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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

Going over the top with Jules Romains

A good friend in London recently begged me to read a book about Verdun by Jules Romains. When the book was delivered, I launched into the Prelude thinking that I was about to immerse myself in a lengthy non-fiction account of the grueling World War I battle.

Nearly a hundred pages in, I was struck by the close personal point of view adopted by the author in recounting the events that had led up to the battle. I’d never encountered such an unusual melding of fictional techniques in a historical work, not even in the New Journalism of the 1960s authors such as Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer.

I then turned to the copyright page and had two surprises: I’d been reading a novel and, what’s more, one published in 1938.

The lesson here—apart from the admonishment that a reader should always check his assumptions about a book before opening it—is that the historical novelist has at his disposal many tools to cast the spell of authenticity.

By adopting an omniscient point of view in his opening, Romains delays the introduction of any character until the reader is first educated as to the circumstances and context of the war. This unusual technique might not make it past an editor today, but it certainly worked for me. There is, of course, the hallowed rule that the author should never jolt the reader from the spell of the story; but rules are made to be broken.

Two additional observations on techniques used by Romain in Verdun:

* What should the author do when lengthy sections of dialogue or written material read verbally must be included? Romains broke up such potentially off-putting monologues by inserting personal mannerisms. Here’s an example:

“A small raid on the extreme eastern flank of Despois’s division. Several yeards of trench lost. Will be retaken, he says, at dawn today. Hm . . . ah . . . Wants you to have that section of 155’s moved at once from south of Hill 285 to a point southeast of Marrieux Wood.”
As soon as they were don with, the messages were dropped gently on a slowly growing pile. At a certain point in the procedure, however, he picked up a sheet of paper rather larger in size than its predecessors and, this time, condescended to bring into action two fingers of each hand.
“Here’s something from Marie’s division. . . ”

* An author published in a foreign country is at the mercy of his translator. Romains, I’m afraid, was not well served at times in the translation from French to English. The French soldiers who are the main characters are constantly referring to each other as “old chap” and speaking Victorian-sounding language such as “Pretty rough stuff, that.” There is also the occasional sentence structure at odds with the action being described. An example:

Suddenly—tzabc! A splitting bark that seemed to take them full between neck and cheek. Then a sharp whining sound which obviously came from behind them, slightly to the right, deepened to a more accentuated tone as it passed overhead, still to the right, continued its angry grumple skyward, while there came to their ears an echoing “boom,” as though a heavy door had been slammed in their rear.”

The above description is many things, but certainly not sudden.

One Response to “Going over the top with Jules Romains”

  • I just read “The Death of a Nobody” by Jules Romains, and found it incredible and unique. He has a point of view like no other writer I have encountered, producing the most poignant moments rendered from events happening in a crowd. This writer is due for a major revival, I can feel it; he was totally famous mid 20th century in France. His masterpiece is “Men of Good Will” which I am now reading. So you are fortunate to have been directed to him, however clumsily or circumstantially.

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