31 October 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Trade paperback, 90 pages
Published 1998 (originally 1918)
Acquired and read August 2016
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

It's probably a disservice to Rebecca West to read her work as part of an investigation into the life of H. G. Wells. Still, reading about her relationship with Wells made me want to find out what she was like as a writer, as I have never read any of her work, so I picked up The Return of the Soldier, the most popular of her books published during their relationship. (Though I am also curious about The Judge based on Wells's account of its composition in H. G. Wells in Love, and a friend recommended Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.) Like Catherine Wells, West's literary interests are very different from those of her lover, though I was amused when a "Bert Wells" rated a brief mention. (Seemingly no connection beyond the name, though.)

I knew The Return of the Soldier was a Great War novel going in, but that was pretty much all I knew, so I was surprised to find a book that wasn't as much about the war as I thought. Christoper Baldry is a soldier who returns from the front, yes, but his ailment is that he's forgotten his life since 1901, and the novel (or, more accurately, novella) is an investigation into why someone might do this. Sure, the war is the triggering event, but the novel is more a portrait of how the person we thought we ought to be turns out not to be the person we become, and the tragedy that can result from that. West observes character most acutely, and it's in the highs and lows of being where this novel really shines. Not that there's a whole lot else to it, at 90 pages. She sets things up so that the title has a pretty compelling and sad double meaning in the end, too. (Wikipedia reads the ending as much more pat than I think it is intended to be. The wound is healed, but the tragedy lingers.) West is working in that sort of Woolf school of early modernism, and I think one of its better practitioners. Quick, but complex.

Next Week: One last Wells woman, the spy Moura Budberg, who was A Very Dangerous Woman!

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