Fields of Glory

Jean Rouaud

translated from the French by Ralph Manheim
Harvill Press 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
The narrator of Fields of Glory is one of three siblings, in a family from France's Atlantic coast, who lose father, great aunt and grandfather in quick succession. He never focuses properly on his father, who remains at the edge of vision, but uses childhood memories reworked with an adult wisdom to render detailed portraits of his grandfather and aunt. Grandfather Burgaud, whose closest friend was a monk but who takes an unannounced day excursion to less respectable viewing before he dies. And Aunt Marie, a long-serving school-teacher forced into retirement against her will, who keeps herself busy with parish make-work. The objects that centre memories and lives are highlighted: grandfather's Citroen 2 CV, the garage that goes to rust and ruin after father dies, and Aunt Marie's religious knick-knacks.

When Aunt Marie's memory starts failing, she imagines herself back during the First World War, in which two of her brothers died. This leads, in the last quarter of Fields of Glory, to the horrors of trench warfare and a vivid account of the first gas attack near Ypres. And the story ends with a 1929 trip by the brother who survived, to fetch back a body from Commercy, and the meeting of the narrator's parents in 1940 — perhaps a bridge to the sequel, since four subsequent novels continue the family saga.

Past and present are interlaced, with direct memories mixed with what must be later reconstructions. There is no linear plot. And at one point Rouaud inserts nine pages of completely general digression on the weather of the Lower Loire, on its persistent rain. Despite this, Fields of Glory never seems disconnected and never loses momentum. It is a powerful study of both old age and childhood, of the idiosyncrasies and vagaries of memory, and of the enduring impact of the Great War on an entire generation.

May 2003

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%T Fields of Glory
%A Rouaud, Jean
%M French
%F Manheim, Ralph
%I Harvill Press
%D 1998 [1992]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1860461484
%P 160pp