The Enormous Room
This book is a fictionalized memoir of e. e. cummings' experiences of World War I. He had volunteered as an ambulance driver, along with a friend of his. As a result of something his friend wrote, he and his friend were arrested and spent a little more than three months in a French detention camp, most of it together.
I have seen this book described as an autobiographical novel, but I don't want to use that term because I think it would be misleading. I'm sure that some to perhaps much of this is based only very loosely on real people and real incidents, but I believe that the story cummings tells in this book is nonetheless true. That is, I believe that it is quite true to his real-life experiences. Even if he embellished characters and events a lot at times, I am quite sure that the overall impression one gets from reading the book presents a true-to-life depiction of that place and time and what he experienced.
Part of what made me enjoy this book so much is the sheer artistry of it. I'm being a little tongue-in-cheek, of course, because cummings was in fact an artist, and the original edition this work included many of his sketches. This Kindle edition did not include those, but I saw some of them online, and enjoyed them very much. One day I hope to be able to obtain a print version that does contain the drawings. But the artistry I'm referring to here is the artistry of his writing. He plays such wonderful games with language here, as he would later in his works of poetry. But this book is all the more enjoyable because he wrote it in two languages, French as well as English. I have a more than passing acquaintance with French, but I still had to have my _ Cassell's French Dictionary _ at my side as I read this book. But it was more than worth it. It was indeed a joy.
By coincidence, I read this book just after reading Simone Weil's _ The Need For Roots _, which coincidently has a forward by one of the other great poets of the day, T. S. Eliot. Had I not read what she had to say about the low status of the police in French society, I would not have been able to fully appreciate cummings' many comments about that. I'm guessing that when modern Americans read his comments about gendarmes being so unpopular that seeing two of them escort a prisoner might inspire town folk to think about mounting a rescue, they would suspect that cummings was exaggerating a bit. Having read Weil, I was prepared to take him at face value.
I probably read this book differently from most people because I too have spent time in prison. I knew exactly what he meant when he wrote:
A hideous crash nipped the last word. I had supposed the whole prison to
have been utterly destroyed by earthquake, but it was only my door closing.
I certainly didn't spend time in a prison like his, but I believe his story.
I have been a fan of e. e. cummings' poetry since high school, but I had never heard of this, his first book, until just recently; I came across a reference to it, I think, on a religious blog. I couldn't wait to read it, and I was not disappointed when I did. This is definitely a great work, and I can't believe I never came across it before now. I think this book is one of the indispensable books about World War I, right up there with _ The Guns of August _ and _ All Quiet on the Western Front _. I would give this book six stars if I could.