Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington

By | February 7, 2018

Death of a Hero was published in 1929 but despite the time lag is very much a product of the First World War, in which Aldington fought, was wounded, and became recognised as a war poet. Incidentally, the distinction of becoming acknowledged both as a novelist and as a poet is a rare one. One thinks of Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy and Lawrence Durrell (with whom Aldington would conduct a famous literary correspondence later in life), but the list is a short one.

Death of a Hero was highly commended many years after its publication by Durrell, and while one has to be careful about this, since Durrell was being sycophantic and could lay flattery on with a trowel when he felt like it, his judgement is sound. It has a fair claim to being the first truly modernist novel of the twentieth century, though To The Lighthouse was published in 1927, Women in Love was written during the First World War itself, and The Longest Journey as early as 1907. Despite the chronological order of these novels, however, there is a quality that sets Aldington apart from either Woolf, Lawrence or Forster.

Woolf was concerned with the technical aspects of novel writing, most famously her use of the stream of consciousness technique, and with dissecting the psychological motivations of her characters. She was apt to forget Forster’s famous reminder that “the novel, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story”, and perhaps this had something to do with the decline in her popularity. Am I alone in finding her unnecessarily “difficult” to read? Aldington tells his story in direct, straightforward prose, and I use the word “story” deliberately since there is that unfashionable combination of elements: a beginning, a middle and an end (almost literally since the book is divided into three sequential sections).

Lawrence was concerned, at least partly, with portraying the sexual aspects of human relationships, both actual and repressed. Aldington does not bother with these niceties but dives straight into describing sexual relationships as they actually occur, and leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. There is not the same analysis between the characters as occurs in The Rainbow and Women in Love. Here, the story is told and that is that. Aldington would probably never have come up with such memorable prose as describing someone as “not a coherent human being but a roomful of old echoes”, yet much of Lawrence’s conversation seems stilted and artificial to a modern reader, whereas Aldington’s does not. Incidentally, the lack of sexual analysis did not save Death of a Hero from the attentions of the censor, and substantial cuts had to be made before publication.

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