When we think of Siegfried Sassoon, we think of World War One – his brutally realistic poems about the trenches, his anger, how he narrowly escaped death so many times. The war was the defining of Sassoon’s life and his career as a writer… But it lasted only four years and was over when he was only thirty-two. In this 639-page biography, the war ends around the 200th page. Then what? This was a question that plagued Sassoon all his life – and one his biographer, Max Egremont, struggles with as well. What happens after the worst has passed? How do you move on? What is left?
A recurring theme in this biography is how Sassoon seemed out of place wherever he went. He was too much of an aristocrat to feel comfortable around the working class men in the army, too conservative to go along with the lavish spending of the decadent elite, too much of a puritan to dress up at the fancy dress parties his queer friends threw, too queer to be completely honest with his strict mother, and too stuck on a lost pre-war English utopia to join the modernist revolution. Too angry, too sexual, too rich, too selfish, too shy… Whatever he did, Sassoon could never find the right balance between his conflicting ideals and desires, and often ended up unhappy and alone. It seemed that it was always a matter of either ‘too’ or ‘not enough.’
This battle only got worse as Sassoon got older; as much as he tried to move on from the war, its shadow loomed around every corner. He would refuse to talk about Wilfred Owen on the radio, but get terrible nightmares about the dead poet later that night. He tried to explore themes of peace and nature in his poetry, but found that critics longed for him to get back his old anger and anguish. He was a man out of time, out of place, struggling – and not always willing – to keep up. The world was changing at a rapid pace, in a direction he didn’t like.
As a biography, Siegfried Sassoon: A Life is incredibly thorough. Want to know how many times Sassoon crashed his car? Egremont can tell you (three – narrowly missing a fourth collision). Want to know which books he took to the front? Egremont can give you a list (Hardy, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Chaucer). Wonder how he felt that one day in 1923 when he fell and ripped his trousers? Egremont knows. He has gone through every piece of available material with great precision and leaves no stone unturned – to his credit or to the book’s detriment, depending on your perspective. There were periods in Sassoon’s life where not much happened, but Egremont manages to squeeze something out of every single month anyway, resulting in a goldmine for the diehard Sassoon fan, but an overwhelming catalogue of information for the more casual reader. Not always the most thrilling read, but seriously impressive either way.
That said, Egremont not only deserves praise for his immense dedication to this project, but also for his honesty. It is clear that he admires Sassoon and his work, but he is careful not to lapse into hero worship. He flat out calls certain poems childish, whiny, and dull, and is quick to point out flaws or lapses in judgment when he sees them. Sassoon may have been an impressive man, but he was certainly not always likable, and Egremont does not shy away from pointing this out, albeit in a respectful manner.
Having worked my way through this brick of a book, I am still not sure if I have really gotten to know Sassoon – but perhaps this is too much to ask. He was a man desperate for love and closeness, yet kept the world at a safe distance. He regularly lashed out, but also kept a lot bottled up. Shy, yet arrogant. As someone who was defined by contradictions, it is difficult to get a grip on him.
Too, yet not enough.