When Geoff Dyer wrote the The Missing of the Somme in the early '90s, he had published two novels, The Colour of Memory (1989) and The Search (1993), an acclaimed but highly unusual book about jazz, But Beautiful (1991), and a critical study of John Berger. Of those titles, the Berger book now stands out as being the least Dyer-ish (the author himself dismisses it as boring and academic). Yet the very qualities we now consider trademark Dyer—the discursive, off-kilter insights into art, photography, and the ways we organize our knowledge—are qualities partly gleaned from Berger. In no book is this more evident than The Missing of the Somme, Dyer's essay on memory and the First World War, now published in the US for the first time.
Dyer has little in the way of training as a historian, so his approach to the war of 1914-1918 is self-consciously the approach of an amateur. This kind of third-hand historical rumination can be risky business. When Martin Amis weighed in on Stalinism in Koba the Dread, the results were haphazard, like someone diving into the shallow end of a pool. But Dyer takes greater care not to sound like the historian or specialist. Despite the fact that his grandfather fought in the war (Dyer was born in 1958), he makes no claims to special knowledge. Instead, he underscores the importance of history's grand narratives, even to those of us who, like Dyer, remain somewhat removed from them.
The book opens by describing an old family album—"Every family was touched by the war and every family has an album like this"—and moves on to more general reflections on the photography, memorials, and literary testaments of the war. In a sense, Dyer operates like a historian in reverse; nodding to Johan Huizinga, he argues that "the Great War urges us to write the opposite of history: the story of effects generating their cause." For unlike the Second World War, footage of which is more widely accessible, the First World War, Dyer claims, is "deeply buried in its own aftermath." This is partly because it was the first war to be comprehensively memorialized. What's more, it was a war in which memorializing was carried out even as it raged on; Laurence Binyon, Dyer tells us, wrote his famous poem "For the Fallen" as early as September 1914, when the war was just a month old. As Dyer shrewdly remarks, "The war, it begins to seem, had been fought in order that it might be remembered, that it might live up to its memory."
Through this collation of art and history, The Missing of the Somme articulates its true subject: the remembrance and representation of war. "The issue," Dyer writes, "is not simply the way the war generates memory but the way memory has determined—and continues to determine—the meaning of the war." Dyer's access to the Great War through art, reportage, and myth is mirrored in the book's fragmented, discursive form. Like Berger, who famously observed that "although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image depends also upon our way of seeing," Dyer penetrates through countless layers of memory—memory of a war that, unlike the one that followed it, often seems meaningless.
Dyer knows he is not simply mediating the war, but mediating previous attempts to mediate it. "Like the youthful Christopher Isherwood," he confesses, "I wanted to write a book that was not about 'the War itself but the effect of the idea of [the War] on my generation.'" Looking at WWI in this fashion, Dyer is always searching for "what is not there," and what is not there, of course, is meaning. Thus his attempt to mediate the Great War becomes an impossible desire to impose meaning retrospectively, and perhaps even to alter history. This is hinted at in the title itself. In one of its many threads, Dyer's book attempts to retrieve, by mingling imagination and facts, the 73,077 soldiers who perished along the banks of the river Somme in 1916.
Dyer's ruminative approach to history enlists the intellectual aid of thinkers like Adorno, Barthes, and Berger, and the results are surprisingly moving. On a road trip in Europe with friends, paying visits to various battlefields and memorial sites, Dyer proves remarkably sensitive to "the fled allotment of time... the listed ruin of a fact," to use Glyn Maxwell's phrase in his own WWI-themed poetry collection, The Breakage. Surveying an expanse of indistinguishable headstones, Dyer observes: "the headstones are turning green with moss. The words 'Their Glory Shall Not Be Blotted Out' are blotted out by mud splashed up by rain." What follows is among the most poignant passages in the book:
As each year passes, it grows more difficult to keep time at bay. A quarter of a century's moss forms in one year. Time is trying to make up for lost time. Left untended this cemetery, with its classical pillars, would look like the ancient ruin in a couple of years. If the machine-gun's unprecedented destructive power made it 'concentrated essence of infantry', then here we have concentrated essence of past. This is the look the past tends towards.
Dyer's accomplishment here is not to convey facts but to comprehend the ways in which wartime memory is used and abused, corrupted and constructed, fought against and submitted to. For later generations whose task it will be to reflect on the wars of the previous century as they recede farther from view—generations like my own—The Missing of the Somme is an important book. It is not a work of historical or political insight, nor even of great literary insight. It is, instead, a beautifully sustained experiment in thought; Zadie Smith has rightly celebrated Dyer's criticism for "thinking out loud," and that is precisely the best way to characterize this nimble book. Dyer himself calls it an "extended entry, jotted on pages ripped from the visitor's book of a cemetery on the Somme." It is a powerful display of human compassion; if the physical monument to the missing of the Somme acknowledges the missing soldiers, Dyer finds a worthier place for them in our imagination.
Morten Høi Jensen's essays and reviews have appeared in The Quarterly Conversation and Words Without Borders. He is the books editor of Idiom Magazine.