Monday, June 02, 2014

Now 100 Years Later: Guillaume de Fontclare’s new book Inside My Own Skin Remembers World War I

Now 100 Years Later: Guillaume de Fontclare’s new book
Inside My Own Skin Remembers World War I

article by Michael Todd Steffen

As the director of a World War I museum in the Somme Valley, one of the most fierce battle zones of the Great War in France, Guillaume de Fontclare on one occasion had the opportunity to witness the unearthing of human remains, to discover firsthand what the earth does to a body over the course of ninety years. To be precise, I should say two bodies:

 "the hand of one man once held the bayonet which had plunged into the chest of the other, while the latter had thrust a dagger into the former’s throat. They had both tumbled into a trench that an artillery shell explosion then collapsed back on top of them. The vision of these two skeletons skewered one to the other will never leave me."
(Inside My Own Skin, p. 18)

De Fontclare’s book appears in its English translation brought out by Hanging Loose Press this spring aptly upon the centenary of the beginning of World War I. It is a personal narrative about a man who has been fated to a terrible physical disorder “of unknown etiology” which causes him excruciating chronic pain, yet has also been given by his position as director of this WWI museum known at the Historial, a medium of historical and spiritual reflection upon the human catastrophe of the trench warfare battles in the Great War. The ailment serves as de Fonclare’s passport to that world past and beyond of carnage, its dead and its wounded:

I am…the director of the Historial, the Museum of the Great War in Péronne, in the Somme Valley. There, I rub shoulders with the ragged, the maimed, the dismembered, the disappeared, the mangled, and the broken-face veterans of the “Great War.” I am the most living of all these ghosts. Had I been alive seventy years ago, I could have passed for one of them: a great wounded, great decorated, great survivor.
(p. 7)

The author’s next utterance in this passage—“But my wounds are not from war”—though a temporally necessary statement, can be argued with, in the anagogical interpretation Dante used to see the suffering in the Divine Comedy. History resonates to its welcomed witnesses so powerfully as to bring their current lives purpose and meaning in relating that history. De Fontclare’s account thus “speaks” with the passion and probability of a survivor’s. Upon these qualities history as an intellectual discipline keeps performing the wonder of uniting past and present in our collective memory. Not that our desire for truth or to remember is so feeble, but that the ever evolving present is undeniable and persistent, nearly always, even on a dull Sunday afternoon, begging for attention like the flowers of spring.

     Afflictions come with doors open out of this bubble of the here and now, and grant the gift of insight into those a-temporal realms of what has been and what may lie ahead, is bound to come. That is why Inside My Own Skin serves beyond its historical reflection, as a reminder in general of the magnitude of horror and suffering that war, any war, brings to us, has continued, and will continue, to bring to humanity, until our will for peace has gained a more powerful conviction.

     Perhaps the only way to come to that conviction is by making the lessons of history (which we are bound to repeat if we forget them) personal. De Fonclare succeeds wonderfully at this by including ample passages about his personal, immediate life, allusions to his wife and two children, his regional and work surroundings, his physical ailments and memories of a happier, healthy youth. Translator Yves Henry Cloarec calls the text “proof positive that writing can be one of the most therapeutic forces in life.”

     Again and again, however, de Fontclare’s meditation finds it way back to the Great War days and its incomprehensible scale:

The Battle of the Somme began with an artillery barrage that lasted five days and five nights without ever letting up. July 1st 1916, on a front line twenty-five miles long, the actual offensive began. British forces bore most of the burden, as the French were quite busy indeed at Verdun. The campaign lasted until mid-November of that year. Those six months of combat were horrific: 420,000 British killed (80,000 of whom were never found); on the French side 200,000 dead (of whom 27,000 are still missing). As for the Germans, they lost 437,000 men on those fields.    (p. 35)

For its generous commentary interweaving reflections about his personal life, social observations and arguments, and the resonant nightmare of WWI in the Somme Valley, Inside My Own Skin is a valuable resource to historians, a witness for peace, and, thanks to the effortless translation by Yves Henri Cloarec, an accessible book of interest to sit down with for the general reader.

Inside My Own Skin
by Guillaume de Fonclare
translated from the French by Yves Henry Cloarec
ISBN 978-1-934909-39-3
is available for $18.00
from Hanging Loose Press
231 Wyckoff Street
Brooklyn, New York 11217-2208

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