Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Sherston’s Progress.
Siegfried Sassoon’s lightly fictionalized memoir (he changed all but one of the names – including his own – and invented the character of the aunt) came out several year post-war, at about the same time as Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen Nichts Neues.
The organization of the memoir is clumsy. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, the story about his childhood and young adulthood, contains a great number of well-turned phrases, but it plods along rather tediously, before suddenly shifting to the early days of his enlistment. The first book would have been better as a stand-alone prologue, with the army chapters included in the second volume.
Sassoon hits his stride in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, as he aptly illustrates the experience of trench warfare and his gradually increasing alienation, but the book would have ended better immediately after he submitted his pacifist declaration, and saving his committal to the psychiatric hospital for the third book of the memoir. His greatest technical strength in writing is demonstrated in this volume: Novelists who want to write well in the first person singular point-of-view would do well to study Sassoon’s style.
Sherston’s Progress is disappointing. There are lengthy digressions that detract from the flow and impact of the work: the impression it leaves is that Sassoon was hard-put to find as much that was as interesting to write about as he had done in the second volume, and resorted to some padding. He also takes it easy with an extended “diary” section: a variety of abbreviated writing that, if well written, can let an author get away without the effort of creating dialogue. The third volume of the memoir does provide valuable insights into the experience of confinement in the army psychiatric hospital.
Did Sassoon have “shell-shock”? He denies it, taking a literal interpretation of the term, and saying that he had no fears or symptoms resulting specifically from explosions, but in the second book he describes having what are known to be symptoms of the mental derangement that follows from intense psychological stress. In the third book he draws careful distinctions between himself and the other cases with whom he was domiciled; however, he does report hallucinations and disturbed dreams during that period.
Despite its flaws, Sassoon’s Sherston trilogy retains a feeling of freshness, and still deserves its place as a classic of Great War writing.