For writer Paul West, the connections between the two world wars of the last century transcend the likes of a train car at Compiegne and a Bavarian private named Adolf Hitler. West’s connections are personal, powerful memories of a one-eyed father, maimed in the Great War, playing war games with his son while Nazi planes regularly bombed a nearby English town. West’s father, forever transformed by “his war,” was an enigma and mystery to West; My Father’s War is his attempt to sort out that mystery.
As West seeks to assemble the puzzle pieces at his disposal, a beautiful and moving portrait of his father emerges: a teenager issuing from the mud and blood of WWI trenches who became a respected veteran never quite comfortable with peacetime. His discomfort with post-war life far surpassed his frequent unemployment due to his war-damaged eye. When other Englishmen were hiding in their homes with their curtains drawn during Nazi air raids, West’s father would go outside to watch the planes, partly because he had come to admire the Germans while gunning them down on European battlefields and partly because, as West relates, he was “going after some sullen undesirable beauty he must first have seen from the trenches.” Beauty in the trenches? Yes. It was there that “he had found men at their noblest.” He never stopped longing for that beauty but it almost completely evaded him during his civilian life. That is, until the outbreak of the Second World War: then, for a few years, he embraced the beauty of his old war with a salute to the new. He began to teach his pre-adolescent son soldering through war games.
Is it possible that the senior West played war with his son in order to prepare him for real warfare? Possibly. No one knew how long World War II would last. But perhaps the more likely reason was that “the only busyness he regarded as genuine toil was soldering. All the rest, which is to say life’s work, he regarded as frippery, trivia.” He was first and last, a soldier.
The book is comprised of a series of essays, some previously published, written in novelist West’s inimitable prose which is so lyrical at times, it occasionally threatens to leave earth (and some readers) behind. In the chapter entitled “An Extraordinary Mildness,” West describes his father’s later years in terms of a certain lightness of existence: “almost all the woes of the human condition [were] floating away from him, although ascending with him toward the nullity that, compared with his post-mortem paradises, was the merest tincture of slightness.” Excellent prose? Well, yes. Slightly incomprehensible? Definitely.
If West’s writing sometimes aviates into clouds of rarified incomprehensibility, it also (and usually) soars into prose of pure gold. Ruminating on Hitler’s reticence to invade England, West opines: “If only Hitler the know-it-all had followed through, brushing aside the popguns and Robin Hood pikes along with the remnants of the British army, we would all have been goners; but by then he was lusting eastward toward Mother Russia and ‘Uncle Joe,’ and my father and I had joined the survivors in the street, crisp with our sense of reprieve.” West exhibits his formidable descriptive skills while spying his father watch American bombers returning from the mainland: “Not a bomber left its place on this return trip as the crews, with the correct bustle and protocol of bombing left behind, tuned in to swing music on the American Forces Network, chewed fresh gum, and over the sea slung out their machine guns and other gubbins to lighten the load.”
Was West able, at last, to completely understand his father? The emotive center of his book focuses not on the mystery solved but the journey through it. Whether writing in convoluted or golden prose, West has succeeded in piecing together a very moving account of his father, an eternal soldier, discovered by his son between two wars.
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