And of course, when a book doesn't unfold in that way, then we can't help but feel a little jaded about it.
In the present instant, I can certainly say that I liked The Yellow Pigeon. I really, really liked it. And I strained hard enough trying to love it that I may have pulled a muscle. But alas…
This is an appropriate enough novel to review this year, during the centenary of the beginning of World War I. I wish I could say that my choosing it was carefully planned because of this appropriateness, but alas, like so much of my reading, it was a quite spontaneous and distinctly unthoughtful decision, made after reading what the Saturday Review wrote about it when it first appeared in 1929:
The war is viewed here through the experiences of allied women relief workers and nurses stationed a few miles behind the front in a corner of northwest Belgium. Crystal Heath, young wife of a British surgeon serving in Palestine, is the principal character, though here and there, as the narrative progresses, she is temporarily shelved in order that numerous other men and women may be introduced into the story and their affairs dealt with. The strongly contrasted feminine types seem to have been drawn from living originals; an atmosphere of vivid reality pervades the tale, and it is written throughout with distinction. But even these favorable factors fail to obviate one's impression that the book, in large part, is needlessly slow-going and preoccupied with trivialities rather than with grim essentials.
Ah, "preoccupied with trivialities rather than with grim essentials." Could any description be more beautiful music to my ears? We all know more or less what a male critic means when he is dismissive of "trivialities" in a novel—that it focuses too much on the domestic, on relationships and motivations, on "feminine" concerns. Not enough explosions and car crashes, perhaps.
And as expected, the weaknesses that critic perceived in Guest's novel are the strengths that I found, and they really are quite wonderful strengths at times. The Yellow Pigeon is often delightfully focused on the mundane, and at its best achieves a riveting "you are there" quality which I found irresistible and "unputdownable," as book critics used to say. (Do they still? Are there still book critics at all?) In those moments, I might say that The Yellow Pigeon was something like a less gruelling Suite Française, or a lighter (but still serious) sequel to Cicely Hamilton's powerful William: An Englishman, showing life in Belgium a few years after Hamilton's tragedy, after the war has grown tedious and prosaic and the occasional shelling of beaches and villages hardly inspire any response at all.
Crystal Heath is in Belgium as a volunteer providing infant welfare services. She works closely with Madame van Klingen, an ordinary, gossipy, but dedicated Belgian woman, whose young son, Goo-goo, fantasizes about building a super army of Congolese fighters and hopes the excitement of war will continue until he's old enough to get a piece of the action. Crystal also re-encounters her old school friend, Glow, who has been through the emotional wringer since they last met, as well as the Russian Chernoffs and their tragic daughters, and Jean, a young British woman hopelessly in love with a womanizing Commandant. The rather impressionistic style of Guest's tale sometimes made it a bit difficult for me to keep all these characters straight, but in a strange way this was a strength, since the characters' comings and goings reflect the difficulty of getting to know anyone well in this disruptive, unstable wartime setting.
The novel is dominated by women, which made it right up my alley, and it seems that one of Guest's major themes is the use to which various kinds of women put the opportunities and sacrifices of the war—hitherto unknown freedom, prestige (earned or snatched), responsibility, heroism, or merely an opportunity for romance. It's certainly not all positive. Guest provides some cynical comic relief with several women characters who are seeking only power or glory in their war work. Most notable of these is Lady Robinson, a dim-witted, self-pitying socialite who maneuvers her way into a trip to the front lines after humiliating herself by mismanaging a hospital funded by her husband's company. Her major priority, apart from making life miserable for poor Madame van Klingen, with whom she stays, is getting herself dramatically photographed for the newpapers back home:
They were some time selecting a framework of brick and plaster that satisfied her, and then he snapped her looking through a large hole in the window of a derelict house. One wall was completely shattered, the roof had fallen in, and a skeleton perambulator with twisted wheels stood in the doorway. With an expression of gentle melancholy, Lady Nicholas Robinson looked out of a frame of zigzag glass. Captain Pemberton gave her the film.
"I want it for Sir Humphrey," she said. "I want him to understand what the danger is out here."
She didn't add that she intended it for the papers with the caption "Lady Nicholas Robinson's Work at the Front."
And then there's Miss York, a hyper-efficient welfare worker who wields dictatorial power because she has convinced the locals she's a member of the royal family:
"If you see the dear King of Italy give him my compliments," said Miss York. "He's an old friend of mine—I haven't seen him for years."
The lieutenant stammered in reply that he would certainly give the message to his Majesty if he had the opportunity, which wasn't very likely as his mission had to do with sanitary arrangements for the troops.
When Crystal encounters her, she is able to see through her:
"I haven't time—you've no idea what a lot I have on my shoulders. The chaos when I came—I tremble to think what would have happened if I hadn't been here. You know, I suppose, that I organized the fever hospital and the maternity and, of course, the baby consultations and also the refugee work-in fact, all the civilian welfare institutions were started by me. The Royal Family owe their popularity entirely to my efforts, but I say, poor things, let them have the credit. I'm only too glad. And as for the Minister, his service simply wouldn't exist at all if I hadn't taken it in hand. In a way they recognize it. They've decorated me, of course." She touched her medals. "It wouldn't do to offend them, but I don't want any reward—I do it all from a sense of duty. Poor dears, they are so helpless. They haven't the smallest notion how to organize. I can't allow them to sink into such an awful morass without making an effort to save them."
Crystal suppressed a smile. "I wonder," she exclaimed, "how on earth they ran their thriving little country without us before the War."
"I can't imagine," said Miss York.
But even Crystal herself has to admit, when attempting to argue the war-loving Goo-goo into a more humane attitude, that the war is "interesting" and she finds satisfaction in her role in it as well.
Guest's dialogue is one of the great strengths of the novel—realistic and readable, it feels like real people conversing, as if the reader's a fly on the wall, and I think that quality is rarer than it might seem. No doubt it is precisely the domestic and mundane quality of some of this conversation, in the midst of falling shells and tragedies, which irritated the Saturday Review writer.
Nevertheless, I have to acknowledge that on a few occasions—including a rather excruciating final scene—Guest does fall into the comforts of sentimentality. If her novel had appeared immediately after the war, that might have been more comprehensible, but as it happens, it didn't appear until 1929—the year of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Mary Borden's The Forbidden Zone, Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero, and Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That. Evadne Price (writing as Helen Zenna Smith) would publish Not So Quiet… the following year, and Vera Brittain's gut-wrenching memoir Testament of Youth would appear in 1933. None of those authors are known for easy, sentimental generalizations, and so it really is easy to see why The Yellow Pigeon has been lost in the shuffle of WWI literature.
But when Guest is good, she's quite good, and it's a shame that so few people know of this novel. To demonstrate, I'll end with a preview of two of the most powerful scenes in the book. First, there is a riveting scene at an infant welfare center, where Crystal and Madame van Klingen are helping out:
A prison cell is decidedly a grim environment for an infant welfare centre, but the mothers of the quaint old town of Fumes appreciated the solidity of the walls, and in spite of the gloom they would have liked permission to reside there until the end of the War. They had hurried through the ancient cobbled streets without looking up at the broken windows or taking much notice of newly bombarded houses, and they tucked their babies well into their shawls as they crossed the windy space of the Grande Place where the sixteenth-century hotel de ville stands and where in peacetime passes the great procession of torch-bearers and penitents and men and women garbed in the picturesque raiment of the story of the Passion.
When the examinations of the infants begin, a village nun protests their undressing:
A grave-looking nun who was putting lesson-books into a desk became noticeably agitated. "Cannot the babies be weighed in their clothes?" she inquired.
"That would be useless," Madame van Klingen replied. "They must be weighed every week, and they are not always dressed the same."
"But they can be," remarked the nun; "they must be—they—"
"It's impossible," interrupted the woman doctor impatiently. "Beside, how could I examine them properly?"
The holy woman glanced with a pained expression at the sinful little bodies already naked or half-naked, wriggling or sticking out their tummies or their small behinds, flaunting their nudity in blissful unconcern. She turned away quickly and walked out.
An important secondary theme of the novel is the way that war brings to the surface idiotic social niceties, hypocrisy, and superficial class distinctions, and the nun's horror at the sight of naked babies, even for the sake of their health or even their very survival, highlights this nicely.
And finally, late in the novel there is a disarmingly casual, almost humorous, scene of death among a group of people who have, in the years of the war, learned to take such things as par for the course. Told almost entirely in dialogue with few attributions of who is saying what, the scene puts Hemingway himself to shame:
"You are not frightened of the shells, Madame 'Eath?"
Crystal shook her head.
"Then I'll fetch the address and send Ernest to the garage for an auto."
Madame Burlay returned a few minutes later with a slip of paper at the same time as Monsieur Burlay entered from the back door.
He stood in the doorway staring at her in a stupefied way as though a brick had dropped on his head.
"What do you mean?"
"Ernest is dead."
"What is it?" she asked.
"You heard that crash just now?"
"I'm always hearing crashes."
"Ernest was out there. He has been killed."
"But he was here not a minute ago."
"He has been blown to bits."
"But he was here mending a chair."
"He went across to get some nails, and a shell exploded at the corner."
"I can't believe it."
"It's true, I tell you. We shall have to let his wife know."
"But is he really dead?"
"He's dead and unrecognizable."
"How can we let her know? Madame 'Eath, can you drive there? It is just outside Furnes. Ernest will show you."
"But Ernest is dead."
"Of course, how terrible! He is dead. I will come to the garage with you, Madame 'Eath, and speak to Jules."
The Yellow Guest is an imperfect novel, but it has a few absolutely perfect scenes.