Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington

Death of a Hero was published in 1929 but despite the time lag is very much a product of the First World War, in which Aldington fought, was wounded, and became recognised as a war poet. Incidentally, the distinction of becoming acknowledged both as a novelist and as a poet is a rare one. One thinks of Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy and Lawrence Durrell (with whom Aldington would conduct a famous literary correspondence later in life), but the list is a short one.

Death of a Hero was highly commended many years after its publication by Durrell, and while one has to be careful about this, since Durrell was being sycophantic and could lay flattery on with a   trowel  when he felt like it, his judgement is sound. It has a fair claim to being the first truly modernist novel of the twentieth century, though To The Lighthouse was published in 1927, Women in Love was written during the First World War itself, and The Longest Journey as early as 1907. Despite the chronological order of these novels, however, there is a quality that sets Aldington apart from either Woolf, Lawrence or Forster.

Woolf was concerned with the technical aspects of novel writing, most famously her use of the stream of consciousness technique, and with dissecting the psychological motivations of her characters. She was apt to forget Forster’s famous reminder that “the novel, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story”, and perhaps this had something to do with the decline in her popularity. Am I alone in finding her unnecessarily “difficult” to read? Aldington tells his story in direct, straightforward prose, and I use the word “story” deliberately since there is that unfashionable combination of elements: a beginning, a middle and an end (almost literally since the book is divided into three sequential sections).

Lawrence was concerned, at least partly, with portraying the sexual aspects of human relationships, both actual and repressed. Aldington does not bother with these niceties but dives straight into describing sexual relationships as they actually occur, and leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. There is not the same analysis between the characters as occurs in The Rainbow and Women in Love. Here, the story is told and that is that. Aldington would probably never have come up with such memorable prose as describing someone as “not a coherent human being but a roomful of old echoes”, yet much of Lawrence’s conversation seems stilted and artificial to a modern reader, whereas Aldington’s does not. Incidentally, the lack of sexual analysis did not save Death of a Hero from the attentions of the censor, and substantial cuts had to be made before publication.

Forster was of course a completely different sort of writer, one who liked to make his points by wry observation much in the way of Jane Austen or E.F. Benson, and it is probably no coincidence that both he and Benson were gay; there is the same deliciously camp flavour about both their prose styles. While some might take issue with this, one could argue that what he wrote were essentially novels of manners. Again, Aldington had little time for this. He tells us bluntly what happens and leaves the question of any judgement of the characters to the reader.

It is this gift of ruthlessly honest observation, simply told, that distinguishes Aldington’s work and provides him with a distinctive voice, and it for this reason that I venture to call him a truly “modernist” writer. He is not playing around with technical fireworks, or trying to impress with florid prose, but telling a story acted out by deftly crafted characters.

The story such as it is may be quickly told, though I am deliberately not going to give away the ending of the book save to say that it foreshadows a novel of the second war by Sartre. Had he read Aldington, I wonder? George Winterbourne is brought up in a seemingly conventional middle class family, though his mother has a string of affairs. Moving to London, he begins a thoroughly modern relationship with Elizabeth; both agree that they should be free to take other lovers. Eventually marriage results, again with the same agreement as to an open relationship. Things go awry, however, when Elizabeth discovers that on the nights she is spending with her lover of the moment, George is making love to her best friend. What is sauce for the goose, it transpires, is not sauce for the gander. The final section of the book can best be described by saying simply that the First World War intervenes and George goes off to fight in France.

Though Aldington never stoops to judgmental passages, we are clearly meant to see Elizabeth as an unattractive character. She reminded me of various characters drawn by a similarly neglected English novelist, Patrick Hamilton, some of whose women are almost unbearably awful (and some of the men, in fairness, almost unbearably weak). I think the clue to the real meaning of the book lies in its title, however. For me, Aldington is saying that after the horrors of the war it is no longer possible even to keep up a pretence of the possibility of any sort of heroic existence. There are clear auto-biographical elements here as Aldington was not only wounded physically during the war but also suffered for many years from the after effects of shell shock; perhaps that is why it took him so long to write this book, which he openly admitted was based partly on his own experiences of a decade before.

George, the “hero” of the book, takes what people say at face value, and is disillusioned by the meaningless destruction of the war, and his fellow officers’ cynical reaction to it. A more complex character would probably have quickly worked out that this was no more than a defence mechanism to the horrors being witnessed on a daily basis, but George is not a complex character; he is one who says what he feels and expects others to do the same. Elizabeth is almost exactly the opposite so it is perhaps inevitable that their relationship is doomed from the outset. She speaks in euphemisms and expects others to understand what she only hints at. She espouses sexual freedom but does not expect her husband actually to practise it, and certainly not with her best friend.

Aldington would write other novels, most notably Rejected Guest in 1939, but none would have the directness and freshness of Death of a Hero. He was a prolific writer of non-fiction, especially biographies and criticism, and achieved notoriety as the author of a hugely controversial revisionist biography of Lawrence of Arabia in 1954, the vitriolic reaction to which greatly upset him. By this time he was living in France, having left England for good in 1928, and in 1957 he began the literary correspondence with his near neighbour and fellow exile Lawrence Durrell that lasted until his death in 1962 and which has been published under the title Literary Lifelines.

Aldington is well overdue a re-evaluation. In his early life he was married to the American poet Hilda Doolittle, usually referred to, especially by herself, as “H.D.”. According to no less an authority than Ezra Pound, it was Aldington and H.D. who together founded the Imagist school of poetry. As well as his friendship with Pound, he was also to have close relationships with Ford Maddox Ford (alias Hueffer) – both he and H.D. took dictation of passages that became The Good Soldier – and T.S. Eliot. That he was a fine writer there can be no doubt; his biography of Wellington won the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Yet in all his writings (or all of them that I have read, at any rate), and particularly when he is being at his most intimate such as in the later letters to Durrell, there is a melancholic nostalgia for a world which probably never existed, or at least not as he would have liked it to. There is the sense of someone who very much wanted to be part of the literary establishment but felt himself a perpetual outsider gazing in through the window like Cathy and Heathcliffe at the Lintons’ dance. Reading between the lines, much of this may be laid at his own door; he seems to have found it difficult to sustain friendly relationships with other writers, or to come to terms with the lack of success which some of his books encountered, though much of this may well be the enduring after effects of shell shock, which was not in those days recognised as a disease requiring treatment, except in extreme cases, and certainly not on an ongoing basis.

It is precisely this quality of slight detachment, however, that makes Death of Hero such an excellent novel. It is told as if by one standing passively on the sidelines and watching events unfold that, while they are part of one’s life, somehow have an air of unreality and unimportance. Lawrence Durrell was undeniably a great novelist, and maybe it takes one to know one.