Born in Cork 1955 | Grew up in the coastal village of Whitegate | Educated at University College Cork | Degree in Philosophy & English | Married | Two sons
William Wall has won the Virginia Faulkner Award, The Sean O’Faoláin Prize, several Writer’s Week prizes and The Patrick Kavanagh Award.
He was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He was shortlisted for the Young Minds Book Award, the Irish Book Awards, the Raymond Carver Award, the Hennessy Award and numerous others. He has received Irish Arts Council Bursaries, travel grants from Culture Ireland and translations of his books have been funded by Ireland Literature Exchange.
He is not a member of Aosdána – if you’re wondering why, please read Riding Against The Lizard.pdf. His work has been translated into many languages, including Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Latvian, Serbian and Catalan. He has a particular interest in Italy and has read at several festivals there including the Tratti Festival at Faenza, the Festival Internazionale di Poesia di Genova and at the Pordenone Legge festival near Venice. He has translated from Italian. William Wall was an Irish delegate to the European Writers’ Parliament in Istanbul 2010. In March 2010 he was Writer in Residence at The Princess Grace Irish Library, Monaco. He was a 2009 Fellow of The Liguria Centre for the Arts & Humanities .
What slim boy, O Pyrrha
by William Wall
I give you the image of a man running naked into battle. Not quite naked, because he wears his helmet. Why do we feel he is peculiarly vulnerable? As if his uniform of coarse cloth could protect him against a high velocity rifle-round or a stream of bullets from a Maxim gun. The period, of course, is 1914-1918 – the Maxim gun is the key. Is he an officer or a private soldier? And why is he naked?
Say, his trench has been surprised during the night and now that the initial raid has been repulsed he leads his men in a counter-attack. Carpe diem! he shouts to them, although they do not understand the language. Carpe diem. He has a battered copy of Horace’s Odes (Everyman Library Edition) in his kit. He waves his revolver above his head and they grin and say the old man has finally gone bats.
The image has certain engaging qualities: a naked man (under the mushroom-cap of his helmet) stands on the lip of a trench and urges his men to attack in Latin. But they follow him because he is the old man, because he talks to them in some foreign lingo, because he’s starkers and he doesn’t give a tuppenny damn. They pour over the trench, chuckling affectionately, and into the brilliant artificial day of no-man’s land and the bullets fly and the star-shells pop and hiss. The men hear the bullets that do not have their names on them whispering suddenly in the air, but nobody hears the bullet that has his name. It nips the jugular, holes the aorta, or slips in above the ear and exits into the helmet set at a jaunty angle filling it with brain.
At some time in the half-hour of this particular battle the naked officer stands above the corpse of a German soldier who has been shot through the eye. Another distressing image. A bullet in the eye is a barbarous wound. The naked man looks down at the one-eyed un-seer.
Now that his sexual organs have come into our field of view, the issue of his sleeping naked arises. It is well-known that officers in the front-line trenches slept in their uniforms. We are familiar with descriptions of the damp dugouts, lit by a single candle, full of the thunder of the cannonade, in which sensitive and insensitive men of various ages sit about or doze, in uniforms of various ranks the highest usually being a major. The officer who packs Horace’s Odes before leaving Blighty is also a familiar figure. He may well have started the war with Odi profanum vulgus, but will end it, if he survives, with occidit occidit spes omnis. The vulgus will become closer to him than the people of his own class and he will emerge into civvy-street a hopeless misfit or a revolutionary. He inspires fierce loyalty among his men who refer to him by various insulting names which are, in fact, terms of endearment, such as ‘The Old Man’ or ‘Mad Harry’.
But this beats all. Even his batman is shocked by his appearance on the lips of the trench. They are all looking up at him and from that angle he is an impressive figure, almost sculpted in the heroic mode. He might have graced a pedestal in Rome or Athens. Various comments about his genitalia (are they large or small? Something to come back to later if we have time) that pass along the sap in the few moments before they realise the mad bugger wants them to counter-attack, are silenced by the non-commissioned officers.
But now to explain his nakedness necessitates a deliberate switch in time. We consider the possibility of a nostalgic passage encapsulating the memory of an incident which led him into this aberration and realise immediately (or after a few hundred words) that the effect will be to slow the narrative without adding in any way to the suspense. Nor can he reasonably be expected to begin telling someone a sub-narrative at the height of an attack. This is a story and devices available to novelists – interleaving chapters in a complex time-frame, for example – are not appropriate here. In the end, because I want to get on with it, I type three asterisks and go straight into his memory of the day he said goodbye to a certain woman in Beaulieu (it is pronounced Bewley, and, surprisingly, is in the south of England, not France) on a languid summer afternoon in 1914.
* * *
The sun is low on the evening of a perfect day. The cypress trees cast long irregular shadows on the manicured lawn. In the distance the pock of mallet and ball can be heard. (Or perhaps the pock of bat and ball? The villagers have come to the house of the rich man – the lord? – for their annual cricket match against the tenants. They linger in the edge of memory, in white, doing very little for long periods and then rushing about in inexplicable patterns. The whirling arm, the swing of the bat – pock.) Down the cypress walk you go, from shadow to shadow, following the woman and the man. You hear their tender conversation. He wears the uniform of the Hampshire Regiment, and with a gasp you realise that this is the first time in the story that you have seen him with his clothes on. It creates a peculiar kind of intimacy which you find contradictory. At first you see them at a distance, moving elegantly among the trees. Then you approach more closely, and finally you are a secret third party to their conversation, the ghost of the future standing with them, shoulder to shoulder.
It comes as a shock to discover that their conversation is salty and sexual. They are reliving an actual sexual encounter in detail. The language they use is pure D.H. Lawrence. Because you are a ghost you are privy also to the man’s actual thoughts and I have given him certain phrases from Catullus and Ovid (we have already established that he is a classicist) which confirm the universality of the terms. But her thoughts are out of bounds because it suits the direction of the narrative to have an inscrutable heroine. She is always other in the story, an object of his thoughts, his memories, his fantasies. And yours. After a time the subtle interplay of the still, warm evening, the gentle sound of the cricket game, the sex and the Latin, create an extraordinary, sensuality, a Mediterranean languor set against the battle-field images with which the story opened. Now the felicity of that switch (indicated merely by three asterisks) becomes clear. And because we have really moved in time – rather than merely moving into memory – the detail can be piled up to add to the overall effect. What do they look like? She is tall and slim and moves with a fluid grace. He is taller, thin because he is a scholar, with the stiff back of the stoic (or the officer). He thinks poetically, seamlessly, in several languages, but he speaks haltingly. His words are clipped, uncertain, hesitant. His accent is Anglo-Irish, hers is Swiss finishing school via Chesterfield Ladies’ College. When he is required to utter complete sentences he stutters as though he is aware that he is a foreigner in several tongues. He loves her madly, of course. At least this is the way he thinks of it, the precise phrase in fact. When he is away from her he dreams constantly of her body and certain parts of it in particular. Now, as he walks he moves his hand to his face and smells her on it and she laughs because this is a shared joke. She knows where his hand has been. Even at dinner table, or at stilted gatherings in her father’s drawing-room, or in a railway carriage, he only has to make the shadow of the same gesture and she smiles. We know she likes to use the most vulgar terms for parts of his body and hers, the coarseness itself exciting her – her face is a little flushed now – and all of this is somehow related, in an extraordinary way, to her elegance and refinement.
They walk side by side but not arm in arm because there is something that prevents them being seen as a couple. In fact, there are two things. Firstly, of course, she is the daughter of a lord, a millionaire who has made his money in the shipping business and now sails a yacht in the same races as King George and the Kaiser. On the other hand he comes from a middle-class family of university teachers, clergymen and scholars. His family may construct the way England thinks (a hundred years before, Ireland too), but England, or at least it’s rich, use the construction to ignore or despise anybody who thinks at all. Her father has envisioned a marriage of alliance for her, with the son of a man who owns, among other things, a commercial insurance company.
The second impediment is a more subtle one: they are cousins. The term scion is appropriate but vastly over-used in relation to the English nobility, a metaphor drawn from the practice of grafting plants and redolent of a certain vegetable quality in that class. Equally, the term distaff side, a metaphor drawn from the manufacture of clothing at cottage industry level, is not entirely appropriate. I leave the construction of the relationship for the re-write. Suffice it to say that he is from the Irish branch of the family which labours under some disgrace incurred during the eighteenth century and which the stern and dour behaviour of six or seven generations has not been sufficient to erase.
They are cousins and therefore the odour of incest permeates their bed. This is an inappropriate and an illegitimate relationship and is therefore doomed.
At this point you realise that the young man will die.
He can never return to find his lover married to a boring fart who drives a Bugatti or a private aeroplane. She would be miserable and he would feel futile. A tragic as opposed to a depressing ending has become a necessity. When we last saw him in the battlefield he was standing (naked still) with his revolver by his side, looking down on a German soldier who had been shot through the eye. We return now. No asterisks are necessary. Perhaps they were not necessary in the first place.
A momentary silence has fallen over the battle-field. His men have seized the enemy trench and so, as usual, the silence indicates that the enemy is re-grouping. In a few moments they will return. In this silence he gazes down at the dead man and various allusions are placed in his mind. He thinks, in fact, about one-eyed monsters and the ill-omens that attend them. He shivers and is suddenly acutely aware that he has no clothes. He looks down at his genitals and wonders did he lose his trousers in the course of the fighting. He has seen a man, stripped bare by the force of an explosion, walk away from a near direct hit by a trench mortar. Then he notices that the physical activity of killing has caused a tumescence, not quite a full erection, but a happy state of engorgement such as exists immediately after coitus. He thinks of the woman he has left behind in Bealieu and laughs softly.
The counter-attack must be now or never. The very first round fired will strike him in the chest, just slightly to the left of the heart but close enough for the bone splinters to rip it open. He spins and falls. The very simplicity of his nakedness, the apparent savagery of it, the barbarian disregard for the niceties of twentieth century warfare, made him the number one target for German sharpshooters. There is irony in the iron inevitability of it. His revolver and his disregard for his own safety marked him out as an officer. Later he would get a posthumous award for leading the charge and survivors would chuckle over their pints in 1925 and say, If the brass only knew, or, They wouldn’t have known where to hang it.
Where to next?
A brother officer, a scholar of the same college at Oxford arrives to gather his effects. The chaps in the dugout (a major is the highest ranking officer) point them out. He was mad they say. He always slept naked. Of course, the CO never mentioned that when he wrote to break the bad news. The major says that he hardly thinks it necessary to bother the poor family with the fact that we was ballocks naked when the Hun got him. Nobody laughs. They all loved him.
In a small notebook, in a pocket of the tunic he never put on, the brother officer finds the following words from Horace’s fifth ode of the first book: quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa/perfusus liquidis urget odoribus/ gratto pyrrha sub antro. And in an often-worked translation underneath: What slim boy, O Pyrrha, perfumed and drenched in rose-water, have you pressed into service in your privacy now? From the crossings-out it is clear that he has already translated and rejected certain words in certain ways: ‘smells’ for odoribus, for example. Urget was rendered as ‘forcing’ at one point and ‘ravishing’ at another. In particular perfusus liquidis was given, in one version, as ‘drenched by your juices’. The brother-officer understands nothing of the background that we have given his friend, but he understands the pain well-enough. And when he finds her letter his understanding is complete. It is, of course, both unnecessary and unworkmanlike to reproduce the contents of the letter in our story, but we can be certain that they would explain why the officer slept naked, went into battle naked and died naked. And so we return to that initial image.
Why is it that the idea of a man going into battle without underwear or a serge jacket seems so abhorrent?
Again, I owe my great thanks to William Wall for allowing me to publish this story on my blog