1975 short list: Thomas Keneally, Gossip from the Forest, Collins

I didn’t really enjoy Thomas Keneally’s Gossip from the Forest, but I did enjoy learning about this particular piece of history—the peace negotiations that brought World War I to a close–and having my perspective on it totally upended.

At great remove my own limited education on WWI, this novel, with its actual historical figures, was more difficult for me to follow than something like Derek Robinson’s Goshawk Squadron, which also drops the reader into the middle of WWI but which places her among fictional characters. I felt a pressure to know something about these real figures and felt a little embarrassed that I didn’t. When this happens (and it does happen more than I’d like), I often begin to read “too hard,” to try consciously to keep information in my head that I’m less worried about when the characters are inventions and I’m just getting a sense of the events of the times. When events are real, I read as though I’ll be tested on the material later, which distorts the experience for me.

I could feel the constraints of the history in this novel and feel Keneally working them in imagining the negotiations proper–as well as the character and motivations of those men carrying them out–through chapters that take up the individual characters’ perspectives and histories. In doing so, he complicates what it is I thought I knew about these events and how I feel about them. I always think about the two world wars together. With Hitler on the horizon, the idea that the Allies demanded absolute submission from Germany seems only right and sensible to me. But Keneally gives readers a less than flattering vision of the Allied demands, with the negotiators interested in manipulating the conditions to burnish their own reputations and shore up their positions of power and influence.

The primary negotiators include France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Foch’s Chief of Staff General Maxime Weygand, Britain’s Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, German Secretary of State Matthias Erzberger, and Foreign Minister Count Alfred von Oberndorff.* Keneally, in giving us a sense of these individuals and their motivations, as other reviewers have noted, emphasizes the idea that history is not only made by, but is at the mercy of, self-interested human beings.** Keneally lets us see the Allies as bullies, whose demands are so extreme as to be inhumane. Our sympathies are with Erzberger, who, neither blinded by ambition nor politics and not unduly attached to specific conditions for particular branches of military, is there to do his best for a German people that will face starvation in great numbers if the Allies push through all of their conditions.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith suggested Keneally’s interest in racial and class politics, in the ways in which those with less power are victimized by those with more, and class issues are at the heart of Gossip from the Forest as well. Erzberger himself comes from provincial peasant stock, and Keneally makes much of his background, portraying him as someone who has experienced considerable condescension and snobbery in rising through the ranks of government bureaucracy. In his current position, Erzberger finds himself caught between frightened and incompetent aristocrats and a Bolshevik movement that will mean the imminent abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm and a restructuring of the German government. And while we might want to cheer Germany’s reinvention as a republic (at least in the abstract and without the benefit of hindsight), the timing of this revolution is inopportune–jeopardizing efforts to end a war that has devolved to chaos and the slaughter of the rank and file. Whether Erzberger will even be able to negotiate the peace before his authority to do so expires with the Kaiser’s removal is one of the key questions that drives the plot.

While the Allied military representatives*** use the conditions of the armistice to jockey for position, seeking to shore up their separate national and divisional fiefdoms and reputations, Keneally portrays Erzberger as a true public servant, concerned for himself and his own power only insofar as it allows him to broker a peace that will end the slaughter and forestall further human hardship. He is a good man, doing what he can to influence events humanely.

Keneally certainly doesn’t argue that Germany was right in its conduct of the war, but he does imply that the Allied efforts to “destroy” the enemy went too far. And were Erzberger a character in a novel not chained to a specific history, he might be allowed a measure of triumph. Here, however, facts won’t allow it–which has its impact on the reader rooting for Erzberger. No matter how valiant and right-minded he is, Erzberger would ultimately only be able to get the number of decommissioned submarines changed in the documents since the figure listed was larger than the actual number of subs in the German navy. In no position to win concessions from the victors, he could only accede to their demands quickly and, upon his return to Berlin, do his best to mitigate the damage that continuing blockades would create.

For more on the actual history, click here. Information on the fate of the railroad car in which the negotiations were carried out in the forest of Compiègne, France suggests the ramifications of these negotiations on the national psyches of France and Germany. (See “The Armistice Carriage.”)

*Other personnel include British Rear Admiral George Hope, British Royal Navy Captain John Marriott, German Army General Detlof von Winterfeldt, and German Navy Captain Ernst Vanselow.

**Wikipedia quotes a couple of reviews:

According to the New York Times Book Review’s Paul Fussell, Gossip from the Forest “is a study of the profoundly civilian and pacific sensibility beleaguered by crude power…. it is absorbing, and as history it achieves the kind of significance earned only by sympathy acting on deep knowledge.”

Robert E. McDowell in World Literature Today concluded that “with Gossip from the Forest Keneally has succeeded better than in any of his previous books in lighting the lives of historical figures and in convincing us that people are really the events of history.” (from a Keneally biography).
Perry Middlemiss quotes other reviews:

Thomas Keneally’s Gossip from the Forest belongs with . . . Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, [both] books that delineate the past in sympathetic depth and so urge the reader to enter it.-New York Times Book Review

Bravura has been the breath of life to Thomas Keneally. In this book he sets himself, with his usual passionate exuberance, to study the conjunction of men who met in the railway coaches in the forest of Compiègne to sign the 1918 Armistice. – Anne Duchêne, Times Literary Supplement

The novel is technically a tour-de-force, entirely gripping and . . . very moving. – C.J. Driver, Guardian

With the sweeping perception most historians miss he’s worked history, speculation, rumour into the cunningest of documentaries. All in all, an extremely gripping, as well as important historical fiction. – Valerie Cunningham, New Statesman

Mr. Keneally has intricate mastery over the matters of fact, but it is the heat of his imagination that astonishes. Dreams, spasms of feeling, lightning analyses of life-long characteristics are merged with history’s fixed assertions, and seem at least as valid in this totally assured book. – Mary Sullivan, Sunday Telegraph
***The Allies had no civilians on their negotiating team.

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