Friday, 7 November 2014

Beau Geste by PC Wren: Part 2

published 1924






The big gloomy quadrangle of Fort St. Jean was now crowded with soldiers of every regiment of the army of Africa, the famous Nineteenth Army Corps, and, for the first time, I saw the Spahis of whom the French officer had talked to us at Brandon Abbas.

Their trousers were voluminous enough to be called skirts, in fact one leg would have provided the material for an ample frock. Above these garments they wore sashes that appeared to be yards in length and feet in width. In these they rolled each other up, one man holding and manipulating the end, while the other spun round and round towards him, winding the sash tightly about himself as he did so.

Gaudy waistcoats, zouave jackets, fez caps, and vast scarlet cloaks completed their picturesquely barbaric costumes.

There was a babel of noise and a confusing turmoil as these leave-men rushed about in search of pay-corporals, fourrier-sergents, kit, papers, food, and the canteen. The place was evidently the clearing-house and military hotel for all soldiers coming from, or returning to, the army of Africa.



observations: Needs to be read with yesterday's entry on the book.

I read Beau Geste as a child, hugely enjoying the rip-roaring adventure, the ridiculous plot, the idea of brothers-in-arms and soldierly values. I re-read it, curious as to how it would come over in 2014.

So first of all, as with so many of the books of that era, there is awful racism, snobbery and classism, and truly outrageous anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitism is largely confined to one scene, and is particularly pointless and unnecessary – the narrator John is financing a journey by selling valuables, and there is a long and nasty scene where he is casually rude about the merchant buying his bits and pieces. But the scene adds nothing to the story, it is just a chance to be horrible. (Kathy D – do not read this book. Everyone else – miss out that scene).

Although the mystery of the missing sapphire is explained at the end (and the reader is left with no idea that there is anything further to know) there are another two books in the trilogy, Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal, and a whole other twist is given to the story. Beau Sabreur deals largely with the comic but charming French soldier who goes by the surely unlikely name of Henri de Beaujolais (he was the narrator of yesterday's entry), but Beau Ideal goes back to the mysterious crew of Brandon Abbas and gives another explanation of the theft.

The book is obsessed with ideas of shame and honour, and codes of behaviour: it came out the same year as recent blog books Constant Nymph and the first part of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (both of which might share some of its views, though Ford in a more cynical and much more intellectual and thoughtful way): Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published a year later, and Evelyn Waugh produced Decline and Fall in 1928, and their view of similar milieux is caustic and very different.

The picture, from the Library of Congress, shows spahis – ‘light cavalry regiments of the French army recruited primarily from the indigenous populations of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco’ - in camp.

A stylish young woman in Ngaio Marsh’s 1958 Singing in the Shrouds wears a zouave hat.
 

10 comments:

  1. I'd forgotten about the sequels - always interesting to see an author extend a one-off book when it seems that this was an afterthought - usually not much cop of course, but there are clearly exceptions ...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the first one was a runaway success, massive bestseller, and the others of much less importance - but they were interesting. I don't think anyone ever filmed them, for example.

      Delete
  2. Is there a part 3 tomorrow - on the edge of my seat at the minute, about to burst.....ok I'm not

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You'll be glad to hear that this is all! New pastures tomorrow.

      Delete
  3. Moira - Thanks for sharing that 'photo - I always wondered what those uniforms looked like. I've never been much of a one for that kind of 'ism' in books, even books written when those were the prevailing views. Very hard to take... But I will say that those swashbuckling adventures - wait, that's for pirates - could appeal to readers. And as I mentioned yesterday, lots of intrigue too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I like the feeling of adventure, the way the boys just take off to join the Legion, without (apparently) much thought, or any money in their pockets.

      Delete
  4. It is the same with John Buchan - some aspects make one wince - but they are such rattling good stories. You simply have to screen it out. I am very impressed by that opening chapter you described yesterday and must give it a try.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes I agree with you - I don't want them censored, or banned, so just have to trust modern readers to take the right thing. And truly, one of the great openings in books....

      Delete
  5. Interesting, still not sure. If I were looking for a book for 1924 I would probably choose Constant Nymph. But maybe I will change my mind...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hard choice - two very different books Tracy. Depends on your mood I think.

      Delete