I had a notion that E.E. Cummings’ book, The Enormous Room, was about prisoners of war. It is, but not in the usual sense of the phrase. The Enormous Room is an autobiographical novel about Cummings’ time under arrest – not by enemy forces, but by the US allied French government.
First, a brief account of the facts: Edward Estlin Cummings and his friend William Slater Brown were Americans who served with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps in WW1. In August 1917, the two were arrested by French authorities for suspicion of sedition. Brown expressed anti-war views in letters read by the censors, Cummings stood by his friend, and American functionaires offended by their fraternizing with French colleagues did nothing to help. They were held for four months at La Ferté Macé, a porte de triage, pending charges. Cummings was to be released on suspicion when consular intervention sent him home.
Then there’s Cummings’ telling of the tale, styled as a modern-day Pilgrim’s Progress complete with a pilgrimage, Apollyon and Delectable Mountains. It is modern in form, too, slipping easily between prose and verse, and sliding amongst the languages and vernaculars of the inhabitants. The enormous room is literally the space in which the male captors lived and figuratively Cummings’ imagination that the captors continue to inhabit after his release.
Expressive sing-song, descriptive character sketches and wonderful turns of phrase draw the reader in:
a spick, not to say span, gentleman (ch 1)
I must say that, although the morning coffee improved enormously for as much as a week, it descended afterwards to its original level of excellence. (ch 6)
Cummings’ funny words and hopeful tone belie some solemn messages. He exposes with irony the incompetence of the guards, their arbitrary treatment of the detainees and their torture of the women prisoners.
My very good friends, all of them deeply suspicious characters, most of them traitors, … could (with a few exceptions) write not a word and read not a word; … worst of all, the majority of these dark criminals who had been caught in nefarious plots against the honour of France were totally unable to speak French. Curious thing. (ch 5)
Put the bracelets on an ordinary man, tell him he’s a bad egg, treat him rough, shove him into the jug … and he will become one of three animals—a rabbit, that is to say timid; a mole, that is to say stupid; or a hyena, that is to say Harree the Hollander. But if, by some fatal, some incomparably fatal accident, this man has a soul—ah, then we have and truly have most horribly what is called in La Ferté Macé by those who have known it: La Misère. (ch 5)
Reading The Enormous Room is certainly helped by an understanding of French, as Cummings moves effortlessly between the two languages. An early publisher apparently translated everything to English … while that might have made it more accessible to US readers, it would have detracted from the cleverness of the work. Is Cummings’ irreverence too clever by half? Regardless, it is worth the read.
In the course of recalling (in God knows a rather clumsy and perfectly inadequate way) what happened to me between the latter part of August, 1917, and the first of January, 1918, I have proved to my own satisfaction (if not to anyone else’s) that I was happier in La Ferté Macé, with The Delectable Mountains about me, than the very keenest words can pretend to express. … to leave La Misère with the knowledge, and worse than that the feeling, that some of the finest people in the world are doomed to remain prisoners thereof for no one knows how long—are doomed to continue, possibly for years and tens of years and all the years which terribly are between them and their deaths, the grey and indivisible Non-existence which without apology you are quitting for Reality—cannot by any stretch of the imagination be conceived as constituting a Happy Ending to a great and personal adventure. (ch 13)