This novel was for me a most delightful find. My knowledge of cummings until now was limited entirely to his poetry. I did not realise that Cummings (Edward Estlin Cummings, American, 1894-1962) was also a poet, painter, essayist, author and playwright.
Indeed, to my mind this autobiographical novel is largely poetry written as prose.
The novel opens with a (factual) letter from his father to President Woodrow Wilson, begging help in finding news of both his son and friend, who were arrested while volunteering with the French during WWI. Cumming’s father had received various notifications from French officials regarding his son, including one stating he was dead.
The novel proper begins in October 1917, when both cummings and his friend are arrested. Fluent in French, cummings had volunteered for the ambulance corp, along with his friend, who is only ever referred to as B. (Both were arrested pending investigation as traitors, following letters written by B to relatives back in America, which a censor thought too critical of the war. B wrote of ‘war weariness’. Despite being detained for over four months, cummings was never charged.)
As evidenced by the chapter headings, the plot of the novel is based loosely on Pilgrim’s Progress. Cummings and B are sent – separately –to La Ferté-Macé, where he remained for over four months, as the commissioners in charge of reviewing cases had departed on leave. At the prison cummings shares a room with some 30 other prisoners – the enormous room of the title. The room also becomes a metaphor for where cummings stores his memories; cummings writes of how the prisoners who shared his cell live on in the enormous room of his mind.
From the background and characters of those imprisoned with him, cummings weaves a pathos against an unescapable backdrop of the absurd. Amongst those sharing his cell are such personalities as The Count, One-Eyed David, The Mexique, The Fighting Sheeney, the Machine-Fixer and Jean le Negre.
A sense of humour and irony and runs through the work. The levity is so lightly that it is only on the second reading that the true horrors of cummings’ predictament outweigh the detached air of an ironic intellectual facing the absurd. Indeed, his first letters home are both reassuring and ironical: “days spent with an inimitable friend in soul stretching probings of aethetices, 10 hour nights (9pm-6,45 am) and fine folk to converse in five or six languages beside you – perfection attained at last.”
The Enormous Room also belongs a generation of American writers who, to foreign eyes at least, no longer exist: writers were multilingual and trans-cultural, travelling the world and volunteering in various wars and conflicts – such as Hemmingaway in A Farewell to Arms.
The style of The Enormous Room, however, remains cummings’ entirely, producing such gems as:
rain did, from time to time, not fall
from time to time a sort of unhealthy almost-light leaked from the large uncrisp corpse of the sky
a spic, not to say span, gentleman
gently worried about himself, delicately worried about the world
He contemplated me with a natural, under the circumstances, curiosity. He even naively contemplated me. As if I were hay. My hay-coloured head perhaps pleased him, as a hippopotamus. He would perhaps eat me. He grunted, exposing tobacco-yellow tusks, and his tiny eyes twittered.
A century on from the First World War, cummings’ The Enormous Room remains remarkably fresh and modern. The suspicion, the backstabbing, the corruption, the stupidity, the futility, the over-arching dominance of protocol and management: cummings writes of a world that is all too familiar.
In 1926 F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since 1920 one book survives—The Enormous Room by e. e. cummings. Those few who cause books to live have not been able to endure the thought of its immortality.”
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