Review: ‘In Memoriam’ by Alice Winn

in memoriam

In Memoriam lingers on the precipice of an existential Armageddon, particularly in the first stages of its life. Then it proceeds to fall head-first into a whirl of anguish and torment, pleasure seized and shortened. Every breath it suffocates is pulled from the characters and the reader alike.

Gaunt and Ellwood are best friends at Preshute, an elite boarding school in England. Having spent years navigating violence and sexual desire together — and yet forever separately — neither of the boys realizes the extent to which he’s altered the other’s sanity. 

And as World War I breaks out and starts to devour Man, the boys’ concept of time is both warped and raised. Experience claws emotion away, tearing through passions once muted with innocence. But the body holds on to the memory of a gentle touch as it crawls toward the horizon of a shared past.

Wondrously, the war is already present on the first page of In Memoriam, and though it rests on the lip of a chasm of its own creation, it’s too distant to affect the glorified image that thrives in schoolboys’ imaginations. But as news of the dead starts to pour in, friction between the myth of the “gallant death” and the events veiled by its ubiquity begins to abrade.

As the connection between Gaunt and Ellwood is bent, creased, and electrified at every step, the grapple between ideology and reality continues to intensify, creating a minute battle between conviction and fear. 

The time spent with the boys and their circle of friends is infused with great banter, sensuality, cruelty, eroticism, and anguish; with only a crisp hint of sentimentality to be discerned. Likewise, rose-colored glasses never tint the boys’ outlook on their circumstances. At a time when homosexuality was illegal, desire and devotion bred nothing but emotional devastation.

Soon, though, Gaunt’s German roots drag him to the front, where the prospect of death seems more appealing than the reality of being called both a spy and a feather man.

This is where Winn’s ample research begins to inform a reality that’s both physically and psychologically impaired. War’s necessity to dehumanize alienates the mind from the body, the man from the boy he’s abandoned.

The pained exchange of letters between Gaunt and Ellwood is highly reminiscent of Bruno Vogel’s Alf, an openly gay and pacifist novel written by a former German soldier who had witnessed the horrors of World War I firsthand. Here, the same print of carnage unfolds, with an equally strong vibration of the heart felt at both ends of its spectrum.

With time no longer a tangible commodity, In Memoriam sees the past and the present merge and rupture continuously. And as we swing back and forth between their junctures, we glean more of each man’s nature. This, naturally, leaves us developing deep intimacy with all the tethers and trepidations that serve to humanize a body shredded by metal.

It’s no wonder that the notion of civilization is razed, what with its dearth in such inhumane circumstances. After all, to be civilized means to prolong the suffering of a moribund friend, “we had to save him, or else we wouldn’t be civilized any more.”

Still, Winn takes things a step further, executing a terrific takedown of class segregation and colonialism, speaking to both the heart and the intellect. Consequently, as soldiers are pumped from the colonies to the trenches, the insolence of imperialism is pushed to the fore, “enlightening Indians — Indians! They who built the Taj Mahal! And Egyptians! For we knew better than their pyramids!”

And yet, no matter how grand In Memoriam’s message, how sweeping and all-consuming its butchery, at its heart rest two boys undergoing a reluctant transformation. This allows us to keep one eye trained on the person, the human element wiped out by a brutality deemed impenetrable by a lucid mind.

Between Gaunt and Ellwood exist endless stretches of miscommunication. They lead to skewed expectations and unspeakable grief, for the heart batters a docile body. 

The twosome’s unsteady beginnings foster an erratic future, and its every tilt seems reflected in the tremors of a shelled earth. So much so, that the prospect of happiness incites not ecstasy, but rage. The very impossibility of true fulfillment makes beasts of wounded spirits, “there was no vibrancy to a friendship not threatened by violence.”

Even in its fiercest form, desire is seen as something boyish and immature, pure but fleeting in the face of “respectability.” As a result, even the mundane harbors shrapnel of sorrow. 

Its very keenness seems to stand in direct contrast to the ethereal longing found in Aleksandar Hemon’s The World and All That It Holds, a forthcoming novel that similarly hones in on the atrocities of WWI and the fates of the two men it bound together as lovers. 

In Memoriam’s range of despair, covering both ardor and barbed dispassion, is also far more cutting than the moral angle glimpsed in John Boyne’s The Absolutist or the sentimental focus of Philippe Besson’s In the Absence of Men. Its breadth even manages to surpass the wartime agonies of William di Canzio’s Alec, though the two novels share many bases of intensity.

Winn’s inclusion of casualty lists from start to finish is particularly brilliant. Through them, we experience the characters’ dejection at the sight of a name that previously occupied flesh and bone, making itself loveable. 

There’s no flinching away from the horrors of war. The mention of gas breeds meaty descriptions, not elusive pontification, “coughing up scrambled bits of lung.”

Above all, there’s an unerring focus on the intricacy and tenderness of the lives interrupted — and smothered— by the outbreak of war. As friendships and loves disintegrate, more and more of the page seems spoiled by the putrid mud of the trenches. 

It’s as physical as a contemporary account of war can get. And so, through the fates of the central friend group, we witness the figurative obliteration of a generation.

More and more, we take notice of the difficult intimacy we’ve grown accustomed to; one that is entirely devoid of allure, “With a strange lurch of intimacy, Ellwood realised he could see Finch’s exposed lung.”

Winn’s psychological study of each character is, likewise, exceptional. With individual wants, fears, and longings weighed against communal neurasthenia and shell shock — known today as PTSD — In Memoriam’s topography of emotion is endlessly debilitating. 

What distracts us from the burden of an unraveling mind is the astonishing adventure woven into the narrative. It never lets up, maintaining a balance between the transcendental and the physical. 

Poetry, the most neutralizing of all beauties, serves as both Ellwood’s medium of expression—capturing his inarticulate love—and an ode to the World War I poets who preserved their hell in verse. Siegfried Sassoon, one of the most enduring poets of the era, even figures among Winn’s sources of inspiration.

And while other modern World War I novels create an impression of warfare in more abstract terms, In Memoriam drags us into the war machine that it so dutifully disassembles.

Its brutality is endless, in that it is woefully timeless. Again and again, we see tragedy unfold, and a character jerked back midpage to serve as a sacrifice for the blind fury of Man.

In Memoriam will be published by Knopf on March 7, 2023.


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