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Airborne Division

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Of all Richard Wagner’s music dramas, the one I know best is Tristan und Isolde, as do a lot of people, I imagine. I first came to it as an undergraduate, courtesy of the LPs lent me by my tutorial partner. At the age of 19, Henry was already an authority on Wagner, thanks in large part to the volunteer work he’d been doing for three years as a scene-shifter and odd-jobber at the Bayreuth Festival.

So it was that on the Dansette record player I’d brought from home, Kirsten Flagstad’s Isolde, Ludwig Suthaus’s Tristan and Josef Greindl’s King Mark opened a window one misty afternoon on Wagner’s dark, mythical world. I followed the triangular tragedy of illicit love until, some four hours later, it played out its doomed endgame in sumptuous chords and soaring melody. From time to time that winter, I’d borrow Henry’s records again, not to hear the whole of Tristan, but just the two sections that wouldn’t stop ringing in my head – the prelude to the third act, with its heartbreaking air for cor anglais, and, in the second act, the lament of the wronged King Mark.

That king, that love triangle, came back to me recently when I decided at last to read something by a French writer of whom I’d long since heard but had never had quite enough curiosity to investigate – Joseph Kessel. I’d paired him in my mind with another French novelist, equally ‘minor’, Maurice Dekobra. Born within a dozen years or so of each other, they were said to evoke better than most novelists of the time the glittering, bohemian-round-the-edges society of the twenty years between the two World Wars. Their names conjured up sybarites moving around the fleshpots of Europe in Lagondas and luxury trains and private aeroplanes, the Jay Gatsbys of an older continent.

Dekobra worked on my imagination for one detail in particular, the marvellously suggestive title of one of his novels, The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars. Kessel too could come up w

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Of all Richard Wagner’s music dramas, the one I know best is Tristan und Isolde, as do a lot of people, I imagine. I first came to it as an undergraduate, courtesy of the LPs lent me by my tutorial partner. At the age of 19, Henry was already an authority on Wagner, thanks in large part to the volunteer work he’d been doing for three years as a scene-shifter and odd-jobber at the Bayreuth Festival.

So it was that on the Dansette record player I’d brought from home, Kirsten Flagstad’s Isolde, Ludwig Suthaus’s Tristan and Josef Greindl’s King Mark opened a window one misty afternoon on Wagner’s dark, mythical world. I followed the triangular tragedy of illicit love until, some four hours later, it played out its doomed endgame in sumptuous chords and soaring melody. From time to time that winter, I’d borrow Henry’s records again, not to hear the whole of Tristan, but just the two sections that wouldn’t stop ringing in my head – the prelude to the third act, with its heartbreaking air for cor anglais, and, in the second act, the lament of the wronged King Mark. That king, that love triangle, came back to me recently when I decided at last to read something by a French writer of whom I’d long since heard but had never had quite enough curiosity to investigate – Joseph Kessel. I’d paired him in my mind with another French novelist, equally ‘minor’, Maurice Dekobra. Born within a dozen years or so of each other, they were said to evoke better than most novelists of the time the glittering, bohemian-round-the-edges society of the twenty years between the two World Wars. Their names conjured up sybarites moving around the fleshpots of Europe in Lagondas and luxury trains and private aeroplanes, the Jay Gatsbys of an older continent. Dekobra worked on my imagination for one detail in particular, the marvellously suggestive title of one of his novels, The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars. Kessel too could come up with strong titles – The Army of Shadows, for example. However, what he’s remembered for above all is Belle de Jour, though I suspect that not everyone who’s seen Buñuel’s celebrated film knows that its origins lie in a fairly short book of Kessel’s, published in 1928, no raunchy autobiography of a progressive and liberated woman but a rather average piece of fiction created by a thoroughly masculine man. The Crew (L’Equipage), Kessel’s semi-autobiographical novel of 1923, is a different proposition, if equally male. Elements of the Tristan and Isolde myth appear in the context of the First World War; more precisely, of a French aerial reconnaissance unit stationed close to the Western Front. What plays out over the course of twelve chapter is in effect a twentieth-century romance of chivalry that goes wrong. For medieval mounted charges, substitute aeroplanes locked in a dogfight. For shields and lances, substitute metal plating and machine guns. Instead of heroic verse, savour limpid, driving prose. And replace the aristocratic Belle Dame worshipped from a hygienic distance with a young Parisian wife far more eager to fall into her secret lover’s arms than the marital bed. The story, then – with a partial but necessary spoiler alert: 20-yearold Jean Herbillon leaves his family with a fairly light heart, and his mistress Denise with a still lighter one, to travel from Paris to the airfield in eastern France where the squadron he’s joining is based. Once installed, he’s quickly integrated into the brotherhood of flyers and ground staff who, between high-risk missions, josh and joke and drink and fool about in a pungently male environment that could be transposed to the RAF in Kent or Lincolnshire without the need to change anything other than a few names. The squadron’s leader, Captain Gabriel Thélis, is a commanding presence, fearless, authoritative, calm under pressure, and revered by his men – an improbable catalogue of qualities in a young man of just 24. But if Thélis sounds an unlikely character, he does serve to remind us that so many airmen who fought and died in the two World Wars were barely more than lads fresh out of school. The reconnaissance teams, the équipages described by Kessel, consist of a pilot and, seated behind him, an observer, the role played by Jean. Each team takes to the air armed with a machine gun and a camera, and typically flies over the battle zone and the enemy dispositions and, as often as not, limps back to base – the price of an encounter with German fighter planes that has left the pilot barely able to get the plane on the ground before the injured crewman, he or the observer is hauled out, only to expire from their injuries on the grass. Kessel does these set pieces without mawkishness or over-dramatization. On the contrary, he deploys enviable gifts of clarity and economy. And he has the sure touch of someone who knows precisely what aerial combat is about, for he himself had served in the French Air Force during the First World War. Dead pilots have to be replaced, of course, and a few chapters into the novel it’s one of the new arrivals, Claude Maury, who unwittingly gives the remainder of the story its Wagnerian overtones. Maury is a loner, quiet, thoughtful, troubled. He doesn’t bond easily with the other men, but there is a natural affinity between him and the younger Jean, which deepens once the pair has become an established crew. A large part of Maury’s trouble, which he confides to Jean, is that the deep and unswerving love he has for his wife Hélène is no longer reciprocated, at least not physically. When Jean goes back to Paris on leave, Maury asks him to deliver in person the letter he’s written to Hélène. First, though, Jean has a passionate, but omin-ously troubled, reunion with Denise, and it’s only later that he remembers Maury’s letter. He makes his way to the address he’s been given, is ushered in, and – here’s the spoiler – comes face to face with . . . Denise. Hélène and Denise are one and the same woman. Jean’s mission to reconcile Hélène with Maury has gone awry, as irreversibly as Tristan’s to bring Isolde across the sea from Ireland to marry King Mark. And from the moment Jean rejoins his unit to the novel’s final chapter, the tone of the story becomes sombre. Jean tries to keep the greatest distance he can between himself and Maury, but the air sorties have to go on. So Maury and Jean continue as a crew, still united in its purpose but divided now by the guilt of one man and the suspicions of the other. Delicately, allusively, Kessel has the reader understand that Maury knows some kind of betrayal must have occurred, and that he has a hunch what kind it was. To make matters worse, midway through the second part, the squadron’s charismatic King Arthur figure, Gabriel Thélis, is killed. It’s a loss that plunges his court of flyers, mechanics, observers and gunners into gloom; a cloud settles on their Camelot. Nonetheless, life and the war continue. Maury and Jean take to the air again, the cockpit of their plane a stifling enclosure of ever-mounting tension, until, in the last few pages, the situation is resolved, though not quite in the way I was expecting. Since beginning to write this, I’ve reread The Crew, and I’ve found it even more powerful and elegantly constructed than I had the first time. It’s no longer only the descriptions of aerial combat that strike me, nor just the Tristan and Isolde theme played out so poignantly. It’s Kessel’s skill in blending these two strands, ancient and modern, into a whole that’s as sophisticated as it appears simple, as broad as it seems narrowly focused. The Crew, I realize, is an expert demonstration of the art of hiding art. And, second time round, I recognize this little novel as a masterpiece, a minor one maybe, but still a masterpiece.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 64 © Martin Sorrell 2019


About the contributor

Martin Sorrell now intends to have a second stab at the prolific Maurice Dekobra, many of whose titles sound just as inviting as The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars.

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