All this was perched in the back of my mind when I took a break to spend a few pages with the characters making their way through World War I in Louis de Berniere’s so-far fine novel, “The Dust That Falls from Dreams.” (I’m not yet far enough along to characterize the entire book.)
Ashbridge Pendennis is a “Yank” from Baltimore who moved to London with his family for his father’s job. As a child, he falls in love with Rosie McCosh, the girl next door, and gives her a brass curtain ring as a promise of marriage. A decade later, he is a restless young man bristling for action. To prove himself as loyal to England and to Rosie, he heads off to war. His betrothal to Rosie is formalized before he ships out, convinced he will vanquish the kaiser and return her hero.
Not three weeks later, he is mired in the mud, stench and death of the French front line. The book shifts voices and structure chapter-to-chapter. When we hear from Ash, it is usually through a stream-of-consciousness journal, written in snatches as if he is talking to himself. The passages are stripped of formal grammar and as raw as the war and weather.
Then comes the phrase that pulls out of the muck and reaches to the heavens:
Violence of the light miraculous.
It is almost rapturous as a metaphor, and at the same time washes war in the harsh glare of reality. Ash is in a trench at night, on guard duty. He must pop his head up every few minutes to shoot into the darkness, but doesn’t know what he’s shooting at. He pops back down at the sound of a star shell sent up by the German army.
I like the star shells. The strongest and blackest shadows. Violence of the light miraculous. Nice to have something flying about that doesn’t explode.
The five words in the middle of that word-burst stopped me for their inherent tension (“violence” rubbing against “light miraculous), for their ability to elevate me out of the muck while forcing me to see it more clearly —as lightning does for a blinding moment, searing an image on our retinas — and for the freshness of the metaphor. It had me diving into Google for descriptors of groups of animals: unkindness of ravens, fever of stingrays, prickle of porcupines. It had me thinking about how we can use ordinary words to see things in extraordinary ways. It had me remembering lightning bugs in a jar. And then it had me thinking that the boys in those trenches must have felt as trapped and doomed as those bugs in a jar.
All that in five words.