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The Enormous Room (1932)note

Questions beyond the purely aesthetic arise in connection with war literature. In it we are presented not only with the treatment of certain human relations, but with historical events, and recent historical events at that. While it is possible for most of us to consider with equanimity the dramatic histories of Shakespeare, acute controversy is apt to rage round anything connected with the present social struggles and attitudes to war. Since books dealing with these subjects of necessity involve questions of patriotism, and serious personal problems regarding it, they tend to be largely the self-exposure of the writer, and there is the question of the social impact the book might have, and the uses to which it might be put. Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves, is an intensely personal presentation, full of boasting and of the poses of the officer class—a book which it would certainly be difficult for most sections of the public to view with detachment. Even in his preface to The Enormous Room, Graves introduces his own personal problems in an intensely personal way. “As I have never been on the wrong side of the barbed wire,” he writes,

so neither have I been on the wrong side of the inquisitor's table. And so my sympathy with the victim does not prevent my sympathy with the Inquisitor, particularly when he is not a free agent, but bound by orders from above, to disobey which will mean that he himself will find himself in trouble.

In a case which he cites—that of the court-martial of a man “maddened by an intense bombardment”, who threw down his rifle and ran, and

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who was being charged with cowardice in the field, for which the only punishment was death (“no medical excuses could he accepted”)— Graves wonders what Cummings would have done as one of the judges in the matter.

Possibly what I did, salved his conscience by a mere evasion. I contrived to get a brother officer to take my place, in exchange for some other (to him) disagreeable duty—I think it was supervising the troops in a laborious tactical exercise.

Readers of The Enormous Room will form their own opinion of what Cummings would have done in the circumstances, but there is no doubt that Graves weakens the issues by his sympathy with the inquisitors, and especially by dismissing a serious problem with a little personal arrangement. This kind of self-exposure is mainly psychological or personal, one would say, but it is easy to envisage other kinds which would run foul of censorship, and more seriously, of the law of the land.

Aesthetically there is a strong presumption in favour of the man who presents his own experiences, who says “I” when he means “I”, so that “I” becomes a character in the story as in all novels of autobiographical form. And even if he does not thereby produce a work of great literary merit, provided that he has faithfully recorded his experiences, his book could be of considerable political and social interest. If, on the other hand, he has falsified or romanticised these experiences, he has not only produced a thoroughly bad piece of work in the aesthetic sense, he has falsified history itself. There is another type of war book which is purely fictional (cf. The Case of Sergeant Grischa by Stefan Zweig) in which the experience is generalised, and which has not the force of the autobiographical form because of the muddling of fiction and fact and because the issues raised are so often fictitious.

His own personal feeling with relation to war has been made the theme of [F. A.] Voigt's Combed Out. He presents himself as a pacifically minded man, confronted with servile conditions, degrading discipline, work of which the aim is not indicated, and the horrible ordeals of the surgical ward and of the night bombing. Fear might be said to be the prevailing motif of this book, hence Voigt's reactions as a character in it are to something he does not entirely understand. And as he is also the author of the book, this lack of comprehension is responsible for a weakness in its construction. It allows a streak of sentimentality to creep in, especially in Voigt's descriptions of the “beauties of nature” and the way in which he contrasts these with the miseries of military duties—a natural indulgence which the reader can understand even if he cannot pardon it aesthetically; though he might

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argue, on the other hand, that it is part of the author's presentation of himself as a character in the book. At any rate, it does not seem so alien to the theme as the conversations between the soldiers speaking soldiers' language (with soldiers' oaths) and the author talking in classroom English. Here the contrast, the incongruity, is so strong that it smacks of the written-up.

Connected with this is the rather contrived situation with which the book ends. Instead of the quiet meditations of a disillusioned, thoughtful man we have, after the Armistice has been declared, a raucous slanging match between two soldiers, one of whom wants to go out and celebrate, while the other upbraids him for showing so little respect for their dead and maimed comrades as to want to go “shouting and singing and getting drunk”. The conversation would seem to have been introduced to point the moral—“they never made a soldier of me”—but the book should have been left to speak for itself.

Cummings, like Voigt, presents himself as a character in his book, and the self he presents is a somewhat romantic one. It might be questioned whether he succeeds here in working out a theme in a realistic manner, or whether he romanticises it; but the question could only be settled by a more detailed consideration of the book than the present occasion demands. At least, he has in his book a more definite theme than the will to peace amid the horrors of war—a theme which achieves a high degree of convincingness even if it is not as realistic as one might wish. He is concerned chiefly with spy-mania and with its relations to government and patriotism and honour, and his theme is regimentation as revealed under war conditions, and the reactions to it of the people with whom he is concerned; but incidentally it is an exposure of actual conditions of war and the character of governments. “Le gouvernement français” is the villain of the piece, hit off humorously early in the book by soldiers waiting at a station for a train that seems never to be going to arrive. “Quelle heure?” one demands. “Mon cher, il n'y a plus d'heures, le gouvernement français les défend!” But what the government permits is, as Cummings shows, as bewildering, unjust and cruel as what it forbids, and Cummings brings out its villainy by reference to the kind of life suspects had to lead, and the kind of men they were—or became—under duress. Contrasted with the suspicion and spying (characteristic of existing governments during war time) is the humanity, the human decency, to be found in various forms in The Enormous Room. It may he claimed that Cummings romanticises some or all of the people who occupy it, but even if he does so, it could be argued that he is showing what kind of outlook would be developed in captivity by a character like himself.

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As Graves points out in his preface, the book falls into two parts—the events and the journey that lead to The Enormous Room, and the experiences Cummings undergoes therein. It is a natural enough division of the subject, and one might get over the weakness of construction which it represents if one could regard the book as having two themes—as being two works of art, the first leading to the second but being distinct from it. But there is no real working out of a theme in either part—in the earlier the regimented ones are being moved like pawns across the face of France, and in the later they have come to rest in The Enormous Room at La Ferté Macé. Cummings himself attempts to bridge the gap by references to Pilgrim's Progress, actually calling the first section “A Pilgrim's Progress” which ends when

into the square blackness I staggered with my paillasse. There was no way of judging the size of the dark room which uttered no sound. In front of me was a pillar. “Put it down by that post and sleep there for tonight.…You won't need a blanket,” he [the guard] added; and the doors clanged, the light and fencer disappeared.

But Cummings is unable to keep up the parallel to any extent, and it is only after several chapters that we get back to the notion of Pilgrim's Progress when we come to “The Delectable Mountains”—a group of people so extraordinarily interesting that they alone would have made his sojourn in The Enormous Room an experience which, he claims, he would not have missed for worlds. This rather far-fetched literary allusion is a somewhat sentimental weakness, and in conjunction with the division of the book into two parts, prevents the work from being as great as it might have been.

Yet Cummings has succeeded very well in doing more than recording the horrors of war. A victim of spy-mania (he was arrested because of his great friendship with Brown who had written a letter which the French censors regarded as insufficiently patriotic), he found that his fellow-captives were as innocent of treason as he himself was.

The majority of these dark criminals who had been caught in nefarious plots against the honour of France were totally unable to speak French. Curious thing. Often I pondered the unutterable and unextinguishable wisdom of the police, who—undeterred by facts which would have deceived less astute intelligences into thinking that these men were either too stupid or too simple to be connoisseurs of the art of betrayal—swooped upon their helpless prey with that indescribable courage which is the prerogative of policemen the world over, and bundled same prey into the La Fertés of that mighty nation upon some, at least, of whose public buildings it seems to me that I remember reading


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The great merit of Cummings is that he has shown the sufferings of civilians under war conditions, and has brought out the senselessness from any point of view of the actions of governments of that time, by the detailed characterisation of the inhabitants of The Enormous Room, and by the close connection he maintains between the development of the characters and their environment. The outstanding figures are “The Delectable Mountains”—The Wanderer, Surplice, Zooloo, Jean le Nègre; but there are many other memorable portraits, like those of émile the Bum, and the schoolmaster. Zooloo, in particular, he characterises as an “IS”, for

there are certain things in which one is unable to believe for the simple reason that he never ceases to feel them. Things of this sort—things which are always inside of us and in fact are us and which consequently will not be pushed off or away where we can begin thinking of them—are no longer things; they, and the us which they are, equals a verb; an “IS”. The Zulu, then, I must perforce call an “IS”.

To the women inmates of La Ferté, separated from the men but in such close proximity as to be an added irritant to prison conditions, Cummings makes his bow for the spirit and endurance they show, in refusing to be cowed by the brutal “Apollyon” (M. le Directeur) and his plantons (warders) with their “dry bread” and their dreadful solitary confinement.

It is without doubt due to the fact that Cummings is both a poet and a painter that he shows such acute penetration and gives such vivid descriptions. Here is the arrival of the Washing-machine Man in The Enormous Room:

In the doorway…quietly stood a well-dressed, handsomely middle-aged man, with a sensitive face culminating in a groomed Van Dyck beard. I thought for a moment that the Mayor of Orme, or whatever his title is, had dropped in for a formal inspection of The Enormous Room. Thank God, I said to myself, it has never looked so chaotically filthy since I have had the joy of inhabiting it. And sans blague, The Enormous Room was in a state of really supreme disorder; shirts were thrown everywhere, a few twine clotheslines supported various pants, handkerchiefs and stockings, the poêle was surrounded by a gesticulating crowd of nearly undressed prisoners, the stink was actually sublime.
As the door closed behind him, the handsome man moved slowly and vigorously up The Enormous Room. His eyes were as big as turnips. His neat felt hat rose with the rising of his hair. His mouth opened in a gesture of unutterable astonishment…In a deep awestruck resonant voice he exclaimed simply and sincerely,
“Nom de nom de nom de nom de nom de Dieu!”

In his description of the snowfall that came to La Ferté at the end of

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his sojourn there, Cummings gives us another glimpse of The Enormous Room. The three prison commissioners, in their inscrutable wisdom, had transferred his friend, Brown, to the prison at Précigné, and Cummings was depressed and lonely in spite of the efforts of those friends who were left to comfort him. “One afternoon”, he writes,

I was lying on my couch, thinking of the usual Nothing, when a sharp cry sung through The Enormous Room:
“Il tombe de la neige—Noël! Noël!”
I sat up. The Garde-Champêtre was at the nearest window, dancing a little horribly and crying:
“Noël! Noël!”
I went to another window and looked out. Sure enough. Snow was falling, gradually and wonderfully falling, silently falling through the thick soundless autumn…It seemed to me supremely beautiful, the snow. There was about it something unspeakably crisp and exquisite, something perfect and minute and gentle and fatal…The Garde-Champêtre's cry began a poem in the back of my head, a poem about the snow, a poem in French, beginning Il tombe de la neige, Noël Noël. I watched the snow. After a long time I returned to my bunk and I lay down, closing my eyes, feeling the snow's minute and crisp touch falling gently and exquisitely, falling perfectly and suddenly, through the thick soundless autumn of my imagination…The Enormous Room is filled with a new and beautiful darkness, the darkness of the snow outside, falling and falling and falling with the silent and actual gesture which has touched the soundless country of my mind as a child touches a toy it loves.

And when he at last leaves La Ferté, Cummings by a skilful use of language conveys unforgettably the sensation of confusion and excitement at his departure, and the sense of the unreality of the world to which he is returning—feelings which accompany him on the train journey, in Paris and on the sea; culminating in his first glimpse of his homeland with its wonderful space and sunlight—

the tall, incomparably tall city, shouldering upward into hard sunlight leaned a little through the octaves of its parallel edges, leaningly strode upward into firm, hard, snowy sunlight; the noises of America nearingly throbbed with smokes and hurrying dots which are men and which are women and which are things new and curious and hard and strange and vibrant and immense, lifting with a great ondulous stride into immortal sunlight.
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