Monday, March 21, 2011

2,568: The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings

This is the third Classics Circuit Tour in which I’ve participated.  So far, I’ve written about an unfamiliar book by an author with whom I’m familiar (Trollope) and a familiar work by a familiar author (Aristophanes).  Today, I’m going to talk a little about an unfamiliar book by an author who is unfamiliar to me – E.E. (or e.e.) Cummings.

Cummings was a fully paid-up member of the Lost Generation.  The phrase was, according to Hemingway, coined by a garage owner who serviced Gertrude Stein’s car in France. As originally used, it refers to that entire generation of young men who came of age in the First World War.  Hemingway later popularised the phrase by using it as an epigraph in his novel, The Sun Also Rises.  Technically, the Lost Generation encompasses not only those young Americans such as Cummings, John Dos Passos and Hemingway but also young Britons, Frenchmen and Germans who had their innocence and hope stripped away in the trenches of Northern France and Belgium.

It has slipped into common usage, however, as a short hand phrase for the generation of young American writers who spent time in Paris just after the end of the First World War.  Cummings, like Hemingway, was a volunteer ambulance driver and, although he is much better known as one of America’s greatest modern poets wrote an autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room, telling of his time in war-time France.

There isn’t actually anything much about his experiences of the war in the book as, almost from the beginning, this is a book about prison life.  Cummings was close to another young American volunteer, William Slater Brown.  The two of them were seen as being rather odd by the other members of their unit as they had learned French and preferred the company of their French colleagues to their fellow Americans.  Brown had written a number of letters in which he expressed “war weariness” and other pacifist sentiments.  Intercepted by the censors, these were enough to have him arrested.  Cummings too was detained, apparently on the grounds that, as Brown’s friend, he must also be a suspicious character.

Cummings was given the opportunity to win his freedom by disavowing his friend and by declaring his hatred for all Germans.  Friendship won out over personal liberty and Cummings refused to take his chance.  He, therefore, followed Brown to La Ferté-Macé, a kind of purgatory in the French prison system, where unconvicted prisoners were sent, pending the decision by a commission on whether they should be convicted or released.  Both Cummings and Brown have the misfortune to arrive just days after the commission has left and so are condemned to spending several months locked up until the commission is due to return.

The major part of the Enormous Room deals with Cummings’ life in La Ferté-Macé.  All of the male detainees are kept in the titular enormous room under pretty dreadful coniditions – straw pallets for beds, buckets of urine lined up against a wall, inedible food and a cold bath once a week.  They are also physically separated from the female prisoners who include not just suspects but also the wives and families of male prisoners who have elected to stay with them.

There is no real plot to this section of the book.  It centres around descriptions of everyday life, anecdotes about events that took place during his stay there and a number of picaresque character sketches of his fellow inmates and the detention centre staff.  Men such as Judas, the Fighting Sheeny, Rockyfeller, Mexique and, most notably, Jean le Nègre all flit across the pages of The Enormous Room to be described in energetic and vivid prose.
Cummings’ writing is very distinctive here.  It is the voice of the privileged young American who, despite his unfortunate circumstances, is determined to rise above it all and to treat everything as a bit of a joke, safe in the knowledge that things will turn out well in the end.  It is even vaguely reminiscent in tone (if not in language) to upper-class English literary heroes of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, determined to face insurmountable odds with a joke and a stiff upper lip.  The grammar is also slightly unorthodox and the language use is quirky, foreshadowing his later poetry.

Yet, underlying the lighthearted tone, Cummings is scathing of the French bureaucracy and the conditions in which the detainees are kept. It is shocking to read about the physical state of the detention centre and the treatment of the inmates when one considers that these are people who have not been convicted of any time.  If the commission does convict a prisoner, they are immediately sent off to a true prison and one hesitates to even try and imagine what the conditions there must have been like.

There is a happy ending to all of this.  On the commission’s return to La Ferté-Macé, Cummings was permitted a supervised release to any place he chose in France.  At the same time, his father, a well-known minister in Boston and a former lecturer at Harvard who had been writing letters to try and obtain his son’s release, finally managed to get a letter to the President.  Diplomatic intervention ensued and, as Cummings was about to leave for Oloron-Sainte-Marie, news of his unconditional release arrived and, instead, he was put on a train to Paris.

The Enormous Room is an interesting and unusual part of the canon of novels and poems that were born out of the First World War.  It tells of what must have been an extremely unpleasant experience in a deceptively light-hearted fashion and is an often amusing read. 

Although not a commercial success, it was hailed by critics and reviewers as a unique novel.  Writing in 1926, F. Scott Fitzgerald commented:

Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since 1920 one book survives—The Enormous Room by e e cummings....Those few who cause books to live have not been able to endure the thought of its mortality.”

For this tour, I wanted to read something new to me.  Neither Cummings nor this type of novel spring naturally to mind when one is thinking about the US expat writing scene in 1920s Paris and I am really glad I did choose this – it’s always a pleasure to discover and enjoy a new writer and book.

I shall be following the tour as it progresses and I hope that you will visit the blogs of the other tour participants.


Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

Had no idea this novel existed, only knew of his great poetry.

That old cover is a bit misleading, isn't it? Is there a female lead in the book?

Bellezza said...

You wrote such fascinating review, and you taught me much in the reading of it. I had no idea that e.e. cummings wrote anything but poetry, and certainly didn't know that he wrote of such situations as detainees and French bureaucracy. (Is any government different? I even lament America's at times, which I always believed in as a child. But, that's a whole other topic...) Thank you for sharing so much knowledge with us, and starting off the circuit tour with such a great post.

Lavish Bookshelf said...

Thank you for your wonderful review. Like in the other comments, I had no idea e.e. cummings wrote a novel. Very insightful. Thank you.

Falaise said...

Alex - Yes, apparently he wrote this and one other novel. The "cover" is actually the tour button and not the actual book cover. I read it on my Kindle and have no idea what the book cover looks like!

Bellezza - Thank you for your lovely comment.

Mustard Seed - Thank you for your lovely comment.

Rebecca Reid said...

I did not know he wrote a novel! And to be honest, I know little about him...Thanks for reading this so I could be introduced to something new too!

Falaise said...

Rebecca - Thank you for stopping by and commenting.