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Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man

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It is a semi-autobiographical novel that tells one man's experience at the end of England's Edwardian summer. It will all be compressed very shortly when he finds himself among the bombs, blood, and horror of war. These memories of halcyon days sustain Sassoon as he fights the mud, the Germans, and the creeping fear of insanity. To watch the day breaking from purple to dazzling gold while we trotted up a deep-rutted lane; to inhale the early freshness when we were on the sheep-cropped uplands; to stare back at the low country with its cock-crowing farms and mist-coiled waterways; thus to be riding out with a sense of spacious discovery – was it not something stolen from the lie-a-bed world and the luckless city workers – even though it ended in nothing more than the killing of a leash of fox-cubs?

I also choose that passage because it might be seen as characteristic of Sassoon's longing for the past, his unwillingness to progress into the modern age. On the Radio 4 In Our Time programme about Sassoon, there's a really good (and admirably brief) discussion of this animus. Faber Members get access to live and online author events and receive regular e-newsletters with book previews, promotional offers, articles and quizzes. He is there to enjoy the ride, the jumping of fences, and the comradery of men intent on the same purpose.This quiet and gentle young man has been so desensitized by his quiet losses that he has reached the point where he could cold-bloodedly decide to go “…to the trenches with the intention of trying to kill someone. I can see myself sitting in the sun in a nook among the sandbags and chalky debris behind the support line. Stephen Colwood, Dennis Milden and Dixon are all sympathetic characters, but the rest of the hunting fraternity are a pretty grim set of cowards, bullies and reckless idiots. The novel ends at the beginning of Sherston’s time in the trenches, when the horror of it all was becoming clear. To see their happy, carefree existence end so abruptly and watch them enter the nightmare of trench warfare was just devastating.

In a perceptive piece of criticism, Robert Graves accused his friend Sassoon of hiding behind George Sherston, dodging the moral problems of autobiography and leaving the reader "to decide for himself whether the book is sincere or ironical".He also says that Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is "carefully sanitised" and that all Sassoon "wanted was the past".

He is so passionate about what he does that he drops out of cambridge university where he was to study the law and become a barrister. Just as we feel a tremor whenever, for instance, the narrator mentions barbed wire in the early pages, so there are other hints at later dissatisfaction, and uncertainty throughout. Sassoon is quite open in viewing these as halcyon days, but then he was one of the lucky few born to a life of privilege. Anyway, it's that lost world of rural Britain that is evoked in this affecting memoir – fictionalised memoir, I should say, because Sassoon also wrote some ‘straight’ non-fiction versions of his childhood, which most critics seem to think were less interesting than this putative novel.At the author's request, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man was initially published anonymously, though his identity was soon revealed following the work's immediate success. Instead we just have an uneasy sense that everything we read about has somehow been lost, and this gave the detailed explanations of fox hunting an interest that they wouldn't otherwise have had for me. He said he was inspired by the work of Marcel Proust, saying, "A few pages of Proust have made me wonder whether insignificant episodes aren't the most significant". The book as a whole is a frequently humorous work, in which fox-hunting, one of Sassoon's major interests, comes to represent the young man's innocent frame of mind in the years before war broke out.

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