Complete Memoirs of George Sherston by Siegfried Sassoon (1936)

Only sheer bloody-mindedness made me finish Siegfried Sassoon’s 650-page ‘Complete Memoirs of George Sherston’, being the omnibus edition of his three fictionalised memoirs – ‘Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man’, ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’, and ‘Sherston’s Progress’.

A monument to nincompoopish solipsism. A prime product of the public schools of his time, never having done a day’s work in his life, philistine and unintellectual, addicted to field sports, volunteering as the Great War begins and expecting it to be a jolly wheeze, Sassoon is bally confused when it turns out not to be a pleasant canter through the Kent countryside.

There follow 400 pages of self-centred and fruitless bewilderment which feature all the events of his actual life, but annoyingly portrayed as the experiences of the fictional ‘Sherston’, stripping the text of immediacy and swamping it in querulous obtuseness. He leaves out arguably the most interesting element which is his own literary growth and development. His war poems are important if not first rate, because of the example they set. In all 650 pages there isn’t a mention of them, because Sassoon has taken the decision to eliminate that part of his personality and life from the fictional upper-class twit he has created.

There was some consolation for persisting, though, because the last 40 pages quote directly from his diary about his final military tour of duty in Palestine and then back to France, and this is full of beautifully observed and immediate detail. If you’re finding the rest heavy going, you should make sure you read these last pages.

It’s a staggering indictment of the English literary scene of the 1920s and ’30s that these prolix vapourings became ‘instant classics’.

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  1. Peter Fletcher

     /  October 1, 2017

    I find this ‘review’, or whatever it is, very sad. To my mind, Siegfried Sassoon writes the most extraordinarily beautiful English – so good that it hardly matters what he is writing about. I have no interest whatsoever in fox-hunting, and the mere title of the first volume of these memoirs discouraged me for a long time from even trying to read them. But eventually I did, and was rapidly converted from sceptic to devotee.
    The author describes the rather aimless life he was leading in the period just before the First World War. Then he joins up – and yes, the reality turns out to be a bit of a shock. I suspect that was true of a lot of people.
    Rather than being contemptuous the reader might try to be sympathetic towards this young man. Apart from anything else, he was homosexual in an age when it was illegal. He never mentions it – for very good reason! But you gradually realise that this could be part of the reason for his confusion.
    If you appreciate fine writing, my advice would be to try the first chapter or so of these memoirs, and see whether you share my view. If not, that’s fine. There is no rule that says you have to like everything. I don’t!
    But please don’t advise others not to bother. You could be doing them a great disservice, depriving them of an acquaintance with an author whose works fully deserve their place as Classics – in the view of some of us!

  2. Archie Naughton

     /  August 14, 2019

    Oh dear. How very sour. Sounds a lot more like social defensiveness, than serious literary criticism. The book is eloquent, beautiful and, possibly, significant social history. I think my enjoyment of it has been enhanced by the misguided and self-indulgent misery of this review.


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