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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, November 20th, 2005


Siegfried Sassoon: A Life

by Max Egremont

To endure their ache

A review by Dominic Hibberd

For a relatively minor writer who never held any kind of public office, Siegfried Sassoon is fearsomely well documented. He said his poems were his autobiography, and there are hundreds of them; but there are also sheaves of letters, notes, drafts and diaries, as well as one unfinished and six published volumes of memoirs, three -- if not all -- of the six lightly fictionalized. For years there was no biography, now there are three: Jean Moorcroft Wilson's two immensely detailed volumes (1998, 2003), John Stuart Roberts's much shorter book (1999), and Max Egremont's new, "official" Life, Siegfried Sassoon: A biography.

Egremont's shrewd and very readable portrait is in some ways the most complete of the three. His preface is perhaps a little misleading in implying that his predecessors did not see Sassoon's autobiographical notes and late diaries, but he is certainly the first biographer to have had the full cooperation of Sassoon's son, George. Nevertheless, Egremont maintains a critical detachment from his subject (who is usually "Sassoon" or, surprisingly often, "Siegfried Sassoon" in this book and only rarely "Siegfried"), while describing him with insight and sympathy.

Sassoon was in his own word a chameleon -- impulsive, unpredictable, self absorbed and exasperating, but also courageous, charming and sometimes deeply admirable. Nothing in his life was quite as it seemed, as Egremont's introduction deftly suggests. Sassoon's most famous prose work, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, was an immediate success, with its delightful evocation of the innocent, golden world of George Sherston, Sassoon's simplified alter ego, but many of its readers would have been horrified to know that its author was in the throes of a tormented love affair with the wildly camp Stephen Tennant; seeing the couple together on a London street, a woman shouted from a passing car, "You two revolting bits of filth!". When the supposedly dying Tennant refused to see him any more, Sassoon haunted the house, peering in through its windows like Enoch Arden, one of his favourite characters -- "the hidden watcher", as Egremont puts it, "with that sense of power in concealment, sadism and masochism mixed, the superiority of observing and the inferior role of forgoing pleasure".

As an autobiographer, similarly, Sassoon looks in from a darkened present to an idealized, unreachable past. He was a myth-maker: Max Egremont is ruthlessly clear about that, and about the limitations of Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man: "a utopia, purged of (Sassoon's) own awkward boyhood, purged of his homosexuality, his Jewishness, his wish to be a writer, (his mother's) mental fragility" and the "socially demeaning, hideous" house he was brought up in. Purged also of Sassoon's snobbery -- he despised the "low class" officers in his regiment -- and his occasional anti-Semitism, two characteristics typical of the age.

From utopia, Sherston goes to war, in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, expecting a clean fight in a just cause and finding instead horror, futility and political deceit. The third volume in the Sherston trilogy, Sherston's Progress, its title echoing Bunyan, was a stage in Sassoon's long journey to religious faith, but it is the first two books that have been influential. "Sassoon's war", according to Egremont,

"means a callous, out-of-touch High Command and the sacrifice of innocents in the apparently unceasing hell of the Western Front . . . . More than anyone, even more than Owen, Siegfried Sassoon created this, through his poetry and his prose, turning it into one of the most resonant myths of our times."

Egremont is careful to distance himself from this vision of the First World War, which modern historians rail against in vain.

The courage, compassion and intense sincerity of Sassoon's 1917 protest against the continuation of the war are not diminished by pointing out, as Egremont does, that he liked to be both martyr and solitary hero. He longed to die in action, preferably while saving some handsome youth. Enjoying his "rather Byronic" air, in Glyn Philpot's portrait of him, he was agreeably aware of its relevance to the protest, which he drafted while the picture was being painted. His heroism can never be doubted, but martyrdom proved elusive. "Can't you find me a nice wheel to be broken on?" he plaintively asked Edward Marsh in 1918. He had in fact been relatively lucky, spending less than a month altogether in the front line and suffering few horrors of the kind that had tormented Wilfred Owen and many others. Spared death in the trenches, let alone in front of a firing squad, Sassoon lived to be almost eighty-one.

For a while, after the war, he worked -- apparently with little energy or distinction -- as Literary Editor of the Daily Herald, and spoke at meetings in support of pacifism and the Labour Party, but before long his political commitment faded. Egremont warns that the ensuing period will seem a time of "rush and occasional chaos" when people will come and go with "the flickering disjointedness of early cinema", and he does perhaps condense rather too much information from the diaries here. But although a lot of Sassoon's travel and socializing may seem sadly inconsequential, he did not revert to his aimless pre-war self. As well as discovering his talents as a prose writer, he discovered sex.

Egremont is well placed to describe the most intense of Sassoon's various relationships, having met and corresponded with Tennant years ago and paid close attention to Tennant's diaries. So, while all three biographers include the first dinner party and the nocturnal drive afterwards, only Egremont tells us that when Tennant arrived at Sassoon's bedroom at 3am, dressed for the road, he looked in the mirror and instructed his face: "You know what you've got to do". They went to Stonehenge, Tennant duly making "the most passionate avowals" (according to Sassoon's diary) and crept back into the house at dawn. Similarly, only Egremont records Tennant's first visit to Sassoon's flat, on October 19, 1927, Tennant "tall, silky fair-haired, a pale powdered face, large clear grey deer-like eyes, very feminine", taking out a pocket mirror to comb his hair and inspect his long eyelashes while Sassoon played Rachmaninov on the piano. Tennant said he felt like a lecherous vampire, interrupting Sassoon's work. Such details are not important in themselves, but they give life to the larger story. Tennant emerges as rather less objectionable, and Sassoon as considerably more strongly sexed, than in previous accounts.

Egremont occasionally makes workaday facts difficult to find, and you can sometimes lose track of which year you're in. Some things he omits without comment. Both Wilson and Roberts believe, for example, that Sassoon's disastrous marriage was engineered by Edith Olivier and they name her among the handful of guests at the wedding, where she apparently stood in for Sassoon's mother, who was ill. Egremont mentions neither matchmaking, nor Edith's presence at the wedding, leaving you to guess whether he has overlooked the tale or thinks it unimportant or untrue. If you want to know when Sassoon died and how old he was, the information is there on Wilson's last page, whereas Egremont makes you dig for it. On the other hand, Egremont alone can tell you that, at the suggestion of the Irish nurse, George Sassoon fetched his accordion and played "The Wild Rover" to his dead father, a simple, high-spirited tune in memory of Siegfried at his happiest.

Of the three biographies, Wilson is likely to remain an unrivalled source for facts and references, Roberts is interesting on Sassoon's last years and his conversion to Roman Catholicism, but it is Egremont who excels at narrative, shaping the events of Sassoon's life into an absorbing story, richly detailed yet not overloaded. One last example of the three biographers' methods: a notorious incident on the Somme in 1916, when Sassoon abandoned his company and went ahead to capture an enemy trench single-handed, twice ignoring orders to return. Then, lacking a messenger to send back for reinforcements, he sat down in the trench and, according to Robert Graves, "began dozing over a book of poems", later earning a furious rebuke from the Colonel. Sassoon attributes the exploit to Sherston in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, without mentioning the poems. Roberts disposes of it in a few lines, saying nothing about its oddity, the Colonel, or Graves. Wilson devotes nearly three pages to it and a resulting poem, suggesting convincingly that the poetry book is a Gravesian invention, and that the Colonel decided Sassoon was too unreliable to be sent into the line again (she is less convincing in denying that there was a reprimand, unless she means a formal one: Sassoon noted in his diary that he was "cursed considerably" by the Colonel).

Egremont reduces Sassoon's adventure to about a page, maintaining the pace with lively detail and keeping his eye firmly on character and narrative. For him, this is not a moment to detain the reader with poems, real or invented, or with worries about factual accuracy. What matters is Sassoon's extraordinary character and his response to the thrill of battle, "addictive, heroically solitary, without introspection or regret". The Colonel's fury is paraphrased from Memoirs of an Infantry Officer on the reasonable assumption that at this point Sassoon is not writing fiction. If anything, Egremont moves a little too fast here, making no reference to Sassoon's unreliability, an important question that would have been worth pursuing. After all, for an officer to leave his company in defiance of orders was a serious offence, and Sassoon was lucky to be let off with nothing worse than a cursing.

Egremont frequently does focus on the poems, as Sassoon would have wished, but many of them are unknown and some are pretty undistinguished, so they have to be dealt with briefly, often just as a group of titles with a few comments. This works unexpectedly well, keeping the reader aware of Sassoon's central concern without obstructing the narrative. Sassoon could never quite get away from those "Dim glades of ecstasy" that figure in a 1905 poem and the "foggy allusiveness" complained of by one of his earliest critics and encouragers, Edmund Gosse. Sassoon's interest in contemporary poetry scarcely got beyond Hardy, whom he venerated, and Housman, whose poems went with him throughout his time in the Army. His reading was considerable (how many undergraduates even in 1907 would have read The Ring and the Book twice in five months?) but rarely up to date. Even on his own admission he was not particularly clever -- "More brain, O God, more brain!" Virginia Woolf once lamented of him. Tennant repeatedly told him to modernize his verse, but Sassoon could never do so, nor understand why he was not appointed to the Order of Merit alongside Eliot. He dreamed that if Owen had survived, the two war poets together would have taken a stand against Modernism, but it was a false dream: Owen would have been fascinated by The Waste Land, soon settling down to imitate and absorb, as he always did with a new style.

The cutting edge of the war poems is unique in Sassoon's work, coming as it did from the internal war between the fox-hunting gentleman turned officer, trained never to contemplate defeat, and the would-be left-wing protester, "convinced that we are losing". Critics have often overlooked that conviction, but it was a crucial factor: if Sassoon had been confident of victory, he might never have made his protest - indeed, years later he decided it had been a mistake. He saw the worst of the war, as Max Egremont observes, yet he escaped the worst of its horrors, so he felt guilt as well as anger and despair. Above all, he felt driven, as he had written in 1913, to "strive for pity's sake, / To watch with the hopeless and the outcast / And to endure their ache". That striving met his inner needs, but it also produced the poems for which he will always be honoured.

Dominic Hibberd's biographies include Harold Monro: Poet of the new age, 2001, and Wilfred Owen: A new biography, 2002.

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