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Siegfried Sassoon: A Life By Max Egremont

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BerichtGeplaatst: 09 Mrt 2006 7:03    Onderwerp: Siegfried Sassoon: A Life By Max Egremont Reageer met quote

Siegfried Sassoon: A Life By Max Egremont
March 5, 2006 --

Siegfried Sassoon: A Life
By Max Egremont
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
656 pages, $35

IF Americans still read poetry, now would be a good time to rediscover the work of Siegfried Sassoon, even though the best of his poems were written over eight decades ago.

Sassoon (1886-1967) was one of "the War Poets," that group of mostly English young men who fought in the trenches of World War I and wrote poems that etched that conflict's images of honor, disillusionment, gore, futility and heroism into our modern psyche.

Sassoon's poetry was short and colloquial; full of compassion for the common soldier and an eye for telling detail; realistic and ironic, and often packing a gut-wrenching final punch. In his day, more than a few of his poems were deemed "too horrible" for publication, and reading them in light of today's headlines, one is struck by their intelligence, pathos and relevance.

The paradox at the heart of Sassoon's poetry is that war is as glorious as it is unspeakably awful, and in his new biography, Max Egremont captures much of the ambivalence that tormented Sassoon.

Egremont's Sassoon is a humane soul struggling with contradictions: an awkward, homosexual, unathletic, shy Jew who was nevertheless a privileged child of upper-class British society and loved its trappings.

It is how Sassoon chose to deal with those contradictions that makes him such an interesting and tragically melancholy figure. On the battlefield, he was an officer who truly loved his men; he was full of self-doubt, yet flamboyantly heroic. He was a wounded and decorated soldier who nevertheless spoke out against a war he saw as pointless, right before returning to the front lines. He hated the war, but in some sense it was the war that gave his life meaning, and it's certain that the war, for better or for worse, made his fame as a writer.

Back at home, Sassoon seems to have struggled with being pigeonholed as a "war poet" and with how to write for an audience that had had the luxury of moving on. His best later writings are thinly fictionalized memoirs recreating the English pastoral fantasy of cricket and foxhunting that Sassoon risked his life to defend - even if he never entirely fit it in.

The bitter irony is that Sassoon's friend and fellow poet Wilfred Owen may have been the luckier of the two: Owen was killed in action a week before the Armistice, and didn't have to live another 50 years trying to figure out what to be and what to write in peacetime.

Egremont's biography is based on unprecedented access - unpublished letters and diaries, as well as conversations with Sassoon's son George and his lover Stephen Tennant. Egremont creates a detailed picture of Sassoon and his times richly textured with quotations and excerpts. Some readers might wish that Egremont did not assume such easy familiarity with Sassoon's writings and his contemporaries, and that more pages had been devoted to the war years. Nevertheless, "Siegfried Sassoon" is an engaging read, and one that will be even more rewarding if accompanied by a good anthology such as "The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry."

Mark D. Nevins, president of Nevins Consulting, last reviewed "Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature."

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