There is a gutsy quality of Elizabethan humor about this excellent novel that sets it apart from the current moanin’ low school of war literature. The horror of organized murder under patriotic auspices is not forgotten. But Major Acland commits the heresy of showing that the men who fought –at least the Canadians in the Scots regiments –were occasionally able to find some hilarity in their calling, when they were not soliloquizing over futility and destiny while searching for wild life in their shirts, and that in the end, though the war smashed them, the survivors were still able to respond to the battle music of the skirling bagpipes.
The book, therefore, is important. It marks a Greek mean in the season’s avalanche of war novels that already calls for a publisher’s Locarno. Unlike a great many of those others it gives a balanced point of view. Here, one feels, is human nature, blundering and unregenerate after fifty centuries of civilization, still reaching for stars and falling on its cosmic face in the mud. As Ford Maddox Ford remarks in his amiably patronizing introduction, “All Else Is Folly” should be enormously widely read.
Alexander Falcon, an intelligent, able, university-educated young man of the variety this continent turns out by the gross, is the central character. In his early twenties he is a radical, as all these young men are. He was gone in search of adventure to Western Canada. There he is at work as a cattleman when the war begins. He forgets his socialism, goes to Quebec and becomes a subaltern in the MacIntyre Highlanders.
In England, Falcon finds that wine, women and war are not without reason an indissoluble triad of words. Beginning with casual, amusing affairs he presently finds himself in situations that “renew upon a deeper nerve.” Ladies of the evening give way before the irresistible –a titled noblewoman with red hair. A girl in Canada, whose conversation had more wit than depth, troubles the midnight and noon’s repose. And finally there is the long ordeal of love for a girl bound by her own standards to a husband who is a prisoner of war in Germany that gives the story a high note of tragedy.
These are the interludes; the war is the main theme. Falcon rises in command as the war crushes him in body and spirit. There are superb battle pictures in the book. The episode of the attack that failed, and left the remnants of the company beleagered [sic] in a ditch behind the German lines, giving the German army an opportunity to pick them off with leisure and precision, is memorable.
Major Acland writes in a style that is in itself something of a war atrocity at times. One has the feeling that he wrote with two fingers on a typewriter that kept leaping about the room. He is a gentleman amateur among novelists, and some of his scenes are very flat, notably the attempt to render a cowboy jamboree at the beginning, and the dinner party in the titled noblewoman’s castle that marked the beginning of the end of felicity. But he can write as one inspired when he is giving the dialogue of men drinking mordant toasts before going into battle. And in the minor portrait of the fabulous, fatuous Major Rump, whose opinion of himself was invariably in inverse ratio to the opinion the world held of him, he has created a character who deserves a whole book to himself.
Toward the end there is a scene before royalty where the personality of a king is elucidated by deeds, not words, that is a triumph of indirect writing. It gave one reader at least the best insight into the character of a monarch that has come out of the millions of words recently printed about him. And, finally, Major Acland justifies the new freedom of vocabularies. He can write those things that we shamefacedly call Rabelaisian when we enjoy them with a breezy humor that might serve as a model for our dour, unsmiling realists.
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NY Times Review of All Else Is Folly