Author Archives: Katia Savelyeva
Katia’s review of The Burying Party
The one-hour run of The Burying Party (2018) contains the ghosts of several films. A gritty war film depicting the real life poet Wilfred Owen’s first exposures to the trenches; a film that dives deep into the literary world he occupies, giving greater detail and focus to its cast and their interpersonal relationships. A deep dive into the development of Owen’s writing voice; a condemnation of war-hungry empire. Potentially, even, two or more hours that try tries to combine some or all of these features.
The Burying Party itself is is not any of these films, but I think it accomplishes an unusual sense of completeness in its fragmented brevity. As it moves across time and space, through disparate visual and auditory worlds, it interweaves snapshots of Owen’s life at the front and on leave. In other words, the film can roughly be split into his witnessing first-hand “the pity of war,” and the interpersonal, artistic journey that enabled him to capture it, in such a way that we’re reading and remembering him now, over a hundred years later.
The film’s contrasting settings are conveyed with care and detail. We open on Owen (Matthew Staite) at war, surrounded with what I’ve come to think of universally as gray-green “World War One color grading,” and accompanied by the haunting, discordant sounds of a piercing yet irresolute soundtrack, which punctuated by the sounds of the war itself. When the next scene finds him back home, in his mother’s house, seeing him clean and indoors is as jarring to the viewer as it clearly feels to the character.
As he and the rest of the cast navigate indoor spaces, as well as the breathtaking English pastoral scenes that our friend-from-two-weeks-ago Sigfried Sassoon (Sid Phoenix) critiques Owen for lauding in his early poetry, the contradictions at play within these poets’ emotional lives surface with these alterations in visual worlds. These are mirrored by the soundtrack, which alternates between the harshly modern instrumentals of the war scenes, the stately pianos and violins of indoor social spaces, the birdsong and seaside of the English outdoors, and – at certain times, like the first meeting between Owen and Sassoon – the perfect silence that backgrounds dialogue.
Owen and Sassoon’s dynamic fruitfully evades explicit melodrama or overstatement but nonetheless read to me as the heart of the film. While I’m unfamiliar with all but the most famous of Owen’s works, and only know the basic outline of his biography, the interplay between the two (and at times others in their circles) surrounding war poetry and its mission felt memorable and specific in a way that literary-biography type movies sometimes fail to achieve. I don’t know how it would play to experts, or to people with less knowledge of early twentieth century English literary circles than I, but to me the exposition surrounding the cast’s relationships and life positions felt effective and economical.
Outside of art, politics, and war, in the world of feeling or affection, more is unsaid between Owen and Sassoon than said for the majority of the movie. The intensity of this oft-mythologized literary mentorship was effectively carried by Staite and Phoenix, both in the realm of independent acting choices and the quietly intense chemistry between the two.
As an admirer and writer of creative nonfiction, watching The Burying Party acts in close parallel to the experience of reading a fragmented lyric essay. We do not get the full story, but the parts we get are vivid and well-chosen enough to form a cohesive whole nonetheless. We might yearn, in fact (or at least I did), for hours of watching Owen and Sassoon discuss poetic form, for Owen, Sassoon, and Graves to get to sing the entirety of The Leaving of Liverpool without breaking off, for Owen to have a full conversation with his mother. But each moment we get to see is beautifully crafted; and when it comes to Wilfred Owen himself, time’s limited run is arguably the entire point.
Katia’s Reading Questions for February 10th
- “Repression of War Experience” is one of now several portrayals we’ve seen of a narrator struggling with mental health in relation to the Great War, but it’s the first we’ve seen in metered poetry, as opposed to Smith and Aldington’s prose. How does the existence of meter as a force that structures the poem interact with the narration of the post-war mind, which is arguably a fundamentally unstructured thing? How might the change in form from prose to poetry impact a reader’s experience of this subject?
- “The Redeemer” and “Christ and the Soldier” both portray men who appear to be Jesus Christ in contact with the war, but the two portrayals are very distinct. Notably, the symbology of the crown of thorns is explicitly divergent between the two. What kinds of differing or parallel images do the two poems paint regarding Christ in relation to soldiers and the Great War? How might this tie into Sassoon’s more overarching views on England, or on religion?
- Sassoon varies the tone of his poetry and the voices imbedded into it a great deal; the dialogue-centered, sardonic “They” and “The General” exist alongside dense, highly-detailed, visually-oriented narration, such as the voice that narrates “Counter-Attack” and “A Night Attack.” What are the differing purposes or effects of these styles, or other poetic styles Sassoon assumes? Is there a particular advantage (or disadvantage) that one of these approaches might hold in writing about the war for a particular audience?
All Quiet/Not So Quiet: An Ongoing List Of Explicit Textual Parallels
Or deliberate contrasts, or both! I’m not claiming to have exhaustively mined our section for today, but I love patterns and referentiality, so I’m going to start up a list of sections from the text of Not So Quiet… that explicitly evoked a segment of All Quiet on the Western Front to me. The interaction of explicit contrasts, parallels, and half-parallels was really engaging to me.
Page 13: resentment of blind patriotism back home.
“No, Smithy, you’re one of England’s Splendid Daughters, proud to do their bit for the dear old flag, and one of England’s Splendid Daughters you’ll stay until you crock up or find some other decent excuse to go home covered in glory. It takes nerve to carry on here, but it takes twice as much to go home to flag-crazy mothers and fathers…”
In some ways this is an explicit, direct echo of All Quiet, and in some ways we see the class difference between Smithy and Paul; we don’t see quite as much of Paul’s parents being blamed for his entry in the war as Kantorek, even though his father does try to show him off to his social circle. Still, the idea of young people being traumatized while people back home congratulate themselves for the “sacrifice” echoes between the two novels.
Pages 19-20: bathrooms.
“Our thoughts fly to bathrooms: big, white-tiled bathrooms with gleaming silver taps and glass-enclosed showers, bathrooms with rubber floors and square-checked bathmats, bathrooms fitted with thick glass shelves loaded with jar upon jar of scented bath salts, white, green, mauve–different colours and different perfumes, lilac, verbena, carnation, lily of the valley.We see ourselves, steeped to the neck in over-hot, over-scented water ;in our hands are clasped enormous, springy sponges foaming with delicious soapsuds, expensive soap-suds-only the most expensive will suffice–sandal-wood, scented oatmeal, odiferous violet. Massage brushes lie to hand, long-handled narrow brushes with quaint, bulbous bristles of hollow rubber that catch the middle of the back just, where the arms are too short to reach… We scrub and scrub and scrub until we are clean and pink and tingling and glowing, we lie in a pleasant semi-coma until the water begins to cool, but emerging has no terrorsElectric fires glow softly ; before them are spread incredibly huge bath-sheets, soft, lavender-scented, monogrammed, waiting to caress our dripping bodies, to smother them in voluptuous warmth.Now we are dry; we pepper our newly-born selves with talcum powder.”June Roses “fills the air with its fragrance, daintily argues with the scent of the bath water, triumphs…
“Half a pint of icy water between six of us,” says Tosh. “Oh Hell, there’s a war on, they tell me.”
This feels like one of the more explicit references to the quick but memorable segment of All Quiet where Paul and his comrades dismiss memories of “white marble” in favor of “shitting under the stars.” It’s a divergence that I think can be rooted in class as well as gender, because (as Smithy’s narration takes care to keep reminding us in various ways) the cast of Not So Quiet… is specifically selected for their middle and upper-class status, and far from every young woman of the time would have had memories of verbena-scented bath salts. Certainly I doubt Paul’s sister would resonate with this particular memory.
That said: I also think this bathroom scene illuminates something fundamentally distinct from Paul in Smithy’s narration, which is that she’s more unstuck in time; this isn’t the only time that she tries to imagine her past life in detail, even though I read ahead by accident and thus can’t bring up the other visible example I have of this yet. To Paul, time and space are more-or-less rigidly delineated between home and the war; I don’t think it would be comforting to him to imagine the former when he’s occupying the latter space. Whether or not it’s comforting or painful to Smithy, though, she does keep doing it.
Page 30: Communications with home, and the truth.
My last letter home opens before me, photograph clear, sent in response to innumerable complaints concerning the brevity of my crossed-out field postcards: “It is such fun out here, and of course I’m loving every minute of it; it’s so splendid to be really in it…”
Jokes aside, though, I think this sequence with Smithy’s letter (and a great portion of the book) demonstrates a far more explicit disdain for Englishness than Paul ever expresses for German-ness. It’s explicitly jarring to hear Smithy put on a show of parodically English upper-class diction after hearing her real narrative voice. (This is another shared quality between All Quiet and Not So Quiet, and perhaps between more of the novels we’ll read this semester; the intimacy between the narrator and the audience, an intimacy that doesn’t include older authority figures in the narrator’s life.) And picking up from my very first item: what my writer friends and I refer to as “momblems” are a lot more bitter and pronounced for Smithy than they are from Paul. Paul lies to his mother with the primary intent of protection; Smithy feels an explicit (and justified) disdain for her.
39: Authority figures
“One of these days I will murder her slowly and reverently and very painfully. I will take lots of time over it–unless I meet her coming up the hill with dim lights, denoting an empty ambulance, in which case I will crash her bus head-on and take the risk of my own skidding into the valley afterwards.”
Two important points here. First, a quality of this book that I appreciate is that (even though one of the girls later says “It’s women who will end war,” a statement I find unconvincing in the light of the rest of the book) there is no essential quality of kindness or goodness ascribed to women by default here. The Commandant abuses her power and takes pleasure in doing so, not in the same ways but in many ways just as destructively as Himmelstoss does. Secondly: young women are just as capable of thinking murderous thoughts about their sadistic superior as young men. With the difference being, I guess, that Smithy and the gang cannot plausibly team up to beat up the Commandant. (Cannot, or choose not to, or both? Let’s debate violence again, I guess.)
“A hot-water bottle? They have made a hot-water bottle for me. My friends! They have not forgotten me. This touch of kindliness finishes me completely. The tears roll down my cheeks. I feel a rotter… a beast. I have been calling them everything vile, and all the time they have done this for me.”
A parallel and a contrast in one: the sense of camaraderie between the young people in a horrible situation is the same, but the vital distinction is that Paul never has the moment of misdirected rage against his comrades that Smithy experiences on the preceding pages and feels horrible for upon discovering the hot-water bottle. I don’t like to express preferences here, but I there’s something more authentic about this particular take on experiences of comradeship in crisis; rather than a consistent flood of safety, Smithy’s informed sense of crisis functions in such a way that everyone is a potential threat to her, and in moments of real despair even the bonds of friendship can’t automatically beat out cold, hunger, and exhaustion. Of course, the two characters also exist in different situations; is it in some ways lonelier to be an ambulance driver than to be a soldier? I don’t think I’m qualified to say, having done neither.
“Enemies? Our enemies aren’t the Germans. Our enemies are the politicians we pay to keep us out of war and who are too damned inefficient to do their jobs properly. After two thousand years of civilization, this folly happens. It is time women took a hand. The men are failures… this war shows that. Women will be the ones to stop war, you’ll see. If they can’t do anything else, they can refuse to bring children into the world to be maimed and murdered when they grow big enough.”
The same sense of flirtations with internationalism that Paul and his comrades experience on the other side; the same blaming of authority. The gender theory is new, and given the actions and words of the Commandant and Smithy’s mother and the B.F., I’m not sure the text of Not So Quiet… is in accordance with Edwards’s statement here. I like that it’s brought up here, though, for contemplation–
– and I like most of all the way focusing in on any one echo between the two books brings up more questions than answers, and rarely leaves us with the ability to say “well, that’s a parallel!” and move on without further interrogation. So: if there’s anything I missed, or any parallels/contrasts/half-parallels that you discover in further chapters, or if you want to respond to any of the big themes listed above, that’d be (Smithy writing to her mother voice) really splendid!