Jeremy D. Popkin reviews Muziek voorop

Ed. de Nève, Muziek voorop Amsterdam: Panchaud, 2014. Pp. 213.

ISBN 978-0—820779-2-6.


The notion of a great Dutch novel about the First World War is counterintuitive: the citizens of the Netherlands were spared the horrors of the fighting that their Belgian neighbors to the south experienced only too fully. Nevertheless, Muziek voorop, written in 1935 by the Dutch author Jean Lenglet, who wrote under the pseudonym Ed. de Nève, deserves recognition as part of the vast literature inspired by the cataclysm that convulsed Europe from 1914 to 1918. Set in France, where Lenglet spent part of the war as a volunteer in the French Foreign Legion and as a journalist, Muziek voorop stands out because of its powerful evocation of the way the conflict became not just a war between nations but also one between the sexes. Known to specialists in literary history because he was briefly married to Jean Rhys, the now-celebrated author of Wide Sargasso Sea, Lenglet deserves to be recognized in his own right as a significant author.

Like Lenglet himself, the novelist’s protagonist, Jean Bernier, idealistically volunteers for the French Foreign Legion in August 1914, leaving his young wife Francine behind in Paris. Kept far from the front during the crucial battles of the war’s opening months, Bernier experiences a sense of futility and comes to be only too familiar with the disorganization of the French war effort and the cynicism of those who were more concerned to stay out of physical danger than to help defend the country. Left to manage on her own in the capital, Francine finds herself locked in a battle with her mother-in-law for the right to serve as Bernier’s main source of moral support. At the same time, the attractive young woman struggles with herself about whether to enter into the frenetic social whirl of the journalists, profiteers and draft dodgers for whom wartime is an opportunity to eat, drink, and make merry at the expense of the soldiers at the front. In the end, it is the promise of being able to do something for her husband that makes her take the plunge, a decision that will end in the dissolution of their marriage.

While the depiction of the experience of the trenches in Muziek Voorop will be familiar to readers of such classics of war literature as Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Lenglet’s novel stands out because of its portrayal of the tragedy of an innocent couple whose marriage is torn apart, not only by the violence of the conflict, but by the opportunities for moral corruption it generated. Readers of American historian Martha Hanna’s powerful evocation of the war’s impact on the French peasant couple Paul and Marie Pireaud, in her book Your Death Would Be Mine (2007), will appreciate Lenglet’s very different take on the way in which World War I affected marriages. One would like to think that married couples sustained each other’s courage, as the Pireauds did, but Lenglet’s story is a convincing portrayal of the forces set in motion by the war that worked to undermine such loyalties. An English translation of Muziek Voorop that captured Lenglet’s direct and unsentimental tone would be a valuable addition to our knowledge of the literature of the Great War.


Jeremy D. Popkin, University of Kentucky