It was a rough crossing for Claude and the other men aboard the Anchises, here in the late summer of 1918. An epidemic struck (likely the influenza), and that combined with other various illnesses left the one doctor scrambling all over the boat, conscripting Claude as his assistant. The series of chapters that detail their journey to France were really fascinating—the initial exhiliaration of departure and the ocean fading as illness descends, followed by burials at sea and the sense that they may never reach their destination. Claude’s spirits are unsinkable, though—at one point, when the doctor asks him how much he’d give just to be safely home again, Claude pauses, and the doctor looks up at him in recognition. He tells Claude it’s clear he’d rather be on that boat than back home, and it’s true: Claude loves the sense of purpose he derives from taking care of the sick men, and the deaths trouble him briefly, but never seem to weigh as heavily on him as they ought. What does it say about Claude that he’d rather be aboard a floating death trap than go home to the farm? Is he heartless? Reckless? Or just young and foolish?
He runs into an interesting collection of people, both on board and on arrival in France. Perhaps the most notable is a young man from Iowa who ran off to Canada to enlist in 1915 and has seen the horrors of war…though he won’t talk much about them, but rather waxes rapturous about the love of an English divorcee who waits for him in her Chelsea flat (and about the brief loves he finds with French girls…oh, he tells Claude, his English lover understands that pilots can’t be expected to avoid such dalliances, considering how soon they are to die). The pilot’s one moment of serious reflection comes when he remembers shooting down a German scout plane, only to find the crumpled body of a female pilot trapped in the wreckage. She lives only a few hours, but long enough to write a letter to her family, which he personally flies across enemy lines and drops into the trenches so it will reach them. I wonder if he’s meant to represent all American soldiers—tough, a little wild, unconcerned about death but fully aware of it—or if that’s merely his story. I wonder if Claude will become like him.
And another scene I cannot forget is Claude negotiating for some cheese in French with a grocer, who takes Claude and his men into her larder to sell them some (even though they don’t have the right ration coupons). The men scarf down almost all of her cheese, despite her protestations, but then show her all their French cash, telling her to take whatever the cheese was worth. Her deliberations over what to do (in the end, she charges exactly 250% of the cheese’s original price, and not a penny more) are fascinating, as is her perspective on the Americans. They are invaders, in her mind, barging into France (as into her pantry) to take what they like and fling money around as though that covers the multitude of sins. She does not resent them, but she does not like them either. They are too cheerful, too casual, and too well-fed. Are we any different now, really?
I am anxious for Claude to get to the front, and yet, knowing the horrors of trench warfare, I wonder what it will be like for him once he is there. He was fairly stoic about the deaths on board ship, but I know it affected him more than he’s willing to admit. When the Anchises pulls into port at last, and he knows he has survived (as well as the lieutenant he has cared for around-the-clock for weeks), he looks out the window and a little wave of melancholy sweeps over him:
“This grey wall, unshaken, mighty, was the end of the long preparation, as it was the end of the sea. It was the reason for everything that had happened in his life for the last fifteen months. It was the reason why Tannhauser and the gentle Virginian, and so many others who had set out with him, were never to have any life at all, or even a soldier’s death. They were merely waste in a great enterprise, thrown overboard like rotten ropes. For them this kind release,— trees and a still shore and quiet water,— was never, never to be. How long would their bodies toss, he wondered, in that inhuman kingdom of darkness and unrest?”