrance, but in France the bleuet, or cornflower, is the flower found in lapels, bouquets, and corsages.

poppybleuet

In addition to the rituals, France, especially during this centennial period, marks the date by featuring contemporary WWI-specific literature, art, and cinema.  Pierre Lemaître, renowned for his crime novels, won the Prix Goncourt, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award, for his 2013 novel, Au revoir là-haut, translated as The Great Swindle by Frank Wynne. Just about a week before the beginning of the 2017-2018 centennial year of WWI, French director, Albert Dupontel, released the film adaptation of Lemaître’s pathbreaking book, Au revoir là-haut, translated in English as the film, See You Up There.

aurevoirlahautcoverfrenchThe title, The Great Swindle, sounds strange among familiar WWI books like The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West, A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway, or All is Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. This book is not only about a post-war traumatic experience; it is also about the art, and, yes, the money that could be made by making a business out of the millions of dead bodies that had a hard time finding a proper grave.

Before discussing The Great Swindle, it is imperative to keep in mind that the Great War killed 1.4 million French soldiers and left millions more maimed in mind and body. I call upon the excellent summary, published in The Independant, by British novelist, Edward Wilson, to set the scene:

“In his book, Pierre Lemaitre imagines the lives of two “survivors” with insight and compassion. Édouard Péricourt is a gueule cassée, a smashed face. Lacking a lower jaw, he smokes cigarettes through his nostrils and survives on morphine and heroin. Albert, rescued by Édouard after being buried alive with a putrefying horse, copes with flashbacks by donning a mask of the horse. Édouard, creator of the therapeutic horse's head, also designs masks for his own mutilated face. The purpose is not to hide his gaping wound, but to express an idealised self: “a pretty pink mouth set in a slightly condescending sneer, with two faded autumn leaves glued high up on the cheeks that looked like tears”.

This book is alternately tender and ghoulish. The exhumations militaires involved transferring hundreds of thousands of bodies from scattered battlefield graves to vast necropolises of tidy decorum – at great profit for the private contractors involved. Henri d'Aulnay Pradelle is a villain from the Grand-Guignol tradition. Pradelle trades on his heroic war record and aristocratic good looks to become a remembrance profiteer. He orders cheap undersize coffins that require corpses to be hacked and bent to fit – and his piecework-paid labourers are not encouraged to waste time matching bodies to the correct plot. When challenged, Pradelle rants: “What bloody difference does it make…? When parents visit the grave, do they dig it up to check that it's their body and not someone else's?” Like the best villains, his cold logic is hard to fault.

Édouard and Albert start their own commemoration racket marketing ghastly war memorials. Édouard, an artiste manqué with an instinct for shocking the bourgeoisie also understands how to sell monuments to the bourgeoisie: “Not everyone is gifted enough to turn out something ugly.” Their plan is to pocket the money and scarper. Lemaitre's novel is a rare synthesis of the tragic and the comic – and the book's dénouement is a masterclass in nail-biting suspense. The author is at his best when probing the human condition. His portrait of a mind torn by the trauma of combat is uncannily accurate: “He was permanently on alert; anything and everything made him suspicious. Serenity, he knew, was gone forever.”

517jqxHQenLAs journalist Anne Brigaudeau writes about the novel, "the 14-18 butchery sometimes overshadowed the postwar period, where the dead hero was preferred to the battered survivor. Today in France the French have forgotten that the worship of the fallen soldier generated lucrative profits, from the war memorials to the military cemeteries." It is in this France, that of the years following the first world war, that Pierre Lemaitre builds his eerie plot

The Great Swindle organizes itself around a double scam and a double suspense, with an extremely documented historical background. Add a dry, biting, precise writing style, which handles black humor brilliantly and it is easy to understand why it has been acclaimed by critics and booksellers. It was one of the best-sellers of autumn 2013.

Four years later, Lemaître’s novel finds itself again among the main threads of WWI commemoration in contemporary France with its film adaptation, See You Up There. Stéphanie Trouillard, WWrite contributor and France 24 journalist for the WWI centennial in France, wrote a review that puts not only the memory of war into question, but also the capacity to adapt a war novel into a war film. The following is an adaptation and translation of her review:

"Seduced as a reader by the Lamaître’s 2013 Goncourt Prize, film director, Albert Dupontel, undertook the film adaptation of this amoral fable about two survivors of the trenches, who survive the war to embark on various scams using war memorials. Dupontel said "I found the book extremely inspiring, I saw it like a brochure elegantly disguised about our current situation. All the characters seemed to me part of a confusing modernity. Lemaître shows how a  small minority of greedy people dominate the world.”

In this film, according to Trouillard, "Dupontel emplys the same whimsical and exuberant writing style of Lemaître’s The Great Swindle. It is not a dark and gloomy film about the First World War, but a colorful and explosive fable about the post-war period. As in the book, the 14-18 fights appear on the screen at the beginning of the film so the spectator can’t forget the terrible traces left by the conflict: visible and invisible wounds.

Through a gallery of colorful characters, the film is like a panorama of the human soul. The kinder character of Albert Maillard, finds himself enlisted, like thousands of soldiers in a war that exceeds his comprehension and destroys his body. The wicked character of Pradelle is an upstart lieutenant who becomes addicted to the taste of blood and fills the pockets with the death of others. Another character, the tortured Edward Péricourt, represents a promising young artist who loses his jaw in the trenches.

It is this last character, the artist, who is at the heart of the plot. Mostly silent in the film, he embodies his broken mouth with subtlety. Hidden behind the all the magnificent masks he makes to cover his deformity, he represents the young soldier who has almost been skinned alive. Fighting for his country took away his youth and beauty; so Edward decides to use his art to take revenge.

The drawings, sets, and masks are so magnificent, they are like characters in this film. Albert Dupontel did not skimp on visual effects to reconstruct the Paris of the 1920s, just at the limits of surrealism,.

But, by being overly punctilious on the details, the spectator gets lost in this universe of fantasy. The emotion that was so present in the novel takes second place to the visuals in the film. The breathtaking aesthetic takes over the feelings. Among laughter, tears and social satire, See You Up There fails to touch the heart as completely as The Great Swindle."

Read the book? Planning to see the film? Let WWrite know what you think about another country’s literary/cinematic take on the darkest sides of WWI memory.

See You Up There trailer

Date: October 06, 2017

See You Up There Trailer

Aline Kilmer: When the War Poet’s Wife is a Poet, Too. By Peter Molin

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Aline Kilmer:  When the War Poet’s Wife is a Poet, Too


by Peter Molin

 

alinekilmerphootAline Murray in 1906, before her marriage to Joyce Kilmer. Photograph restored, copyright 2003 by Miriam A. Kilmer.

JKphtotJoyce Kilmer, Aline's husband. Courtesy firstworldwar.comToday, poets such as Jehanne Dubrow, Elyse Fenton, Amalie Flynn, and Lisa Stice, as well as fiction authors such as Siobhan Fallon and Andria Williams, all spouses of military men, portray the contortions on domestic life and feminine sensibility wrought by war.  The possibilities for pride and happiness are real, but tenuous, infused everywhere by the realities of separation, divided loyalties, fear, and mortality.  Dubrow’s, Fenton’s, Flynn’s, Stice’s, Fallon’s, and Williams’ words convey the urgency and nuance of a war wife’s uncertainty as she finds her tranquility and self-worth vexingly dependent on her husband.  Writing openly about self and marriage requires enormous courage. Perhaps it was ever so, or even more so 100 years ago.

Aline Murray Kilmerwas the wife of American poet Joyce Kilmer, most famous for his poem “Trees.”  Joyce’s status as a World War I poet is secured by poems such as “Rouge Bouquet” and “The Peacemaker,” both written shortly before his death in 1918 at the Second Battle of the Marne.  The fact that Aline was also a poet is not well-known, and the possibility that her work addressed or was impacted by the Great War even less considered.  Was Aline Kilmer a war poet?  And how are her poems war poems?  And what are the threads that connect her to today’s military spouses?

Read more: Aline Kilmer: When the War Poet’s Wife is a Poet, Too. By Peter Molin

A Pretty Tame One: A Story Exploring the Experience of Thomas Croft Neibaur

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 A Pretty Tame One

By Benjamin Sonnenberg

 

A short story explaining the experience of WWI soldier, Thomas Croft Neibaur, the first Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) to receive the medal of honor.

Thomas NeibaurThomas Croft Neibaur

The inside of the Liberty Truck stank of sweat. Thomas Croft Neibaur was pushed into the far back, just behind the radiator. He could hear the drivers’ conversation over the stuttering engine:

“How many guys can we fit?”

“I dunno, about twenty-five.”

Private Neibaur had counted around twice that number. As the truck filled with bodies and clamor about the Argonne, Neibaur withdrew his notebook and began to write:

Oct. 7th, 1918

Mrs. J. C. Neibaur

Sugar City

 

Read more: A Pretty Tame One: A Story Exploring the Experience of Thomas Croft Neibaur

What the Mountains Hold: A Writer's Trek Through the Dolomites of Mark Helprin's WWI Italy

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What the Mountains Hold: A Writer's Trek Through the Dolomites of Mark Helprin's WWI Italy 

by Shannon Huffman Polson

 SP2Remains of a WWI trench in the Dolomites. Photo courtesy of Shannon Huffman Polson

My unseen tears are like this stone.
Death is paid by the living.
    -Giuseppe Ungaretti, Italian infantry WWI and poet

A Soldier of the Great War book coverIn the middle of September, in the mountains of Italy close to where the character of Alessandro Giuliani lived and fought in Mark Helprin’s novel A Soldier of the Great War, my husband and I headed out in rain gear while snow fell heavily. At a local’s recommendation, because of heavy snow we had cut out the first half of our planned day walking toward Lagazuoi and any hopes of travel along the via ferrata, or “iron ways” of more exposed and technical travel across the rock. The mountains hid in billows of white, and we set our poles and boots on icy trails ascending steep and rocky trails criss-crossed by the roots of pine and fir slick with snow.

The first few miles we climbed through deep forest. Finally we broke out above the tree line close to the Cinque Torri, or Five Towers, a dramatic formation of rock made up of towers and a tumble of boulders. The wind picked up, having nothing to stop its wildness, and we zipped our Gore-tex over our chins for the last stretch before ducking into the Rifugio Scoiatolli that appeared through the clouds.

Prego?” asked the woman behind the counter.

Deu cappuccino, per favore,” I asked, deploying the full measure of my Italian.

Si,” she said, and as we walked to a table, I heard the whirring of coffee beans grinding and the welcome whoosh of foaming milk.

Read more: What the Mountains Hold: A Writer's Trek Through the Dolomites of Mark Helprin's WWI Italy

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