Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way

“Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”

– W. B. Yeats, ‘Easter 1916’

There’s a point in Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way where the main protagonist, Willie Dunne, stands up to sing Schubert’s Ave Maria among his fellow soldiers. Describing the song, Barry writes: “He sang like an angel might sing if an angel were ever so foolish as to sing for mortal men. His voice was strange and high, but not a counter-tenor. It just seemed to put a knife into the air, the notes were so clear and strong. Like a true singer, he could sing soft with strength, and sing loud without hurting the ears….It seemed to be about their courage, and their solitariness, and the effort they made in desperation to form a bridge from one soul to another. And that these bridges were bridges of air.”

That’s as good a description as I can give of the book itself. A Long Long Way is a lilting and lyrical song of a book, a novel of sublime and heartbreaking power, a hauntingly perfect solo performed in a voice like a finely tuned uillean pipe. This is not a clever or sophisticated book – there are no dark allegories or complicated metaphors here – it is a simple story, unabashedly sentimental, that serves as a reaffirmation of how effective, how deeply moving, beautiful writing can be all by itself.

The novel opens at the turn of the last century with the birth of young Willie Dunne (“He was born in the dying days.”). The first chapter sketches, in prose as exquisitely breathless as an Irish jig this young man’s coming to early manhood, creating a picture of a simple, average young man, devoted to his family, in love with his adolescent sweetheart, who, swept away by the pride of his youth and the heroic urgency of the times, enlists with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers to go fight in World War I (Siegfried Sassoon writes: “I knew a simple soldier boy / Who grinned at life in empty joy / Slept soundly through the lonesome dark, / And whistled early with the lark.” – that is the perfect descripton of Willie).

The rest of the novel follows Willie through his war experiences – his life in the trenches, the confused battles, the hellish conditions, his friendships and loyalties, the death of his friends and his own lucky escapes, his brief trips home, the daily privation and suffering, the easy cameraderie, the small, simple joys. There is nothing really new here; we have all seen / read this stuff before (most notably perhaps in Pat Barker’s award winning Ghost Road; but also in the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and all the other great poets of the Great War). But Barry, with his easy, singing prose – his ear for conversation, his eye for detail – makes it all come vividly alive. As year follows year and his friends and comrades die out around him, Willie gives up the high-spirited optimism of his youth for a more contingent, manly pride; an acceptance of the horrors of the war that is as simple as it is great-hearted. Willie and his mates are heroes, not thinkers – their courage is the courage of a trusting good nature (mixed with laughing pessimism) that the war can never quite blight.

As the war progresses, important political changes are sweeping Ireland. At the point when Willie signs up, Ireland is heartily for the war – won over by promises from the British of the establishment of Home Rule once the war is won. Eighteen months later, the mood has turned darker, and civil war breaks out in Ireland, with a group of rebels fighting against the British army and preferring to side with the Germans as being the enemy of their enemy. Willie is on hand to witness part of the fighting in Dublin, and the experience leaves him troubled and unsure. By the time the war draws to an end, hope of Home Rule has been extinguished, and support for the war effort has died with it. Misfits at home and actively bad-mouthed by the British, Willie and his mates come to realise that the war is the only place they fit in anymore, that the world has moved on and forgotten about them, that if and when they return home they shall “come like ghosts to trouble joy” (Tennyson). Barry writes: “Those that went out for a dozen reasons, both foolish and wise and all between, from a world they loved or feared, but that equally vanished behind them. How could a fella go out and fight for his country when his country would dissolve behind him like sugar in the rain?”.

But these betrayals – the betrayal of Ireland by the British, the betrayal of Ireland’s sons by Ireland herself, are merely stepping stones in Willie’s long path to disillusionment. There is a more fundamental betrayal here – the betrayal of youth. More than anything else, A Long Long Way is an indictment of the senseless slaughter of young men that World War I was. Barry writes: “A soul in the upshot must be a little thing, since so many were expended freely, and as if weightless. For a king, an empire and a promised country. It must be that that country was in itself a worthless spot, for all the dreams and the convictions of that place were discounted. There was nothing of it that did not quickly pass away. Nothing of worth to keep. Some thirty thousand souls of that fell country did not register in the scales of God”. How poignant the petty things that Willie feels guilt for (a captain ‘betrayed’, a night with a prostitute) seem when placed against so infinite a culpability (Eliot writes: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”). This is the central betrayal of the novel, its real crime. Vachel Lindsay writes:

"Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world's one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.

Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly;
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap;
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve;
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep."

Barry could not agree more. As the novel progresses this destruction of innocence is mirrored in a slow darkening of the tone of the book – the writing shifting by slow degress from sunny cheerfulness, to troubled grief, until the last pages practically cry out with indignation. It is a mesmerising performance to watch.

Yet for all that perhaps Barry’s greatest achievement here is that even as he portrays the reality of war in all its horror, he never really loses his sense of beauty, that lyrical touch that informs all his writing. Because of this, A Long Long Way manages to both insist on showing the war in all its sordid reality and affirm the essential poetry of the souls of the young men who fought it. Barry is both against war and for the soldiers. It’s not just that he manages to find the beauty in all this terror, it’s that he manages to show you how the soldiers themselves, simple lads thrust into a war they do not understand, manage to hold on to the sense of hope and wonder that keeps them human, that keeps them sane. A Long Long Way is the story of how the spirit can walk through the shadow of the valley of death and still emerge uncorrupted on the other side.

Bottomline: A Long Long Way is a heartbreakingly beautiful novel. As a story, it speaks eloquently against the unforgivable crime of sending young men off to war. As a novel, it is a stunning testament to the power of superbly written prose. I still have three of the six novels on the Booker shortlist to go, but for now A Long Long Way is the one I’m rooting for.

Notes:

[1] The title for this post comes, of course, from the famous poem of the same name by Wilfred Owen, which reads like it could be a description of what happens in A Long Long Way.

[2] It’s interesting that the cover of A Long Long Way seems to be a reversal of the picture that was on the cover of Pat Barker’s Ghost Road (follow the links to Amazon above).

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