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Sequence and Lyric Narrative in Auden and Isherwood’s Journey to a War

From: Narrative
Volume 22, Number 2, May 2014
pp. 169-184 | 10.1353/nar.2014.0016

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From January to July of 1938, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood traveled around China to report on the Sino-Japanese War. Ostensibly they had been commissioned to write a travel book about Asia, but their subject had been left entirely up to the authors. What resulted was not one coherent travel narrative, but a sequence of different genres: a few opening sonnets, a prose “Travel-Diary” of their day-to-day encounters in China, a “Picture Commentary” of sixty-five snapshots, a 27-member sonnet sequence called “In Time of War,” and finally a “Verse Commentary” in metrically irregular, unrhymed, iambic tercets. Isherwood wrote the travel diary (which makes up the vast majority of the book) and snapped the photo of Auden in the picture commentary; Auden is responsible for the rest of the content.

Journey to a War exhibits a discontinuous form that jarringly calls attention to its own artifice. Each fragmentary section is further fragmented into individual diary entries, photographs, and sonnets that record the authors’ impressions within a bounded span of time without any overt mediation to link those impressions together. That interpretive role is left up to the reader: the book merely provides four iterations of the events Auden and Isherwood experienced. The “Travel-Diary” comically documents the pair’s many problems trying to visit the front, while the chronologically ordered “Picture Commentary” provides a far more graphic and immediate record of what they witnessed. “In Time of War” attempts to universalize the conflict they document into themes applicable to the coming war in Europe, and the “Verse Commentary” abstracts the events further to refer to all wars, with the Chinese conflict an afterthought to a grand theory of why wars occur. The book’s structure continually defers the responsibility of the travel writer to make sense of the specific experience he undertakes, especially an experience in which both author and reader are presumably ignorant of local customs and for which the political stakes of foreign involvement in the fight against Japanese aggression are so high.

For those of us inclined to read this parataxis of fragments as purposeful rather than haphazard, the book may be characterized as having what Brian McHale calls “weak narrativity.” Poems featuring weak narrativity react against the hegemonic modernist “lyricization” of the long poem, which calls for a sequence of lyric fragments while shifting narrative coherence to the level of an invisible master narrative that ghosts the text and provides its ideological norms. Instead, the (postmodern) poem of weak narrativity tells “stories poorly, distractedly, with much irrelevance and indeterminacy, in such a way as to evoke narrative coherence while at the same time withholding commitment to it and undermining confidence in it; in short, having one’s cake and eating it too” (McHale 162). For theorists wondering how to analyze the structural design of Journey to a War, the main difficulty lies in the book’s multiple constituent genres and their repetition of the same chronologies. If, as McHale suggests, the major problematic for modernist poetic narrative is the automatic recoil from directly representing a master narrative, then the chronology arranged behind Journey to a War provides no satisfaction to the reader looking for a ready-made fount of signification. It repeatedly lists events experienced by the pair; it does not orchestrate causally linked time-elements. Consequently, although the prospect of coherence among its fragments may be tantalizingly suggested, meaning in the text is left resolutely ambiguous.

The book’s generic difficulties are not diminished by isolating one of its pieces from the rest. Much of the characterization of the multiple sonnet speakers in “In Time of War,” as with the implied author of the “Travel-Diary,” must occur in punctuated intervals, in the interstices between elements, since the fragments themselves are ambiguously related as a set. The book’s weak narrativity requires a more robust theory of poetic narrative to account for its eccentricities, which may either be indicative of montage, a coherent sequence whose constituent elements are organized in a legible way, or of collage, a disjunctive sequence whose elements are ultimately best characterized by their differences than by their similarities. I read Journey to a War as...

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