There is an almost Sebaldian seriousness to Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, also like Sebald is the preoccupation with memory and mortality. This being Dyer’s non-fiction, this haunted exploration of remembrance is loosely interwoven with the road-trip Dyer and his friends make along the Western Front: ‘None of us is quite sure whether we’re on a gloomy holiday or a rowdy pilgrimage’.
We lie on our beds, half pissed. Mark is reading Death’s Men; Paul, They Called It Passchendaele; I read The Challenge of the Dead. Eventually, the other two drop off to sleep. I go on reading. I ‘lie, sleepless, with Ypres on the heart, and then suddenly a grand tumult of explosion, a sound as of the tumbling of heavy masonry’. [..] Paul snoring.
Explaining why he chose to write a ‘war book’ Dyer explains:
And this book? Like the youthful Christopher Isherwood who wanted to write a novel entitled ‘A War Memorial’, I wanted to write a book that was not about ‘the War itself but the effect of the idea [of the War] on my generation.’ Not a novel but an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance . . .
Beginning with a meditation on old black and white family photographs, Dyer presents brief ‘notes’, on the Great War as presented in poetry, memorials, architecture, prose, film, photographs and visitors’ books. It might not be the first Geoff Dyer book you should read, but if his writing speaks to you deeply you will want to get to it sometime.